Your Mother Wears Combat Boots

joe —  Sun 27-Jun-10
Pocket

Did you ever watch someone apply their best mental jujitsu in a heated discussion only to see them flame out with a look of “what just happened?” Not only have I seen this, I seem to be a regular participant.

One of the reasons it happens to me is that I make a simple incorrect assumption about how to approach the other person. While I think I am doing the right thing the Law of Unintended Consequences comes and bites me in the tail end.

Irate Man.pngAs an example let’s say that your co-worker Jim approaches you in a very agitated state. With a loud, condescending voice and a very liberal use of hand gestures he tells you:

“This system has been down for over an hour. I can’t generate those TPS reports until the system is fixed. I don’t see any action on your part. Don’t you care about our customers? ”

CalmMan.pngTaking the intelligent high road that makes you the ultimate Zen Master you decide to try and calm him down with that Chamomile Tea soaked response:

“Jim, I am sorry you are upset. I assure you that we are doing all that we can to resolve this quickly. I’ve got Wally working on it right now.”

Dangerous waters successfully navigated. You balanced his electrified state so that he could return to reality. You Yinned his Yang. You are soooooooooooo good. Time to move on to the next problem, right?

Extremely Irate Man.png

There are many situations that this will work. However there are times when this will completely backfire and cause even greater emotion. Jim’s response above is likely to sound like:

“I don’t think you understand how critical this is to me. I could get fired. How could you be so calm?”

Jim has just gone into isopraxic shock (you aren’t going to find that phrase in Google). What went wrong?

Humans mimic that which they respect, like or identify with – it’s called isopraxism. It’s embedded in the reptilian section of your brain so it’s fairly fundamental to the way we operate. This is why we use celebrities to sell beer, why you often develop the same habits as your parents and why owners subconsciously buy pets that look like them. It’s also the science behind the saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Want a fun game to play? In your next conversation with someone note their body language. If their arms are folded, fold yours. It’s highly likely that in a few minutes they will fold theirs. Now unfold yours. Guess what happens? I use this technique a lot in interviews to get candidates to a relaxed state. When their arms are open they become more relaxed. The more relaxed they are, the better the interview. This technique, called “mirroring” is very powerful.

Conversation is no different. If you have a boss that you like watch how you start to adopt some of his words and interaction styles. Looking for a quick ego boost? Look at some of the conversational styles that those around you have stolen from your repertoire.

So back to your conversation with Jim. When conversations are of the form “I don’t think you get it” you often have to demonstrate that you do get it and share their state of concern. Ultimately the heightened state of emotion needs to be diffused but you can’t get there without joining their world – you must demonstrate respect for their condition. Instead of coming in with the calm Spock like reasoning, try mirroring their energy, speed and excited state. Once you get there, much like the folding arms example, you can slowly lead them back to the level you require to resolve the situation.

Irate Man.pngJim approaches you in a very agitated state. With a loud, condescending voice and a very liberal use of hand gestures he tells you:

“This system has been down for over an hour. I can’t generate those TPS reports until the system is fixed. I don’t see any action on your part. Don’t you care about our customers? ”

More Agitated Man.pngYou respond with like volume, speed and aggressiveness:

“What do you mean care about our customers? My team is the one that saved your last sale. I think we have both demonstrated that we would do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.

Less Agitated Man.pngThen in a slightly less agitated state you continue:

“Jim, I agree that this is my mistake and I have got my best person working on this throughout the night. I am not sure what other options are available.”

CalmMan.pngAnd one more shift toward your inner Zen:

“If you have any ideas on how we can resolve this, I am open to trying them.”

If you want further evidence of the dangers of un-mirrored conversation watch a husband and wife argument where one party is extremely emotional and seemingly irrational while the other is calm, rational and in control.

Let me know how that turns out.

Today’s Question
What techniques have worked for you in dealing with emotionally charged conversations?

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