Your Mother Wears Combat Boots

joe —  Sun 27-Jun-10 — 5 Comments
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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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  • Tim

    I would advise caution here. You may want to match the tone and convey the same sense of urgency, but your example is confrontational. If you responded to me, when agitated, with “what do you mean I don’t care about the customer?!?” I’d probably have a two word response. I agree that you might need to match tone in order to draw the conversation back into a more reasonable place, but you have to be EXTREMELY careful.

    Just two cents from someone who’s been called “excitable” in the past.

    • joe

      Great advice, Tim. Just like most methods there are appropriate times. Maybe I should use a better example.

      I would contend that with some people that are naturally confrontational that a measured, confrontational response is the best tactic. That’s where I think this method works best, with people that don’t naturally come to a conversation level headed. Meet them where they live and them walk them back to where you live.

      If someone were naturally level headed but on this occasion were unusually emotional I would instead come in flying low and calm. They know the path home – it’s where they live.

      There’s also a big difference from always having this turned on as a response. It needs to be used sparingly – any more than that and you might be the person on the other side of this example.

  • Paul Higginbottom

    Once when meeting a very agitated customer who was yelling, I responded with (sternly and intently) – “Look, we both need this to work, and yelling at me won’t help. You’ve given a long list of issues to resolve and it’s changed each time we’ve met. What I need you to do to help me help you is give me your top 10 – I promise to tackle those, and then when we’ve got those done, give me your next top 10, and continue until we’re in good shape.”

    That seemed to work, the customer actually liked that I ‘stood up’ to the yelling, got on the ‘same side of the table’ as them (we both need it to work), and gave an approach that would more efficiently lead to success.

    • joe

      Now that’s a better example. Mind if I re-write and use your story instead? :)

  • Mark Ciccarello

    You should send this to Obama.