The key to remember is two things: Respond to the person, not the problem. Labeling positives reinforce them, labeling negatives diminish them.
I recently heard the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI until 2008, Chris Voss, interviewed by Mike Dillard on his podcast. He shared a very insightful incident which reveals a tremendous approach to assisting someone when they seek guidance. It’s particularly powerful in that it is so simple and yet not so common. It’s simply remembering not to respond to the problem but rather responding to the person. Most often, somewhere within us lies the answer to our own problems. When someone else acknowledges how we’re feeling about the problem, this assists us in freeing ourselves of our overwhelming feelings and leaves us clear to discover the solution.
Here’s the incident that Chris shared. He had just begun volunteering for a suicide hotline where he began learning emotional intelligence very deeply through this work. He shared:
I get a call one night and a guy is absolutely beside himself with anxiety, something that is going to happen to him the next day and through the course of the call I only say three things to him, it takes about nine minutes and it turns him around 180 degrees from the beginning of the call. I felt his anxiety at the beginning, you know he said, “I’m trying to put a lid on this day,” and I could hear it in his voice and I said, “you know you sound anxious,” that’s all I said.
We have scientific data that backs up if you observe or what I refer to as label a negative emotion, don’t deny it, just state it, just observe it- it actually slows down, and diminishes the reaction of the part of the brain where negativity bounces around. I use that as a skill in business negotiation all the time. I’ll say you guys are really unhappy with me, you think I’m being unfair. And that makes it go away; it doesn’t reinforce it. A law of the emotional universe is observing a negative diminishes it every single time without fail. It might not make it go away, but it always diminishes it.
I didn’t know that at the time, I just labeled what I heard. But now I’ve got him in a more solid state of mind, he’s talking, he’s telling me what he’s dealing with and that he’s got a lot of support from his family and he’s going on about his family. So basically I observe a positive, which is sort of a summary of what he said and I said, “Wow sounds like your family is really close.”
I had someone once say that to me when I was describing my family and I have a very clear recollection of how enormously good it felt at the time. So when I said that to him immediately a massive amount of strength comes into his voice, and he’s talking a little more and he’s telling me how hard he’s working to beat these problems. And it struck me that he sounds really determined so that’s all is said. Again, it’s labeling a positive. Labeling positives reinforce them, labeling negatives diminish them. Our gut instinct is that the opposite is true, but it’s not. So I hit another positive, I said, “you sound really determined,” and bang, that put him over the top. He said, “Yeah I am determined.” Then he’s said, “I’m going to be fine tomorrow. Thanks for everything you have done,” and he hangs up. And I just said three things.
This conversation is so revealing of how we can help people get out of their current emotional state. It’s simply by stating what we are observing. So often we’re wracking our brains to come up with some great wisdom or deep insight that will solve their problem. So often, our wisdom or insight doesn’t satisfy the person. Very often, they just repeat the problem. This is because we are not giving them what they really need. They simply need to be understood. We need to answer the person, not the problem. What does this person need? The very first thing everyone needs is to be understood.
There’s a very simple way to do this and that’s what Chris Voss’s story teaches us. By simply acknowledging to a person what they just shared, we help them enormously. Labeling positives reinforce the positive, labeling negatives diminishes the negative. I recently did this without even realizing and it worked wonders. Someone came over to me and made a comment in an accusatory tone, covertly blaming me for an inconvenience they experienced. I heard them and responded, “You sound angry.” That’s it. I did not address whether or not they were correct. I didn’t apologize. I simply stated the emotional state I felt from the person. A short while later they came over and apologized. It wasn’t until after they apologized that I discussed the problem. First answer the person, meaning, answer their feelings. Only afterward deal with the problem if it even still needs to be dealt with. How often do we try and respond to the problem unsuccessfully simply because we haven’t answered the person, his emotional state? He’s too emotional to properly deal with the problem!
This is particularly powerful with children. Acknowledging their negative emotional state helps diffuse it and acknowledging their positive emotional state helps expand it. Instead of dealing with whether you will give them the candy they are upset they didn’t get, first acknowledge their emotional state. “You seem very upset!” This helps them become more aware of their emotions and diffuses it as well.
The key to remember is two things:
- Respond to the person, not the problem.
- Labeling positives reinforce them, labeling negatives diminish them.
So often, we try and hide from the reality in the hope that no one will know and we can sweep it under the rug or really, that it will magically go away. Guess what? Hidden things don’t go away. They just show up in their time. When we hide things, they are bound to surface at some point. By acknowledging them, that his how we truly diminish them.
So I leave you with this question. Are you ready to listen to your next conversation a little differently by hearing what emotion the person is projecting and acknowledging it to them?