Over the years, I have witnessed a scene played out dozens of times. It occurs when a friend, family member, or even a total stranger, comes to an emotional breaking point.
Mark Goulston was an FBI and police hostage negotiator. He was called in to de-escalate life or death situations. In his book, Just Listen, he describes a few simple responses to help others “exhale” in the midst of great distress. Goulston claims the tips he teaches for building empathy, de-escalating conflict, and gaining buy-in, will work in any situation.
If you are trying to reach someone in a state of distress, adding to his or her duress can be disastrous. Mark comments, “it can destroy a person’s life literally,” as he found in hostage situations. It also can destroy a business relationship or family connection.
Challenging people in these situations may cause them to come out in full court emotional press, or even worse, suppress their feelings and go underground.
The other option involves exhaling. In other words, you give them breathing room. You do not simply get them back to normal, but you actual improve their situation. Getting others to the “exhale state” requires the leader do a few things:
First, notice body language. Crossed arms, angry expressions, rigid shoulders, for instance. If you spot someone like this, do not try to get through with facts or reason. Why? They can’t hear it. It won’t work. You need to get the person to exhale. You cannot make a person do it, but you can make them want to do it. Give them plenty of room to express whatever they need to say. In other words, do not interrupt. That is tough for most of us.
Second, Goulston says, “don’t take issue with anything they say.” Resist defensiveness, or allowing yourself to get into a debate.
Finally, after all is said by the individual, and he or she is exhausted, do not jump to talk. It is the worst mistake of all. If you start talking now you will shut them down. Instead, after they pause, simply say, “Tell me more.” People who are hurt never feel fully heard. Asking for more allows the deeper healing to occur.
If this is an attack at you personally, and they are suppressing their distress, try saying, “Have I ever made you feel that I don’t respect you?” Or, “Have I ever made you feel like you were not worth listening to?”
God made people for relationship but good relationships take their share of maintenance. Getting others to exhale is painful. The end-product, however, can be healthier, even if it is more painful in the short run. Goulston sees the exhale principle as necessary in all kinds of relationships. It moves people and organizations toward a culture of authenticity and open trust.
Good leaders lean in and diffuse, if possible. We all could do better at this. Who might you pleasantly surprise by engaging their pain, rather than avoiding it?
Dennis Nichols is the Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership at William Jessup University.