Dealing with conflict and volatility: “You’re being irrational!”

"Question"—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Question”—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Be a skilled listener

“Talk to me” is the motto for the New York City hostage negotiations team. When dealing with extremely dangerous, volatile, and emotionally-laden situations, the most effective skill is active listening. The best negotiators interrupt less and listen more. They ask questions, generally simple ones. The same can be said for negotiating differences of opinion in any relationship.

There is a universal desire to be heard and understood. Often people become angry and irrational because they can find no other way to be heard. When people shout, repeat themselves, withdraw, or attack, you can surmise that they feel and resent not being heard.

Hold off responding to their actions or behavior. Do not argue. First you need to really listen and understand their underlying interests.

Skilled listening will satisfy their desire to be heard, build trust and connection, and buy time in a difficult situation. Skilled listening is more likely to win the other person’s consideration toward you and is one of the best ways to find out the other person’s interests so you can find creative solutions.

Ask simple questions

Rather than arguing, ask questions to uncover the other person’s underlying desires and needs. Often the most powerful question is the simplest question, and may even feel like an obvious one. Rather than objecting, arguing and responding, just truly listen in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

Minimal prompts are best, “Hmmm.” “Go on.” “I see.” But it’s critical that body language conveys that you are interested in what they have to say. Demonstrate curiosity and understanding, not skepticism or contempt. For example, lean forward, look at the person, and demonstrate a relaxed interested demeanor.

Check your understanding

Every now and then repeat back and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you’re getting that perspective right. Mirroring the other person should be neither a linguistic trick nor compliance, but a true effort to reflect back the other person’s perspective.

Many high stakes professions involve active listening and mirroring. Think of pilots talking to the control tower and how each repeats what the other has said. Think of doctors and assistants during surgery, as well as lawyers and court reporters in court proceedings.

Showing that you understand and that you are addressing a person’s interests calms everyone down and makes problem solving possible. Mirroring the other person also builds rapport. The goal is to get the other person to say “Exactly!” when you paraphrase him or her.

Start with broad open-ended questions that don’t have a yes or no answer.

1. “Talk to me.”

2. “Would you explain to me your situation.”

3. “I would like to understand what your perspective is on the matter.”

4. “Tell me about your needs and desires and what you’re hoping for.”

Insights emerge from what the other person says and doesn’t say.

Then ask narrower questions, such as,

“You say you want to have more time together. Can you say more about that.”

Eventually you can ask more specific yes or no questions.

“Would you feel happy if we could a weekly date night and Saturday afternoons together?”

While hostage negotiations are much more explosive than typical day-to-day negotiations or relationship conflicts, the same principles hold. Research shows that the most successful sales people talk less and let the buyer talk more. Happy couples spend more time trying to understand and support their partner than trying to drive home their point and get their way. So, to become happier and more successful in your relationships, move away from the football metaphor of offense and defense to that of a scientist and focus on curiosity and understanding.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.” Thanks to Professor Freeman and his excellent Audio course from The Great Courses.

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “Didn’t you hear what I just said!”

Watch “Dealing with Angry People.”

Related Posts

6 thoughts on “Dealing with conflict and volatility: “You’re being irrational!”

  1. Márcio

    Dr. Alison, this is really amazing, can’t believe You could answer the same day! I was waiting a parallel email response maybe, then finally came back to the page and found your kind answer!
    Thank You very much for your profound advices.
    I think that what fascinates me the most about my partners’ personalities, is their extreme interest in helping others. But they may drawback themselves.
    Maybe that’s a way to feel necessary and not alone.
    Reading some of Bowen theory, understood they’re less differentiated self and emotional driven.
    “People with contrasting levels of differentiation have such dissimilar life-styles that they do not choose each other for personal relationships”.
    Of course they may have problems in our individualistic, mind dominated society, but are wonderful people.
    Mainly my last relationship reminded me my family dynamics with moody, impulsive, raging mother.
    I could for a moment even understand, what my father could have felt interacting with my dominant mother.
    It’s very difficult when you fear showing your ideas because your partner reactions.
    Of course, a lonely man meet an amazing woman and it’s difficult to resist. We lived an intense relationship, and quickly pushed the buttons that triggered each other’s sensibilities. This made me perceive my own faults.
    When I met her she felt alone, not attractive. That was unbelievable to me. I cover her of care and worked improving her self-esteem. Unexpectedly it was too much.
    Finally I couldn’t understand quickly enough her uncontrollable rage outbursts.
    I think that what triggered my sensibilities the most was feeling not taken in account sometimes. Feel that her consideration was ample to her friends or acquaintances and I had to cope, like when unexpectedly she decided to wait a whole morning for a friend of her and then having to handle because now my girfriend is late and mad with me.
    Anyway she decided that she feels OK alone.
    I could have found your wonderful blog before. Thank You. ☺

    1. Alison Post author

      Hello again,

      FYI, I posted a blog today to your earlier question. It’s based on my answer to you, but better filled out and organized.

      I love Murray Bowen and his theories. They are outstanding. One of my favorite books is Kerr and Bowen’s “Family Evaluation.” Kerr edits Bowen’s ideas and makes them so clear. If you had a raging mother, this is particularly great theory to read and understand.

      You describe that your girlfriend had low self-esteem, which you couldn’t believe, and that you tried to help her improve her self-esteem, which became too much for her. This whole dynamic–your good intentions, gratitude, and her eventually resentment or hostility–makes sense. You might search my site for articles with the words “need to be needed” “dependent” “helping too much” “validation.” Even though it is so tempting to help someone, you have to be careful not to overdo it, because they can become resentful, or they can become dependent on you and then lose desire for you. You want to try and avoid becoming the “parent” in a relationship, because that will only lead to a rebellious child or an obedient grateful child–but who is in a child position, not an equal partner position.

      All the best!


  2. Márcio Ramos

    Dr. Alison, this is an amazing site, thank You very much.
    I met a spectacular woman few months ago. But then begun her impulsivity, changeable mood and finally rage outbursts on me. She is highly functioning anyway. Finally she broke up with me. Now I understand that we triggered emotions each other and she is unable to self control. Surely she felt controlled and invaded and we were kind of enmeshed, what drives her crazy. I’m trying to learn to cope with emotional people and improve emotional inteligence to avoid trigger myself and others, for solve this or a new relationship. My next problem is try to figure out why I’m attracted to these personalities, or they are to me. My preceding relationship was diagnosed attention deficit.
    Would appreciate a lot Your insight.
    Thank You again,

    1. Alison Post author

      Hi Marcio,

      Thank you.

      I’m really not sure why you are attracted to people who are impulsive and moody. Do you have any ideas about that yourself? Perhaps they are exuberant or spontaneous. Sometimes when you don’t have impulse control, you express your positive emotions fully, but then you do the same with your negative emotions. When you first meet and are attracted to each other, there are lots of positive emotions and someone who expresses positive emotions without a filter can be quite seductive.

      But then reality sets in and lets them know that their projections (fantasy of the other person) aren’t quite accurate. They blame the other person for not causing them to be fulfilled. Yet no one can fulfill another person, although it may seem like it temporarily when you fall in love. That’s something people have to do for themselves.

      One thing you might do is to take longer to get deeply involved with someone you’re interested in. Don’t call or see them everyday. Take some time to see their qualities and character. Watch out for lack of impulse control, controlling behavior, dependency, fusion, and manipulation. Also try to avoid being controlling, possessive, overly impulsive, dependent, or manipulative. None of those qualities bodes well for long term relationships.

      I do think reading about relationship dynamics–the likes of John Gottman, David Schnarch, and my blog 🙂 is helpful to become more aware of healthy and unhealthy patterns.

      If you want to explain a typical way you got triggered by each of these women, I can speak to that.

      Good luck.



Comments are closed.