Heal Feelings with Feelings, Not Facts
When someone is emotional it’s not the time to try and reason.
Posted Feb 19, 2020
Sam is looking at the latest credit card bill and flipping out: What is this? Why is this so high? I thought we agreed on a budget! He's in an agitated rage. Kim, his partner, is pretty calm. She knows he's upset and she needs to not fuel the fire by getting emotional herself. She decides to remain cool and calm him down by walking him through the charges on the statement so he can see what is really going on and realize that it's not as bad as he thinks.
Good intentions. Probably a bad idea.
While Kim is doing a good job of not trying to fuel an emotional fire with more fire, i.e., getting emotional herself, her idea of cooling the flames through facts and reason is also not likely to work. This is like thinking you can use water to put out a kitchen oil fire—good instincts perhaps, but experience and experts will tell you this will only make the fire worse.
You want to fix feelings with feelings, not facts.
Just as water will only splatter the oil and spread the flames of an oil fire, facts, when someone is emotionally upset, do much the same. Once someone is upset, their amygdala fires up and shuts down their rational brain. They have no way in the crisis moment to understand what you saying, and so your words, like the water, make things worse. Your goal at this point is to lower the temperature, put out the emotional fire with. . . emotion.
Rather than lining up facts to make her point and hopefully help Sam see the light, Kim would be better to focus on Sam's emotion and counter with her own. What this means is a few things:
She needs to stop talking and listen. Here, she lets Sam do his ranty behavior until he calms down—which he eventually will. Active listening is the most powerful antidote to emotion.
She needs to empathize with his feelings. This is where she counters feelings with feelings. She needs to say quietly that she is aware he is upset. In other situations, it may be that you say to the other person that you are terribly sorry, that you didn't mean to hurt their feelings. This is not about giving in, kowtowing to what they want, but acknowledging that, for whatever reason—a misunderstanding, a stupid comment on your part—the other person was emotionally hurt.
If she is getting upset she needs to call a halt. If both parties are getting upset, it's time to stop to avoid further damage. Emotions create tunnel vision where you want to make your point, come hell or high water. This again is like throwing that water on the oil fire—it will only spread. Time to call a halt and agree to circle back later.
Facts are for when the fire is out. Once the emotional waters are calm, and rational brains are back online, it's time for the facts to make their entrance. Now Kim can walk through the credit card statement with Sam, or they both can take an objective look at the budget. The key is to be patient and wait until each partner is calm.
That said, don't wait too long; it becomes all too easy to just sweep the problem under the rug, to “let it go," to make up and brush it aside for fear of starting another argument. Have the courage to step up and work together to solve the problem.