How to Stop Passing the Emotional Buck

Understanding parallel process can help you pay it forward the right way.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

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You probably know about parallel process even if you’re not familiar with the term. Your boss is critical of your last assignment, so you come home in a lousy mood and criticize your partner for leaving dishes in the sink; she then chews out your daughter for leaving her clothes on the floor, who in turn, snaps at her younger brother for touching her stuff, and the little brother kicks the dog. 

Or the process can also start from the bottom up rather than the top down: A freaked-out customer talks to a company employee who then freaks out herself, who relays it all to her boss who responds the same, who then goes to her boss who in turn loses it and passes it up the line. In no time the entire company is in meltdown mode.

Parallel processing is powerful stuff, this passing of the emotional buck can be like a tidal wave consuming everything in its path. But it's possible to stop and even reverse the process. Therapists are trained to pay attention to this and try to do this all the time when working with an emotional client. If Ms. Jones is angrily complaining about teenage daughter blowing up at her when she asked her daughter to clean up her room, Ms. Jones is essentially carrying the problem forward right there and then in the session: In her retelling of the incident she is replicating the way the daughter did at the time.  

What a skilled therapist knows now to do in is essentially adopt the role of an ideal parent and respond to Ms. Jones right there and then the way she needs to treat her daughter — not by getting angry back, but by listening and gently holding firm. This not only helps Ms. Jones calm down in the moment, but provides subtle role-modeling that she can carry home and use to change the emotional climate in her own home. But as parent, as an employee or manager, you too can put it to use to stop the tidal wave of negativity and calm the waters around you. And it’s likely your responsibility. 

How do you do this? 

The key is consciously treating the person you are talking to the way they need to treat those below; if you need to pass a message up, doing so in a neutral rather than emotional manner.

So even though you feel the sting of criticism from your boss, you are aware as you drive home of the danger of passing this down to your family. Though you feel rightfully annoyed by seeing the dishes in the sink again, you take a deep breath, and mention it in the way you wished your boss had spoken to you about that assignment — clear but gentle. This in turn will make it easier for your partner to do the same with your daughter about the clothes, and the daughter with her brother. You have deliberately broken the potential chain of negative emotions, shaped the emotional climate, rather than reacting and spraying it about; if you do it right the dog avoids getting kicked.

Similarly, when your daughter comes to you irate and frustrated by her brother messing with her stuff, you want to think as she tells her story, “I need to respond to her now the way she needs to ideally respond to her brother.” So instead of getting irritated yourself and absorbing her frustration, you model for her how to talk to her brother — again clear but gentle. Or if you are the supervisor of that freaked-out employee you treat him the way he needs to ideally respond to the customer, and you pass along your concern to your supervision without the drama. 

This is subtle and takes some practice, but this often has an unconscious yet powerful impact on the other person. It requires that you learn when talking to someone who is emotional to think ahead, to treat them the way the need to treat the person they are talking about, to be conscious and alert to the danger of replicating their state of mind. Your goal is to be the rational one is the midst of all those potential emotional people around you.

Again, it’s not a question of personality but a skill, and like other skills, one you can learn to hone and eventually do reflexively. 

Ready to stop passing that emotional buck? Give it a try.

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