Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Influence an Emotionally Unstable Individual

Part 3: Application of the ABCDEs.

Key points

  • The acronym ABCDE can help guide communications with an emotionally unstable individual. The last two letters stand for "decide" and "engage."
  • When interacting with an emotionally unstable person, one must first decide if they are a physical threat before engaging.
  • Effectively engaging an emotionally unstable person includes using tactics that signal non-aggressiveness such as lowered eyes and a softer tone.
Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

As I wrap up this three-part series on using communication “hacks” with emotionally unstable people, I want to recap what I covered so far.

First, I helped you assess some of the key indicators that you are dealing with an emotionally unstable individual. Next, I went through the importance of how to set up proper boundaries. Then, I covered how you can use expert communication techniques to communicate with someone with any of these signs.

In the ABCDE methodology, let me cover how you can use decide and engage to fully understand a clear communications path.

D) Decide

Ask yourself, “Is this person a physical threat to me?” If the answer is yes, your safety must take precedence. Do what you need to get yourself and anyone else out of harm’s way.

If the answer is, no, there is not an immediate physical threat, then you must still decide what you can handle to maintain your mental and physical health. Numerous studies help us to see that high levels of stress maintained for long periods of time can create serious problems in our musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and other systems in our body.

Remember that mental stress can still be a threat and should be treated as such. Do not take a risk with your safety or the safety of others. It’s just not worth it.

E) Engage

Now that you are armed with the ABCDEs, it is time to put all of this into practice.

Once, I was tasked with breaking into a bank as part of an audit. I knew this job would be hard; it was one of those jobs where I expected to get caught. It was broad daylight, security-armed, and I was to enter as a pest control person.

As I walked up to the front door, I saw four security guards. A quick assessment helped me see which one looked the most alert, and which one was in charge. I went in and headed towards that guard. Knowing what he was protecting, I had to set up my boundaries of what I would and would not do to succeed.

Now it was time to communicate. As I walked up, I made sure my hips were bladed away from the security guard I deemed to be the leader, even though I was speaking to him. The slight angle away, with a lowered RSVP, and a head tilt let him know I was not a threat and was actually really friendly.

When I uttered my opening line, I looked not at him, but down at a paper on my clipboard. All of this showed him he was in control and I was at his mercy. When I said I was here for my last job of the day, I let out a long cathartic exhale, triggering in his brain it was okay to be de-stressed.

Moments later, I was roaming the building with no escort.

What does this have to do with you engaging with an emotionally unstable individual?

All of these same “hacks” can be used by you.

Body Angle: When animals are aggressive, they square up against each other. You see this when two rams fight, or when two gorillas are about to get violent. This is also seen in humans. In the case of dealing with someone emotionally unstable, blading your hips away can let them know you are non-aggressively approaching.2

Head Tilt: Tilting your head slightly tells the other person you trust them; therefore you must be trustworthy too. Dr. Paul Zak found in his research into oxytocin that it is released in greater volumes when you feel trusted. This trust display can help the person you are talking to see you are calm and trustworthy.3

Eye Contact: Staring someone in the face can be seen as an aggressive gesture. Establish if that person is combative. By lowering your gaze, you again signify that you are non-aggressive and more trustworthy.

RSVP: As I mentioned above, keep your rhythm, speed, volume, and pitch in line with your pretext (the persona you are approaching as) not the emotion you may get tossed at you. It is natural for our voices to go up if someone gets angry or upset. Keeping our RSVP at a lower, softer tone can do a lot to keep the situation from escalating.2

Cathartic exhales: They help relieve stress but also indicate to the person you are talking to that it is okay for them to relieve stress.

Putting these into practice can help keep your communications to be safe and influential even when dealing with individuals who are emotionally unstable.

Some of these communication “hacks” or shortcuts are discussed in my new book. The goal in being armed with these skills is being able to communicate with anyone while influencing them positively. These tips can help you to do this even with emotionally unstable individuals.

Copyright © 2021, Christopher Hadnagy.



2. Christopher J. Hadnagy, Human Hacking: Win Friend, Influence People and Leave Them Better Off For Having Met You (Harper Collins, 2020 – page 175

3. Paul J. Zak, The Moral Molecule: The New Science of What Makes Us Good or Evil (Bantam, 2012).