Why is S/he Being So Unreasonable? It may be all in his/her brain…

Heart and BrainWhen people are in stressful situations, the body cannot distinguish between real and perceived threat. The greater the perception of threat, the stronger the biological response is likely to be. This is particularly true if the current threat is tied to a previously stressful or dangerous situation which triggers the memory center of the brain.

Under acute stress (also known as the fight-or-flight response) the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones. This triggers what Goleman (1996) dubbed the “Amygdala Hijack” whereby the rational brain is literally shut down. An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.

While it takes the body 20 to 60 minutes to recover from the fight or flight response, the brain recovers in as little as six seconds. However, the same response can be re-triggered, sometimes by the person thinking about the same situation. It is therefore important to break the cycle.

What to do?

Show Empathy: Empathy, unlike sympathy, is not saying “gee, I feel sorry for you.” It is demonstrating that you “get” how the other person feels because you can imagine yourself feeling the same way in a similar situation. You can powerfully demonstrate empathy by giving the person your undivided attention. Turn toward them and face them, match their energy level, and use appropriate facial expressions.

Reflect What You Hear: Because there is no way to access the reasoning part of the brain, don’t try. Instead mirror what the person is saying as closely as possible in their own words. Don’t paraphrase or take any ownership or exhibit any agreement. Simply state back way you are hearing starting with the words “So you…” or “You are feeling… because….” Eventually, the person will calm down and you can then start to talk tentatively about what you need to accomplish.

Work with a Mediator: It can be hard to try to do this on your own, which is why working with a mediator can be a great way to make progress. The mediator can manage the strong emotions and conflict so you can both get your needs met.


Source: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman, D. (1996), USA: Random House Publishing Group

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