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What’s the secret to communicating with irrational, angry or just plain crazy people?

We all have to deal with our share of hotheads and crazies. What does research say works with them?

First off, you can’t get angry too. Because then there are two crazy people arguing. While very entertaining to onlookers, this doesn’t accomplish much.

Tell yourself they are having a bad day and that it’s not about you:

Telling yourself that an angry person is just having a bad day and that it’s not about you can help take the sting out of their ire, a new study suggests… the researchers monitored participants’ brain activity and found that reappraising another person’s anger eliminated the electrical signals associated with negative emotions when seeing angry faces.

They’re being crazy. You’ll want to shut them up or talk over them. Don’t. It’s a natural reaction but it doesn’t work.

They don’t think they’re wrong. They’ll just interpret it as a status game where you’re trying to win. Stop being so sure you’re right and listen.

But here’s the important part: just shutting up is not enough.

Listening isn’t just listening. It’s letting the other person know you’re listening.

This is “active listening.”

Keep in mind that good listening is “non-evaluative.” Don’t judge or analyze what the person is saying at first. Just focus on trying to understand their perspective.

It has three components: paraphrasing, inquiry and acknowledgment:

• Paraphrase: “It sounds as if you’re satisfied with our component overall. But if I understand correctly, you need me to assure you that we can increase production if large orders come in. You’re also concerned about our proposed per-unit price and our willingness to work with you to create an acceptable arrangement. Have I captured your main points?”

• Inquire: “You mentioned that you found our proposed price to be unacceptable. Help me understand how you came to this conclusion. Let’s also talk about how we might set up a pricing structure that you find more reasonable.”

• Acknowledge: “It sounds as if you’re quite disappointed with various elements of our proposal, so much so that you have serious concerns about whether we’ll be able to work together over the long haul.”

Active listening is the first thing FBI hostage negotiators use to de-escalate incidents and save lives.

BCSM consists of five stages: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change. Progression through these stages occurs sequentially and cumulatively. Specifically, the negotiator proceeds in sequence from Stage 1 (active listening) to Stage 5 (behavioral change). However,in order to establish rapport (Stage 3) with the subject, active listening skills (Stage 1) and empathy (Stage 2) must first be demonstrated (and maintained throughout) by the negotiator. As this process continues, influence (Stage 4) and behavioral change (Stage 5) follow. The latter stage refers to the successful resolution of the crisis that can only occur when, and only when, the previous stages have been carried out successfully.

It’s not all in your words. Body language is vital.

Via The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive:

Language is an odd thing. We hear communication experts telling us time and again about things like the “7-38-55 rule,” first posited in 1971 by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian: 55 percent of what you convey when you speak comes from your body language, 38 percent from your tone of voice, and a paltry 7 percent from the words you choose.

You don’t want to have serious arguments via email or phone. Communicating via email makes you more likely to act like a jerk. You lie more via text message.

Steven Johnson suggests that by stripping away the emotional information in faces and intonation, email and text messaging might be simulating autism.

Via Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life:

when you look at most electronic communication through the lens of neuroscience, it’s hard not to think that autism might be a more appropriate “poster condition” for the digital society. (The cultural critic Harvey Blume made this argument nearly a decade ago.) When we interact with other humans via communication channels that are stripped of facial expressions and gestures and laughter, we are unwittingly simulating the blank emotional radar of the mindblind.

If you can’t just listen and need to reply to a direct question, what should you say?

You have to make sure you get out of your head and see where they’re coming from if you don’t want them to just blow up again.

In Words That Work political expert Frank Luntz gives a pithy but powerful line:

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

You may have to deal with someone who does this on a regular basis. What’s important to remember is you need to ignore the anger and hysterics. Don’t reward them. Give positive reinforcement only when they calm down.

In Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training she explains the fundamentals of behavior change. And these methods are effective whether the subject is a dog, a dolphin or your neighbor, Larry.

A good strategy she uses is to positively reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. In fact, she used this technique to get her mom to stop complaining:

The conversations were usually, and sometimes excessively concerned with my mother’s problems… I deliberately let her complaints and tears extinguish …I then reinforced anything and everything that was not a complaint… within two months the proportion of tears and distress to chat and laughter in our weekly phone calls became reversed.

(If it can stop a mom from complaining, it’s pretty powerful.)

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Related posts:

What do the words you use say about you?

What are the ten rules you need to know to communicate effectively?

Can you use dog training techniques to influence others and improve yourself? 

About Eric Barker