We’ve talked a lot lately about the power of reciprocity. (Remember, reciprocity is the human tendency to reflect the attitudes and behaviors of others.) Today, we’ll give you a simple model for using reciprocity to defuse anger and hostility.
But first, let’s do a quick recap. Reciprocity is so hardwired into our brains that when someone is hostile towards us, we have a 96% of reflecting that hostility back to them. Fortunately, this also works in reverse. If we approach others with genuine warmth and concern, we have a 96% chance of seeing those attitudes reflected back at us. (If you want more in-depth information on reciprocity, check the link in the first sentence of this article.)
For this exercise, picture a colleague, friend, or family member approaching you with a frustration or grievance. They want to vent, or maybe chew you out over a perceived slight. (Reciprocity can help in exchanges with strangers, but for the purposes of this model, we’ll pretend it’s an acquaintance. Also, if you feel threatened, ignore everything we’re about to say and do what you can to ensure your own safety.)
Quick aside: On the whole, have you solved more problems through venting or through constructive problem solving? I’d wager it’s the latter. That’s because when we’re flooded with adrenaline, our cerebral cortex (the part responsible for communication, problem solving, and constructive thought) mostly shuts down.
Because of that, our goal is to help our partner pivot from anger to searching for constructive solutions to their problem – especially if we’re the one they’re angry with!
With me so far? Great! Now, we can turn these principles into a simple model for defusing anger and hostility. We call this method E.A.S.E. – Empathize, Appreciate, Speculate, and Explore. This will let us lay the groundwork of a genuine, productive exchange, and help the other person move from fuming to constructive problem solving.
You may have noticed this, but we humans can be pretty neurotic. Our lizard brains are jumpy and anxious, especially when we’re angry or frustrated. This is a big part of why we want to vent when we’re frustrated. We want affirmation from another person, to smooth over our ruffled feathers and feel like there’s someone in our corner.
But instead of feeding into their anger – either by venting with them or by getting angry back – we can tap into the human thirst for empathy. Note that having empathy for someone isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them. Think of it as expressing an understanding of their emotions. This sense of connection helps calm that neurotic lizard brain.
In this step, we continue soothing the skittish lizard brain. To do so, we affirm the worth of the other person and what they mean to us. It doesn’t have to be all schmaltzy. To be effective, it’s critical that we’re genuine, so use language you’re comfortable with.
By expressing respect and recognition, we accomplish two things. First, we set the stage for positive reciprocity. Second, we create an atmosphere of accountability and warmth, which increases the chances of positive change.
Like the Empathize step, this taps into a deep-seated human need. As social animals, we humans crave connection and respect. This drive is so powerful that it can puncture the other person’s anger and begin to de-escalate the situation. That allows us to get constructive in steps 3 and 4.
This is where we “turn the corner” and start problem solving. Reach out to the other person and get curious. What’s at the root of the person’s problem? What reasons could be behind the situation or behavior that’s upsetting them? What can they do to improve their situation? What can they reasonably expect or request of other people (or of us)?
How this step looks will vary widely depending on the situation. The important part is to help the other person get curious and constructive.
For the final step, we start looking for potential solutions to the problem. Based on the assumptions we came to in the Speculate step, what are reasonable next steps? This could mean solving the problem ourselves, negotiating, clarifying roles, taking it to another person, seeking more information, etc.
Importantly, we don’t need to solve the problem right away. If it were that simple, it would probably have been done already. This is about getting the ball rolling, and seeking information and help where necessary.
That’s it! You’ve walked your partner all the way from hostility and flooding to constructive problem solving.
It’s true that sometimes we reach out like this and find we can’t get through to the other person right now. Sometimes people need a cooling-off period, or a chance for the cerebral cortex to get back into gear. Make it clear that you’re willing to talk more when they’re ready.
We don’t always get what we want, but we’ve never regretted making the attempt.