Listening For the Emotions

Have you ever attempted to calm down an emotional person? Our natural inclination is to deny the emotional content of what the speaker is saying by using logic and/or facts such as, “There is no reason to get upset”, “Calm down”, “You are over-reacting”, “You have misunderstood”, “Maybe it is because….”; “Don’t be so sensitive”, “Let’s look at the facts…”, “If you really think about it….”, et cetera. (Micro-Interventions in Mediation, by Douglas E. Noll at pp. 15-23 (2014))

In reality, what we are doing is making the situation worse. We are, in essence, invalidating and denying the emotional content of the statements and the feelings of the speaker; and the more we invalidate, the more emotional the speaker will become. (Our natural inclination is to become more stubborn or obstinate in the face of adversity or a “NO!”) (Id.)

I learned this “simple” lesson at a recent training session with Douglas E. Noll who explains that the best way to deal with emotional people is by using “Micro-Interventions”. He urges that rather than listening to the words of the speaker, to listen to the emotional content and simply respond to the statement by reflecting back to the speaker her core message and by labeling the emotion.

For example, to reflect the core message:

Speaker:  It would stink to have to lose my house, but no way do I want to   have to pay for it while she’s living in with her boyfriend.

Response: The injustice you are experiencing is painful.

Speaker:  It would be so hard to settle with all of my debt hanging over me.

Response: You wonder how you are going to get through all of this.

For example, to reflect back the emotions:

Speaker: It would stink to have to lose my house, but no way do I want to have to pay for it while she’s living in it with her boyfriend.

Response: You are angry, frustrated, and sad. You feel betrayed and disrespected. You feel grief and abandonment.

Speaker: It would be so hard to settle with all of my debt hanging over me.

Response: You are anxious and fearful. You are confused and uncertain. You feel alone and unsupported. You feel abandoned.

(Micro-Interventions in Mediation, by Douglas E. Noll at p. 23 (2014)) (See also:

More often than not, the primary emotion being expressed is anger. This may often be followed by frustration, anxiety, fear and disgust, sadness and grief and finally, abandonment. (Id.)

Initially, it will feel quite awkward, if not uncomfortable, to respond by reflecting the core messagne and labeling the emotion and sometimes, you will label the emotion incorrectly (Mr. Noll cautions not to use “I” statements but rather always start with “you.’) But, as Mr. Noll, points out, identifying the wrong emotion is quite alright as the speaker will be quick to correct you by saying what she is really feeling. When you respond back with that emotion (and perhaps one or two others), you will know that you have correctly assessed the situation when the speaker responds with an unconscious head nod, or a “yes” , and a slight lowering or bowing of the shoulders indicating relief/release. When this happens, the speaker will suddenly feel as if you have “really” heard what she has been saying and understand her and will calm down. (Id. at 31.)

At this point, you can discuss the issue on a more “rational” or “factual” basis, looking for options and ways to resolve the issue.

According to Mr. Noll, this micro-intervention should take no more than 90 seconds and can be very subtle. But, it will get the speaker to calm down, and become “rational” once again.

Since returning from the training, I have tried it a few times and …it works! So, give it a try… you will be surprised at the results!

….. Just something to think about.




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By |2017-05-13T07:27:44+00:00July 18th, 2014|Negotiation Strategy|Comments Off on Listening For the Emotions

About the Author:

Phyllis Pollack
Phyllis G. Pollack, Esq. the principal of PGP Mediation (, has been a mediator in Los Angeles, California since 2000. She has conducted over 1700 mediations. As an attorney with more than 35 years experience, she utilizes her diverse background to resolve business, commercial, international trade, real estate, employment and lemon law disputes at both the state and federal trial and state appellate court levels. Currently, she is the in­coming chair of State Bar of California’s ADR Committee. She has served on the board of the California Dispute Resolution Council (CDRC) (2012­2013), is a past president and past treasurer of the SCMA Education Foundation (2011­2013) and a past president (2010) of the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA). Ms. Pollack received her BA degree in sociology in 1973 from Newcomb College of Tulane University and her JD degree from Tulane University School of Law in 1977. She is an active member of both the Louisiana and California bars. Pollack believes that it is never too late to mediate a dispute and recommends mediation over litigation as it allows the parties to decide their own solutions.