How to Stay Rational When the Subject is Emotional

Q: Would you offer your observations and some action people can take to stay calm, rational and effective in stressful and emotional interpersonal situations?

I think many people lack these tools. I consider myself very learned in this area and still struggle when I find myself in confrontational situations. I feel the adrenaline kick in. The threat is not even a deadly threat, of course. It’s more of a defensive position.  Especially in our culture now, with politics and the attack on principles and ideas.

I have to tell you, I see irrationalism every day in the corporate/business world, and trying to communicate ideas clearly and dispassionately is difficult.

A: Here’s a good tool: Ask questions. Don’t ask hostile questions. Just ask honest, thoughtfully provocative ones. And always acknowledge the other person’s perspective first. If you don’t, then his or her adrenaline/issues will kick in too, and you’ll potentially have a mess on your hands.

Example: “I know you strongly believe that’s the right way to do it. I have some different thoughts. Would you like to hear them?” End with a question. It’s different from, “I don’t agree.” While saying, “I don’t agree” is perfectly fine and sometimes may be your best option, asking the question is usually better. By asking a question, you put the person in the position of accountability. You might soften it by acknowledging his or her point-of-view first. And then really listen to the answer. If you’re already convinced you’re correct and nothing he or she says will change your mind (and this may be true), then look for what you believe or know to be mistaken assumptions in the answer. And then address those, if you’re still interested in the conversation.

Sometimes you’re dealing with people who don’t seem rational, or at least not receptive to changing their minds. When you believe or know that to be the case, your own adrenaline level might increase. Questions are effective in this kind of situation too. “Why do you think that? What evidence do you see for that? I found this contrary evidence; what do you think of that?” Doesn’t it make you feel calmer to put the accountability back on the other side?

You’ve said you become very anxious in these situations. What creates anxiety? Generally speaking, (1) a lack of serenity and (2) a lack of feeling in control. For additional serenity, reconsider the need for you to change other people’s minds. Is it ever really a life or death situation if you don’t change someone’s mind? If a person is not open to persuasion, or if your reasoning does not convince them, are you at peace with this fact? Why or why not? This is something to explore when you’re NOT in the heat of an adrenaline-pushing situation. The more you can come to peace with the fact that you will NOT change some people’s minds and it’s actually NOT necessary for you to do so, the more serene and calm you’ll be when you confront mistaken or irrational people who don’t see things your way. “Oh, well. That’s how this person needs to look at it. Not my problem.”

Another cause of anxiety? A perceived lack of control. We feel more in control when we have more choices/options. Have you provided yourself with enough choices in these situations? Is avoidance an option? In other words, have you given yourself permission simply to walk away or excuse yourself if the conversation isn’t doing anything for you? It’s OK to do that. Obviously, situations differ. A spouse matters a lot more than a stranger, or a co-worker. Stick around long enough to support the importance of that person in your life. But you’re not obliged to stick around just because. If you feel that way, or if you subconsciously assume that, then it will be very anxiety-provoking when the conversation escalates or otherwise fails to go your way. My point here isn’t to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on all situations. I’m only saying: Give yourself choices and options.

You mentioned politics, ideas, principles and the like. When people fight about politics, they’re really trying to discuss philosophy. Most of our candidates are not very philosophical, so things tend to get personal. Yet philosophy is the subject that really matters. Philosophy refers to ethics, among other topics, and ethics is the subject most relevant to politics. That’s when I go back to questions. If someone wishes to fight about Donald Trump, for example, I would give myself the option to shift discussion to what the purpose of government should be. If the person says something like, “There has to be a social safety net. You can’t let people go without government benefits,” then I might ask, “Why do you say that? Why is that so?” Or if they say, “Taxes should be higher, not lower,” or, “We should make peace with ISIS and embrace Islam, not build up the military,” then ask them why they think that will help. How well have these things been working? Make the other person defend his or her case.

To me, it arouses less anxiety to put this accountability on the other person. Why should I have to prove it’s NOT justifiable for the government to force people to work 6 months of the year to pay for other people’s livelihood? Turn the accountability on the person making that claim (or implying it). Why should charity be compelled by the government? And what about all the things the government does that aren’t even charity? The person making the claim should be obliged to prove the claim. Put them on the defensive, not through hostility but through reason. And if they become hostile, just withdraw from the conversation, serene in the knowledge it’s a waste of your time. And remember: When a person becomes hostile, he or she really is saying: “I don’t have an answer to your claims/points and it makes me really, really mad.” Because that’s really what’s going on!

I offer this suggestion not just with ethical or political arguments, but for anything. And the tool at work here, once again, is planning your strategy ahead of time and giving yourself options.

Anxiety on the level you describe is a symptom. It’s a symptom that you possibly (and subconsciously) expect yourself to do things that it’s neither possible nor necessary for you to do, such as convince others you’re right.

What you’re after here is serenity. Serenity’s a good thing! The epitome of serenity is a person who stays and actually feels calm even when another is irate or upset. So plan your strategies for conversations ahead of time, and ask questions. Hopefully this will take you to the next level.

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