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Calm Upset People with Empathy, Attention and Respect

Everyone gets upset some of the time. High conflict people get upset a lot of the time. A simple technique called an “E.A.R. Statement” can help you calm others down. This is especially helpful if you are in a close relationship or a position of authority. High conflict people tend to emotionally attack those closest to them and those in authority when they are frustrated and can’t manage their own emotions. The intensity of their uncontrolled emotions can really catch you off-guard. But if you practice making E.A.R. statements you can really connect with upset people, which is really what they want.

E.A.R. Statements
E.A.R. stands for Empathy, Attention and Respect. It is the opposite of what you feel like giving someone when he or she is upset and verbally attacking YOU! Yet you will be amazed at how effective this is when you do it right.
An E.A.R. Statement connects with the person’s experience, with their feelings. For example, let’s say that someone verbally attacks you for not returning a phone call as quickly as he or she would have liked. “You don’t respect me! You don’t care how long I have to wait to deal with this problem! You’re not doing your job!”
Rather than defending yourself, give the person an E.A.R. Statement, such as: “Wow, I can hear how upset you are. Tell me what’s going on. I share your concerns about this problem and respect your efforts to solve it.” This statement included:
EMPATHY: “I can hear how upset you are.”
ATTENTION: “Tell me what’s going on.”
RESPECT: “I respect your efforts.”

The Importance of Empathy
Empathy is different from sympathy. Having empathy for someone means that you can feel the pain and frustration that they are feeling, and probably have felt similar feelings in your own life. These are normal human emotions and they are normally triggered in the people nearby. (Emotions are contagious!) When you show empathy for another person, you are treating them as a peer who you are concerned about and can relate to as an equal in distress.
Sympathy is when you see someone else in a bad situation that you are not in. You may feel sorry for them and have sympathy for them, but it is a one-up and one-down position. There is more of a separation between those who give sympathy and those who receive it.
You don’t have to use the word “empathy” to make a statement that shows empathy. For example:
“I can see how important this is to you.”
“I understand this can be frustrating.”
“I know this process can be confusing.”
“I’m sorry to see that you’re in this situation.”
“I’d like to help you if I can.”
“Let’s see if we can solve this together.”

The Importance of Attention
There are many ways to let a person know that you will pay attention. For example, you can say:
“I will listen as carefully as I can.”
“I will pay attention to your concerns.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Tell me more!”
You can also show attention non-verbally, such as:
Have good “eye contact” (keeping your eyes focused on the person) Nod your head up and down to show that you are attentive to their concerns Lean in to pay closer attention Put your hand near them, such as on the table beside them
(but be careful about touching an upset HCP (High Conflict Person)– it may be misinterpreted as a threat, a come-on, or a put-down).

The Importance of Respect
Anyone in distress, and especially HCPs, need respect from others. Even the most difficult and upset person usually has some quality that you can respect. By recognizing that quality, you can calm a person who is desperate to be respected. Here are several statements showing respect:
“I can see that you are a hard worker.” “I respect your commitment to solving this problem.” “I respect your efforts on this.” “I respect your success at accomplishing ____________.” “You have important skills that we need here.”

Why E.A.R. is so Important to HCPs
They’re not getting it anywhere else. They have usually alienated most of the people around them. It is the last thing that anyone wants to give them. They are used to being rejected, abandoned, insulted, ignored, and disrespected by those around them. They are starving for empathy, attention and respect. They are looking for it anywhere they can get it. So just give it to them. It’s free and you don’t sacrifice anything. You can still set limits, give bad news, and keep a social or professional distance. It just means that you can connect with them around solving a particular problem and treat them like an equal human being, whether you agree or strongly disagree with their part in the problem.

What to Avoid
Don’t Lie
You don’t have to listen forever
E.A.R. doesn’t mean you agree
Maintain an “arms-length” relationship
Manage Your Amygdala
Of course, this is the opposite of what we feel like doing. You may think to yourself: “No way I’m going to listen to this after how I’ve been verbally attacked!” But that’s just your amygdala talking, in an effort to protect you from danger. Our brains are very sensitive to threats, especially our amygdalas (you have one in the middle of your right hemisphere and one in the middle of your left). Most people, while growing up, learn to manage the impulsive, protective responses of their amygdalas and over-ride them with a rational analysis of the situation, using their prefrontal context behind the forehead.
In fact, that is a lot of what adolescence is about: learning what is a crisis needing an instant, protective response (amygdale) and learning what situations are not a crisis and instead need a calm and rational response (prefrontal cortext). High conflict people often were abused or entitled growing up, and didn’t have the secure, balanced connection necessary to learn these skills of emotional self-management. Therefore, you can help them by helping yourself not over-react to them – use your own prefrontal cortext to manage your amygdala.

It’s Not About You!
Remind yourself it’s not about you! Don’t take it personally. It’s about the person’s own upset and lack of sufficient skills to manage his or her own emotions. Try making E.A.R. statements and you will find they often end the attack and calm the person down. This is especially true for high conflict people (HCPs) who regularly have a hard time calming themselves down.
All of these are calming statements. They let the person know that you want to connect with him or her, rather than threaten him or her.

Making E.A.R. statements – or non-verbally showing your Empathy, Attention and Respect – may help you avoid many potentially high-conflict situations. It can save you time, money and emotional energy for years to come.


Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy is the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides training to professionals dealing with high conflict disputes. Bill is an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons, mental health professionals, hospital administrators, college administrators, homeowners association managers and… MORE >

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