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Douglas Noll has spent many years teaching people how to manage their emotions so they can solve problems and make good decisions. A successful lawyer who became a mediator and peacemaker, he has developed a particular approach to de-escalation that we think is worth sharing.

It's natural for many of us, when we're with someone who is highly upset, to try and help them by responding to their words and guiding them through whatever problem-solving strategy we favour for ourselves. Often, however, this doesn't seem to help the person much at all.

In his book De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds Or Less, Noll explains why. Neuroscience shows that when we're in the grip of strong emotion (whether anger, fear or excitement, for instance), we can't think clearly because our executive brain function is temporarily unavailable. So there's very little point in trying to reason with someone who is upset: they probably won't be able to take in what we're saying or respond to it in a considered way.

"My mantra is: de-escalate then problem-solve," Noll says. “Never try to problem-solve first. We only make matters worse because we're not taking the short amount of time necessary to get people to calm down so their prefrontal cortex can come back online and they can start thinking again.”1

The de-escalation strategy that he teaches has three steps:

1: ignore the person's words and focus on their emotions for up to 90 seconds.
2: listen for and guess at the emotions the person is experiencing. These could be anger, fear, anxiety, excitement, delight – any strong emotion that can interfere with rational thought and calm reflection.
3: in short “you” sentences, name the emotions. Be patient, gentle and non-judgmental. For instance, you could say:

If you're worried about guessing wrong, don't be. Noll has found over many years that most people are just relieved to be heard and to have their emotions validated. If the emotion you've named isn't quite right, the person will correct you and in so doing gain greater insight into their state of mind. This will help return them to a calmer, more rational place where their problem-solving ability can resurface.

Once that has happened, it may be appropriate for you to work with them to identify options, consider their relative merits and find the best way forward. Or they may be content to solve the problem on their own. Either way, you've done them a favour by helping them through the storm.

Noll's book includes many examples of short conversations in all sorts of contexts. Here's one:

You: Hey, Rachel, how are you feeling today?
Rachel: Hi, I'm OK. My mother is really sick.
Y: You're anxious and sad.
R: Yeah. My daughter is dating a jerk who is taking all her money and treating her like crap.
Y: You're sad and a little fearful for your daughter.
R: Yeah, but there's nothing I can do. She doesn't listen to me.
Y: You feel alone and abandoned.
R: Yeah, I do. No one wants to be around me.
Y: You feel isolated and unappreciated.
P: (sighing) Yeah. Thanks for listening.2

How do you know when someone's emotion has de-escalated? Noll says that you'll see it in their body language and/or hear it in their words and tone of voice. The person may nod, drop their shoulders or give a big sigh of relief.

If you don't have one of these responses within 90 seconds, he suggests stopping the de-escalation for now as the process is very tiring.

Noll has found many applications for this strategy. “You can use it with anybody who comes into a situation upset for any reason, whether you're the cause of it or not. If you've got them de-escalated and into problem-solving mode, they could escalate again. So you de-escalate them. In my mediation work as a consultant or facilitator in complex business conflicts, I probably spend 80% of my time de-escalating and 20% of my time problem-solving. It's a constant process of de-escalation. And problem-solving. Once they've calmed down, it doesn't mean they're calm forever. Something else is going to get them triggered, they're going to get riled up again and you have to bring them down.”3

“Leaders who know how to use these skills are incredibly effective at getting powerful performance out of their organisations,” he says. “And the leaders who take these skills and teach them two levels down, and require two levels down to be teaching the skills two levels down – so the leader's job is to teach leadership two levels down – those people are extremely successful. They're not only working with their direct reports but with the people reporting to their direct reports. The leaders' whole job is to teach leadership all the way down to the customers. So the customer is dealing with a leader, not just an associate. That's where this stuff is most effective.”4

The strategy can also be effective for de-escalating ourselves. When our strong emotions are triggered, we can label them by using short “I” sentences:

He suggests a simple exercise if you want to work out what choices would be best for you when you're emotionally escalated. Complete the sentence below for each negative emotion you experience on a regular basis:

When I experience _________________, I need more __________________.

For example:
* When I am experiencing a lack of inspiration, I need more inspiration.
* When I am experiencing victimisation, I need to take more responsibility.
* When I am experiencing powerlessness and being out of control, I need to feel more powerful and in control.
* When I am experiencing impatience, I need to feel more patient.6

“The skills of peace are counter-intuitive and require mastery that comes only from practice,” Noll says. “We have to fight against our programmed reactivity […]. So far, the only peacemaking skills I have learned that are consistently effective are those I have taught in this book.”7

We highly recommend the book as well as his interviews and presentations online. As he puts it, “When you listen to people in this way, it is incredibly transformative.”8

  1. Interview with Douglas Noll on Savvy Broadcasting, 21st December 2017: ↩︎

  2. Douglas Noll, De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less (New York: Atria paperback, 2017), p. 151 ↩︎

  3. Interview as above: ↩︎

  4. Interview as above: ↩︎

  5. De-escalate, p. 167 ↩︎

  6. p. 167 ↩︎

  7. p. 217 ↩︎

  8. Interview as above: ↩︎