Have you tried reasoning with someone when they’re feeling intensely emotional? It’s hard to think clearly, think straight, when we’re stressed. Some brain research says it’s almost impossible. When we’re stressed, we flick out of reasoning mode into fight-fight-freeze mode. The brain gets flooded with chemicals that are intended to enable us to survive an emergency, a crisis. Trying to hold a rational conversation with someone in that state can be like pouring fuel onto a chemical fire.
Cognitive behavioural psychology points us helpfully towards some signs that a person may be in that kind of emotional place. For example, they may be speaking in very black-white/either-or terms, unable to see nuances or alternatives in a situation. They may be assuming intentions in others or predicting outcomes with unfounded certainty – as if they know the future for sure. Physically, they may be struggling to rest or sleep, missing meals or avoiding normal patterns of social contact.
The vivid image that comes to mind for me is that of a lot of dust being kicked up into the air. Until the dust settles, we are unable to see clearly. This is a reason why leaders who try to lead change and transition as a purely rational-technical process often encounter greatest resistance or other attitudes or behaviours they consider irrational. It’s also a reason why coaching and training may fail if the coach or trainer doesn’t take the client’s or group’s emotional state into account.
So what, if anything, can we do to address this? We can offer time and space for people to feel and process their emotions. ‘How are you feeling as we talk about this?’ As the person or group talks, the dust often settles enough for them to start to make sense of their experience and to see and discuss the beginnings of a way forward. We can also offer empathy and support. ‘What do you need?’ It values and respects the person or group and shows care, responsiveness – and standing-with.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.