Hear are neuroscience insights for partnering with crazy people

Five people fist bumping over their desks and lap tops

Would you like to know how to communicate with those that don’t what to hear you at all? Do you have those with whom you simply cannot communicate? Do you know others that just seem to be crazy? In previous articles a focus on listening has been emphasized. That works with most people. We need to actively listen. On the other hand, you cannot push a rope, you can only pull a rope. If someone does not want to work with you that’s their choice. Move on. Given all of this history, this article takes these issues to another level based on neuroscience. If you want to know how to work with those you really cannot stand, or you find really hard to work with, read on.

Dr. Mark Goulston provides insight from his new book Just Listen, Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. As a clinical psychologist he has found the same brain chemistry associated with hostage negotiating, caustic work environments and when we flood or lose our cool is the same. He comments that we instinctively apply the wrong kind of pressure at the wrong time to fight, flight or freeze. We become angry at exactly the wrong time.

When confronted by an angry person, what is our natural tendency? You have experienced this many times. You take it up a notch and get angry too. We argue, we shout, we raise the stress level of everyone involved. This is a fight and we are ready for a verbal sparing match. We are ready to let the other party know what we think and give the other person a piece of our mind. The term he uses is that we upshift. He points out this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Really? What should we do? He suggests we need to downshift. What does that mean?




Downshifting is when we deliberately remain calm, listen and stop talking, this helps to de-escalate the situation. This is hard to do. In runs contrary to what how our primitive brain works. This will be discussed below.

Instead this is the time to focus on the problem and be gentle on the people.

By downshifting and working with the other person to clearly define the problem this engages the other party by mutually working to address the root cause. That is when you can get through to them too. He demonstrates in his book that this actually works. However, you have to practice this and be intentional. It does not feel natural.


A look at the brain


If you could look into your brain you would see three cross sections laid over one another. These are the neocortex the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. The neocortex (what we think of as our brain) is what allows us to have higher level thinking. The mammalian brain is the center of all of our emotions, feelings, moods and even memory. The reptilian brain at the top of the brainstem is what gives us survival skills for fight, flight and freeze when danger is near. The mammalian and reptile brain elements have not adapted as quickly at our neocortex. That’s why we can quickly be in flooded with chemicals and hormones to be ready for a fight. When that happens, the neocortex is essentially cut off. We no longer are thinking reasonably. So how do you reach someone who has begun to flood or has flooded?


1. Listen and make the person feel felt


Listening takes patience and practice. It is an art. When someone else is starting to or has lost it, pause yourself and realize you can get ahead of the situation by making sure the other person feels felt. This seems counterintuitive to us. If someone is getting or is angry, our natural tendency is to become angry too. We tend to tell the other person “they are over reacting, calm down, relax”. How does that work for you? It doesn’t does it?

Instead we need to work on de-escalation. De-escalation is a process too. We have to be conscious of our own feelings and work to remain neutral and not digress into a negative mind set. This too is hard and it takes practice. So how do we do this?

We can empathize and reflect emotions. “You must be really irritated, frustrated or angry”. Acknowledge how they are feeling.


Here are 7 steps to make the person feel felt


By acknowledging feelings, you are not condoning their behavior. Instead you are acknowledging their behavior. There is a big difference. When you reflect this back to them, they feel felt. Dr. Goulston offers seven steps you can try as follows:

  1. State the emotion or feeling you believe the other person is having at this time.
  2. In private give that person a chance to agree with you or correct you.
  3. Continue to do this until you have addressed all of their emotions.
  4. Follow up with “I bet you are hesitant to tell me that you can’t get it done?”

                This does two things:

                     One, it puts you in their shoes.

                     Two, you get them to say yes. That is important, because it creates positive momentum.

      5. Dig deeper and ask “why are you so frustrated?” Or “The reason you are so frustrated is because…

      6. Close your mouth. Don’t offer solutions. Just listen.

      7. Once they are through (make sure they are through) it is time to ask them for a solution. Ask questions like:

               What needs to happen for that to get better?

               What can I do to help?

               How can you help yourself?


2. Make the other person feel valuable


If the other person does not have the best self-image, is known to be a whiner and complainer, then being felt is probably not enough. In this instance they probably need their ego stroked a bit. They need additional acknowledgement.

They need to feel that they are truly valuable and that you appreciate them. They feel the world owes them and they have not gotten their fair share.

Generally, this person does not realize that they come off as negative to others. They like and look for attention. They have had reinforcement that if they are angry and lash out this does bring attention. However, you are out to reinforce with them, a different approach. Dr. Goulston recommends two techniques for this person.

  1. When the person comes to you, indicate you don’t have time right now, but set up a time soon (say in a couple of hours) and indicate you will give the person 5 minutes of undivided attention to hear both their concerns and that person’s recommended solution. This meets their need for attention, has them focus on a solution and come back ready to discuss both. Generally, the person may not come back if there was no real problem.
  2. When someone vents and makes a generalization that everyone is incompetent, explore that further and ask for help with addressing those that are incompetent. The other party is likely not to want to work with you to address this problem. They just wanted to vent.


3. What about the extremely angry person?


The techniques presented so far address having people feeling felt and the perpetual whinner. What about those that are flooded and really angry? This person has lost it and is clearly mad at the world. How can you possibly reach someone so angry?

Let the person vent. Don’t interrupt. Let them go. Let them drain the wound. It’s like letting a fighter punch the air. Let them burn out with their anger. They will become exhausted.

Ask them to tell you more.

You need to keep your cool. Be understanding, acknowledging feelings, but not the behavior. Keep in mind they may be mad at the world because they have not been treated the way they want to have been treated. The key once again is to listen and let them burn out. This is really hard to do. Give it a go and see what happens. Again, this is hard. This runs contrary to what your brain is telling you to do and that is to lash out and fire back. However, Dr. Goulston points out this works in real life. Now give it a go. Don’t expect great success at the beginning. Realize this is going to take practice.

To learn more, check out Dr. Goulston’s book and this article with additional insights from the book.


About the author


Mike is a professional speaker, negotiator and mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 11 books including Business Valuations and the IRS: Five Books in One, The Servant Manager and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]