by Douglas Noll
I intend this book to be the beginning of a new way of being, where our ability to work with emotions is equal to or greater than our ability to reason, engage in rational thinking, or problem-solve. By developing our emotional intelligence, we learn a crucial secret about de-escalating any angry situation or person in seconds. That secret is to do two simple things:
1. Ignore the words.
2. Guess at and reflect back the emotions.
As simple as this reads, it does take a mental adjustment to overcome the cultural aversion to emotions. And, like any new skill, it takes some practice. Not a lot, mind you, but some. Before we practice and master this process, let’s take a moment to understand some important terms that I will be using. These terms are:
• Affect Labeling
• Emotions: Affect and Feelings • Emotional Categorization
• Emotional Granularization
Affect labeling is the process of listening to another person’s emo- tional experience and reflecting back those emotions in short, simple “You” statements. A typical affect label would be: “You are angry.” I intentionally use the term affect labeling (not effect ) because it most accurately describes the process of listening to and reflecting another person’s emotions. It is a well-known term in the technical literature, and it should be more broadly used in our everyday con- versations to describe the way we go about calming people down.
Unlike with other forms of reflective listening, when you wish to calm someone down, you must ignore the words and pay atten- tion to the emotions. This is counterintuitive to many people. We are trained to pay attention to words from the time we are born. Words communicate a lot of useful information. We are condi- tioned to speak, read, and listen to words. Because this skill is deeply engrained in us, we do not learn how to listen for emotions. Yes, we can recognize when someone is upset or angry, but we are not really listening to their emotions in a deep way.
That’s why the secret to de-escalating an emotional person in less than ninety seconds is learning how to ignore the words and pay attention only to the emotions. When you have mastered this, you can calm most people down quickly and easily. There are, of course, situations where calming someone will not work and may not even be appropriate. However, those situations are generally rare in our everyday lives. We are concerned with the more common types of arguments, anger, frustration, and annoyance. These emotions, if not resolved, may lead to fights or, worse, violence.
Emotions: Affect and Feeling
Emotion is a complex set of physical, cognitive, and mental attributes that we give to certain experiences. The physical part of emotion is composed of two parts: affect and feeling .
Affect is the word used to describe the physiological changes that occur within our brains in response to a memory or outside event. Imagine that you are on a desert trail and you see a coiled rattle- snake. Instantaneously, unconscious systems in your brain activate as neurons fire and neurochemicals are released in response to this sudden danger. This brain activity, when it arises in the emotional centers of the brain, is called affect. Affect is one of the biological foundations of emotion.
Although there is some disagreement within science circles about the number of affects we are endowed with, I prefer psychol- ogist Silvan Tomkins’s nine affects model. In his model, affect is categorized as positive, neutral, or negative. The following illustration lists these nine affects:
When I talk about these nine affects, I’m going to focus on six and rephrase a couple. For example, I leave out Dissmell and add Grief-Shame-Humiliation and Abandonment/Unloved . Dissmell was identified by Silvan Tomkins as a basic affect. It is the automatic response we have when we smell something rotten, like rotten milk or fresh feces or decaying organic matter. Dissmell is triggered when the smell stimulus reaches the brain, the head draws back and away, and the upper lip wrinkles. However, it is not a word that we use to describe emotions, and to simplify things, we can drop it from our short list.
Experience has taught me that underneath anger and fear, peo- ple are often experiencing deep unresolved grief. Many people also experience abandonment and feel deeply unloved. These are added to the list because they arise often.
Each of these affects is associated with systems within the brain that respond to environmental cues and memories. For example, the affect of fear is deeply associated with a part of the brain called the amygdala. Disgust seems to originate in the insula and so forth. Some brain systems are well-known; others are not yet fully under- stood. The good news is that we do not have to be neuroscientists to put this knowledge to use. The important takeaway is that these brain systems react outside of our consciousness in response to what’s in our immediate environment.
The other physical aspect of emotion is what we commonly call feeling. When I get frustrated, for example, my face flushes deep red. My red face is caused by blood rushing into my capillaries. I feel hot and flushed. I have learned that this feeling is associated with some- thing around me that I have labeled as frustrating.
So, to recap, emotion has two physical attributes:
Affect: What is happening in the brain
Feeling: What is happening in the body
Emotion also has a mental, or cognitive, aspect. For us to be able to make sense of what is arousing us, we have to create a mental system of emotional categories. From life experience, we learn how to take the affects and feelings of anger and categorize them into the emo- tion of anger. This mental process is called emotional categorization .
Without going too deep, this requires us to develop an appraisal process. Basically, our brain and body are aroused by something, we appraise, we find a category, and we label. Emotional categorization has turned out to be an important piece of human development. It is learned from experience and is very much influenced, if not defined, by our surrounding culture. This part of emotion is, therefore, socially based. One of the most potent skills you can teach your children is how to categorize the emotions they are experiencing in the moment. As they learn how to organize and categorize their emotions, they develop the capacity for empathy and communication.
Following emotional categorization is the idea of emotional granu- larity . Emotional granularity describes the detail with which we can label an emotional experience. People differ in their degree of emo- tional granularity: low granularity means that Joe will experience the affect of anger, for example, but not be able to communicate his expe- rience. He will just want to go out and hit something because he has no way to express to himself or others what is going on inside him.
Medium granularity means that Mary will experience the affect of anger and will be able to categorize it as anger. She can commu- nicate in a rough way that she is angry. High granularity means that Peter will experience the affect of anger, categorize it as the emotion of anger, and further categorize it as intense annoyance.
People with high degrees of emotional granularity tend to have higher emotional intelligence, have better self-control, and be able to make better choices under the fire of emotion. People with lesser degrees of emotional granularity have less emotional intelligence, less self-control, and a harder time making good choices when upset. Here is an illustration showing the degrees of emotional granularity:
The last term is alexithymia . It’s a big word, but it’s an important idea. People who experience alexithymia are unable to express their emotions with any degree of precision or depth. They lack emotional granularity. As a result, they tend to be reactive when their emotions are kicking. They default to automatic and unconscious behavioral programs. We have all seen people with hair-trigger tempers. They typically have very little emotional granularity and react instantly and unthinkingly to provocation.
In one study of domestic violence offenders, the men rarely reported emotion; rather, they described the acting out or release of affect through aggression and violence toward women. One man, age twenty-one, described a conflict in which he used violence to convey his emotional response. Shortly after he separated from his girlfriend, he ran into her at a club and later went home with her:
She demanded for me to tell her how I felt, and I told her how I felt, and she said, ‘Well that’s not good enough.’ And I kept telling her, you know, I just want to be left alone. So she kept going on and on, because she had found a button to push. And so I kicked her off the couch and said, ‘This is how I feel!’ And then I hit her. And that was that.
He was unable to express himself emotionally, and his alexithy- mia was a direct source of conflict in his relationship; therefore, he used physical aggression as a way of expressing his affect of anger and frustration. This is a classic example of violence caused by low emotional granularity.
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