Managing Extreme Outbursts of Clients and Attorneys
By Paul Fisher1
After I presented the other side’s proposal in a recent mediation caucus with an attorney and his client, Jean stood up, slammed her glasses down on the conference room table and began screaming at me. On and on she went, completely out of control. On an emotional scale of ten she was a nine. Initially I was in shock at being so forcefully attacked. I began to mindfully calm myself down and reminded myself that she was not angry at me; she was angry at the other parties and their attorneys. I repeatedly urged myself to calm down and gathered my thoughts. And then an epiphany: Jean was having an amygdala hijacking! Now I was in control of myself and knew what to do.
As she screamed and ranted I had the opportunity to appreciate what I had read about in Psychiatrist Mark Goulston, M.D.’s book, “Just Listen”2 and was now experiencing. Dr. Goulston describes the amygdala as the portion of the brain which is activated when there is a threat, whether physical or psychological. At the onset of an amygdala hijack, the amygdala overrides the frontal cortex, the logical part of the brain. Reason and self control fly out the window.
When dealing with a person in amygdala hijack such as your client, opposing attorney or your spouse, realize that that person is extremely angry or stressed and is not capable of thinking rationally. Trying to discuss facts or attempting to reason with this person is a waste of time and can be painfully counterproductive.
Allow this person to vent until they completely run out of steam and stop, thus enabling the person to fully express their feelings, allowing their mind to begin opening to solutions and building a bridge between the two of you. Showing that you are not going to debate or argue and that they don’t have to fight lowers their anxiety. Don’t take issue with anything and don’t get into a debate. When they appear done, don’t reply. Say, “Tell me more.” Be empathic. This causes relief and gratitude. In Jean’s case, when she finally sat down and stopped yelling I mistakenly asked, “Are you done?” She stood up, slammed her glasses down on the table, yelled “No I’m not”, and resumed the tirade. When she stopped screaming, this time I asked, “Is there more?” (a much better comment). She said no and sat down.
I asked her to take a deep breath and exhale. She refused. I said, “Try it with me.” I took a slow deep breath, she did the same, and we exhaled. We did that several more times and she began to calm down. If necessary suggest, “Close your eyes and take a deep breath.” Slow deep breathing is calming. Describe to them the emotion you heard which they did not name. “You sound extremely angry and frustrated. Do I understand you correctly? If not please tell me how you really feel.” By telling this person how you believe they feel, though they did not say directly, shows you heard and understood them. This is not the moment to argue. However, once they know you heard and understood them they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.
- Copyright 2018 by Paul Fisher
- “Just Listen”, published by American Management Association 2010.