Getting Their Brain Under Control


“Deep listening, compassionate listening is not listening with the purpose of analyzing or even uncovering what has happened in the past.  You listen first of all in order to give the other person relief, a chance to speak out, to feel that someone finally understands him or her… During this time you have in mind only one idea, one desire: to listen in order to give the other person the chance to speak out and suffer less… First of all listen with compassion.” Thich Nhat Hanh 

Remember that Active Listening Thing? Do that.

What do you do when you recognize that someone is experiencing a defensive response, when you see redness in their cheeks or tension in their body language, or maybe they lash out or withdrawal?  If you are like most of us, when someone reacts defensively we also react defensively. It takes a lot of self-awareness and self-management to productively respond to someones defensive response.  The most productive way to help someone’s brain reengage fully during a defensive response is to listen to them.  Below is a listening framework to help you consider how to help someone calm down and get their brain ready to start working on a solution to the conflict at hand.

Using your EARS to help someones brain reengage.

Empathy – Watch the Brene Brown RSA below.  She does a wonderful job in helping us understand the difference between empathy and sympathy and the four elements of empathy. 1) Perspective Taking, taking the perspective of another, 2) Staying out of judgement, 3) Recognizing emotions in another, and 4) and communicating the emotion you recognize.

Attention – The easiest act of empathy is to pay attention to someone. You can not be empathetic with someone if you are distracted and not paying attention to them.  Be present with them, and giving them the time and space to share their story or experience what they need to experience.

Reflection – Reflection is another act of empathy.  It is the 4th element of empathy, communicating the feelings, thoughts, and experience that you recognize in the other person. A reflection is as simple as “I can see that you are really excited” or “I’m not sure what that is like I’m just really glad you shared that with me.”

Summary – Summary is simply a longer version of reflection.  It is to make sure that you fully understand someones story and experience.  Reflection and Summary is the key to minimizing miscommunication and making sure that you truly understand someone else’s experience.  Reflection and Summary also validates someones else’s experience, helps them feel heard, and starts the process of their brain reengaging.

Slow Down the Process and Given Them a Break

Sometimes, you gotta go slow to go fast. When someone is having a defensive response, they are incapable of having a productive conversation to solve or manage a conflict. So rushing to solution mode when someone is defensive does not work. It takes time to deescalate and calm a defensive response.  Don’t be afraid to take a break when someone else (or even yourself) is experiencing a defensive response.   A break can take multiple forms:

  • A 5 minute break
  • A lunch break
  • A day long break
  • Even multiple days

Reframe the defensive response as caring about the issue

A really interesting form of reflection and validation is reframing someones defensive response.

Reframe a defensive response as caring examples:

“I appreciate that you are obviously invested in the solution and our relationship, we only react strongly to something if you care.”

“I didn’t realize you cared this much about this issue.  What can we do to find a path forward?”


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Making Conflict Suck Less: The Basics Copyright © 2020 by Ashley Orme Nichols is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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