How to Break Through Someone’s Emotional Walls

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Listen" by Mark Goulston. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you break through someone’s emotional walls and open their mind to what you have to say? What are the three parts of the brain?

According to psychiatrist Mark Goulston, most people aren’t receptive to outside ideas unless their emotional barriers are broken down. By addressing the emotional burden of the person you’re trying to connect with, you’ll help them clear their mind of immediate stress, which will make them receptive to your ideas. 

Here’s how to get through someone’s emotional barriers, which is the first step to connecting with anyone.

Guide the Brain From Primal to Pragmatic

Understanding how the brain works under stress will help you get through people’s emotional walls so you can get your message across. To start, we’ll lay out the relevant areas of the brain’s organization. Goulston highlights three parts of the brain:

  1. Reptile layer: This is the area of your brain that controls your impulsive, primal stress responses to danger.
  2. Mammal layer: This part controls your emotions.
  3. Human layer: This part collects information from the other two brains and uses it to make rational decisions.

When we’re under stress, our brains shift to our reptile or mammal layer, which makes it difficult to think rationally. So, to help a panicked person listen effectively to your ideas, address the emotions of their lower brains to guide them back to their higher brain

When we perceive an immediate threat, our reptile brain instinctively knows we can’t waste time thinking, so we react impulsively to avert potential danger. For example, if you hear a tree cracking above your head, you probably won’t consider why it’s cracking—you’ll just start running. Our mammal brain isn’t as rationality-resistant as the action-focused reptile brain, but it’s dominated by emotions, which can still make reasoning difficult. 

Is the Three-Part Brain Model Valid?

In Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that the three-part brain model is misrepresentative of our brain’s function and of our relationship to other animal brains. She explains that the three-part brain model was established in the mid-twentieth century by Paul MacLean, who based his theory on an outdated idea that the appearance of brains indicated their capabilities. More recent research reveals that although different parts of our brains may be visually distinct, this doesn’t mean these parts are limited to specific functions. 

In fact, many parts of our brain have to cooperate in order to perform regular functions like breathing or creating a plan. Further, Feldman explains that even though human brains may differ from other animal brains in anatomical appearance, the neurons in our brains share very similar genetic structures, which have a significant role in determining brain function. Thus, the scientific basis of Goulston’s model for guiding people from resistant emotions to rationality is debatable.

Even if Goulston’s brain model is inaccurate, his idea that emotions cloud our ability to think logically aligns with recent research. One study found that participants experiencing high levels of negative emotion (fear or guilt) were less effective at solving logical problems than participants with neutral emotions. Interestingly, participants who had positive emotions (pride or inspiration) also performed worse than neutral participants. So, if you’re trying to influence someone to listen to you, you may have to overcome their negative emotions as well as their positive emotions.  

Help Your Listener Release Their Emotions

To break through someone’s emotional barriers and help them access their human brain (or rationality), Goulston provides de-stressing strategies you can use. To start, don’t bother telling the other person to relax. By doing this, you’ll send an implicit message that you’re calm and they’re not. Goulston says this can cause people in an emotional state to become even more emotional. Additionally, don’t get defensive and rebut someone’s points when they present a problem to you. Doing this will send an implicit message that the person you’re talking to is wrong and what they’re saying is unimportant. This will make the person you’re talking to feel isolated, which will also fuel more negative emotion.

(Shortform note: Telling someone to “just relax” is an impractical approach for more than one reason. Our bodies take anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes to go from stressed to relaxed, so it’s actually impossible to shut down an emotional response in an instant. Additionally, research shows that if you try to suppress your feelings by pretending to relax, the emotions you’re dealing with will intensify. So, address emotions instead of suppressing them, and be patient—relaxing takes time.)

Instead, encourage the emotional person to vent to you and just listen. By thoroughly listening to people, you’ll make them feel heard and respected. Additionally, you’ll show them that you’re on their side. As a result, they won’t feel threatened and their reptile response will relax. Instead, they’ll trust and appreciate you, which will open them up to listen in return.

(Shortform note: As you listen to someone vent, avoid taking anything they say too personally by focusing on the big picture of the situation. In this case, the “big picture” to keep in mind is connecting with the person who’s venting so you can influence them to change their mind or behavior. Another thing to consider is that any criticism you receive may not be aimed at you, but instead, your role. Realizing this can help you take some of the heat off of yourself, which will prevent you from taking criticism too personally and becoming defensive.)

To help someone overcome their emotions, Goulston recommends the following seven steps:

Step 1: Look for physical signs of distress: stiff shoulders, angry face, crossed arms, and so on. If the person’s arms are crossed, get them to uncross their arms by eliciting an emotional response that requires them to express themselves with their arms. Goulston claims that by getting an emotional person to uncross their arms, you’ll open them up mentally and physically, which will allow them to vent to you. You can do this by saying something provoking that makes the person so emotional they have to use their body to express their feelings.

(Shortform note: According to a body language expert, crossing your arms doesn’t always mean you’re closing yourself off from people. Instead, he explains that we use this behavior to soothe or restrain ourselves when we’re experiencing stress. In this view, Goulston’s strategy to uncross someone’s arms by invoking an emotional reaction will disrupt their coping strategy, making them even more emotional and irrational.)

Step 2: Ask the stressed person to explain their problem to you. During this process, let them vent and resist the temptation to question anything the other person is saying. Also, don’t offer solutions or stop the venting process because you’re uncomfortable. When they pause, encourage them with gentle words to tell you more. It may be tempting to start talking when they stop venting. However, because this person will be exhausted from their catharsis, they won’t be receptive to what you say. By continuing to listen and process what the other person is saying, you’ll let them know they’ve been heard and you’ll also disarm them because they’ll realize you’re not going to attack their points and start a debate.

(Shortform note: In an article published since the release of this book, Goulston explains an additional tip for helping people vent thoroughly: Pay attention to the words they emphasize. Then, when they pause their venting, ask them to elaborate on their feelings around those words you identified.)

Step 3: Once the other person has finished venting, repeat the problem they’ve described and ask them to verify whether it’s correct. If they adjust what you’ve said, repeat the problem again with the adjustment they’ve made. Use a respectful, sympathetic tone as you do this. Once they approve what you’ve repeated, they’ll feel understood and accepted, which will motivate them to begin listening to you. Additionally, Goulston says the act of approving what you say will move the person you’re talking with from a disagreeable disposition to a mode of cooperation.

(Shortform note: By repeating what the other person says to you, you help them realize what message they’ve communicated, which prevents them from repeating themselves and how they’re coming across, which can lead to new insights and help them adjust their way of thinking. For example, someone complaining about their parents might not realize they’re resentful of their parents until they hear you explain the essence of their complaints.)

Step 4: Ask how the problem they’ve described makes them feel. By labeling the emotion, you’ll lower its intensity. At this point, the person you’re guiding should be moving from their reptile brain (instinct) to their mammal brain (reason).

(Shortform note: If the person venting to you is struggling to identify the emotion they’re feeling, remember the four basic feelings—glad, sad, mad, and scared—and ask them which of these seems most accurate. From there, they’re likely to get more specific.)

Step 5: Acknowledge that it’s important to fix the problem now  to convey your understanding that their problem is urgent. Ask them how they think the problem can be solved. This will transition them into their higher, human brain.

Step 6: Show empathy for the person you’re trying to influence by acknowledging how difficult their problem must be for them.

Step 7: Finally, offer encouragement by ensuring they can get through the problem that’s causing their stress. For example, you could reinforce their capabilities and build their confidence by referencing a time when they overcame a challenge. Then, let them know that you’re willing to help them solve their problem and prevent it from happening again.

(Shortform note: Validating, empathizing, and encouraging someone to solve the problems at the root of their emotions is key to turning venting into something constructive and healthy. Research shows that simply complaining to someone leads you to ruminate and focus on the negative thoughts you share even more. So, when someone vents to you, ensure the conversation is oriented toward solutions.)

Troubleshooting: If after using the steps above, you’re still struggling to get through someone’s emotional barrier, Goulston says to try these additional tips:

  • Ask the person if you’ve ever made them feel disrespected or unvalued. If they’re resistant to venting to you because they have a problem with you, this question may help them open up.
  • Engage in an activity together. By performing an activity that requires some level of cooperation, you may lower their defenses and help them feel comfortable enough to open up to you. For example, if you need to have a conversation with your child about something important, ask them to fold laundry with you as you begin your conversation.

(Shortform note: Research shows that an effective way to increase trust and cooperation between you and another person is to share a meal together. One study even found that eating the same type of food as another person further enhances your bond. So if you’re planning on influencing someone to open up to you, line up a meal that’s preferable for both of you.)

How to Break Through Someone’s Emotional Walls

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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