It’s painful to watch someone you care about when he/she is upset, anxious or having an emotional meltdown. These situations come in all sizes and shapes—your teenage daughter just broke up with her boyfriend…your spouse is panicked about an upcoming presentation at work…a friend’s job interview was a disaster. You may find yourself scrambling for the right words, but somehow what you say only adds fuel to their fire. 

When nothing you say seems to help, that’s a good time to try this calm approach developed by psychiatrist—and former hostage-negotiation trainer—Mark Goulston, MD, to support people through a crisis. 

Why Logic Doesn’t Work

First, you need to know why what you normally do doesn’t work. When we see that someone is upset, a common—but ineffective—reaction is to appeal to logic and try to convince the person that ­everything will work out. Unfortunately, well-intentioned comments such as, “Calm down, it’s not so bad” or “There’s nothing to worry about,” are heard by him/her as, Your problem is inconsequential or unimportant. Even our instinct to offer multiple solutions to the problem likely will backfire. That’s because the person is in the grip of the fight-or-flight response. The amygdala—the part of the brain that plays an important role in processing emotion—is flooding the bloodstream with stress-related hormones such as cortisol, making clear thinking difficult to impossible. Appeals to reason while he is so emotional just add to the person’s upset.

In contrast, identifying with what another person is feeling through empathy creates a sense of connection. It is basic to human relationships. When someone nonjudgmentally acknowledges what is going on with us, that feeling of being understood creates a powerful sense of acceptance and relief. And that can diffuse a tense situation. 

My technique of targeted empathy goes even farther, inviting the person in pain to go deeper into the emotion he is experiencing—and allowing him to feel profoundly seen and heard. As a result, defenses relax and the person becomes more open to alternative ways of seeing a situation.

6 Steps to Targeted Empathy

Targeted empathy involves a series of six steps. You may not need to follow all the steps, but you should attempt them in order, since each one builds on the next. By going through the steps and taking time to understand the person instead of rushing to fix the problem, you empower him to engage the part of the brain that excels at problem solving…and to create meaningful solutions.

Step 1: Listen for hyperbole. As the other person talks about what is upsetting him, listen for extreme words such as awfulimpossiblenever againhate.

Step 2: Pause for three seconds after the person has finished speaking. Not only should you be careful not to interrupt, but allow for some silence before you say anything back. This response communicates the fact that you are seriously considering what he has said.

Step 3: Ask about one of the extreme words or phrases the person just used. Say, “Tell me more about…” or “Say more about…”

Example: Your spouse says, “This project at work is hopeless. I was crazy to agree to work on it.” You reply, “Tell me more about what makes the project seem hopeless.”

This approach is the opposite of what many of us instinctively do. Typically, we try to reassure by saying, “It’s not hopeless” or “You’re not crazy” or “Why don’t you ask your boss for more time?” Someone in crisis isn’t ready to believe those words and is more likely to feel dismissed and misunderstood. In contrast, by encouraging the person to express—and explore—his strong feelings, you create an environment of acceptance and safety.

Once the person begins to tell you more about his feelings, you may notice that his whole perspective is beginning to shift, and he is calming down. 

Step 4: Give voice to deeper emotions. To further validate the person’s experience, state three to five words that seem to describe how he may be feeling and ask him to pick one.

As a way of introducing this step, you can say, “I want to really understand what you’re going through. Let me run some words by you, and you pick the one that connects with you the most.”

Examples: For a heartbroken teen, you might offer hurtcrushed…­lonelyangryconfused

For an anxious spouse the night before a presentation, offer overwhelmedburned outworrieddistracted

For a friend beating himself up after a bad job interview, perhaps discouragedembarrassedpessimisticfrustrated.

This simple approach is more effective than directly asking, “Are you angry?” or “Are you hurt?” A direct question can come across as confrontational and put the person on the defensive. By offering a choice of named feelings, you are keeping the lines of communication open. 

Step 5: Keep exploring those feelings. Once the person has chosen a word or words, help him explore those words. Repeat them back by saying, “Tell me more about that” or “Tell me about another time you felt like this.” The more he talks as you listen empathetically, the calmer and less alone he is likely to feel.

Step 6: Facilitate his problem-solving. Once you feel he has calmed down and is ready to address the problem, you can begin to ask constructive questions about past situations that might be relevant, such as, “What was your impulse in a past similar situation?”…“What did you end up doing in that situation?”…“What are one or two things you did that worked?” These questions move the person toward a ­solution—but one of his own making, not yours. Ask: “In this current situation, what’s something you might try now?” 

Managing Your Emotions

Engaging with someone at this deeper level takes commitment and courage. Maintaining your sense of calm and safety can be challenging when someone else is so miserable. Yet if you get upset on the person’s behalf or overly anxious, you cannot help the other person. 

To keep from getting “hooked” by the other person’s words or behavior, focus on being curious about the event that has caused the distress. Genuine curiosity will reduce the temptation to interject your own opinions or talk him out of what he is feeling.