Interventional Empathy: A Way to Deescalate Destructive and Self-Destructive Behavior

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Dr. Mark Goulston, co-creator and moderator of suicide prevention documentary Stay Alive (available here), shares his six-step technique for calming yourself or someone else who may be on the verge of an emotional breakdown or self-destruction.

If someone in your life—a loved one or perhaps even a stranger—appears to be out of control and potentially self-destructive or dangerous, interventional empathy can help.

It's a simple process that suicide prevention expert Dr. Mark Goulston has been sharing with law enforcement officers as a way to deescalate potentially violent situations. But anyone can learn to practice interventional empathy, and it could help save someone's life—even your own!


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That's right; not only does interventional empathy help calm down other people, but you can use it to calm yourself if you ever begin to spiral into despair or self-destruction.

Here is a six-step process for showing interventional empathy if you or someone you encounter appears as if they may become violent or self-destructive:

Step 1: Say, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Saying this signals you or others to stop agitated behavior. It's pretty primal. After all, this is the same thing you say to a horse when it rears up and is about to start galloping out of control.

Step 2: Say, "Shh...Shh...Shh...Shh..." This sound signals to quiet not just people's words but their minds as well. It's what our teachers did in elementary school, and it still works to quiet a noisy room.

Step 3: Ask, "What happened to you to get you so upset?" This is a way of validating that people have a reason to be upset as opposed to telling them they're wrong or to just "shut up!"


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Step 4: Say, "Tell me more." Saying this invites the person to share a story of events leading to this confrontation. As they relate their story, they will feel listened to, understood, and will understand that you are validating the fact that something led to the current confrontation.

Step 5: Ask, "Is this why you're acting the way you are?" This question connects what they say to how they are behaving and communicates that you understand that whatever they are doing makes sense from their point of view. This further deepens your rapport. It also increases their oxytocin levels and decreases their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, lowering their reactivity and agitation.

Step 6: Say, "A better thing to do right now would be to ______________." Once the person relaxes, you can suggest an alternate behavior. By using "fill in the blank" language, you invite the person to help you come up with a better solution. This empathetic communication transforms their combativeness into communication and helps you both come up with a way out of the situation.


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If you are the one who's in turmoil, here's how to use interventional empathy to calm yourself down: Just imagine someone who cares about you, living or dead, guiding you through those six steps of interventional empathy in your mind's eye. Feel their love for you as they do it. Then feel your own gratitude toward them for their having cared about you. You will discover that you can't feel grateful and angry at the same moment.


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When someone is in trouble, they need the gift of empathy more than anything else. Luckily, we are all equipped to offer this to anyone who needs it. And whether that person in need is you, your best friend, your child, or a stranger on the street, you can change a life—maybe even save a life—by showing that you care.

If you or someone you love needs help, call 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

About Dr. Mark Goulston: 
Dr. Mark Goulston is the co-creator and moderator of the suicide prevention documentary Stay Alive. He is a former UCLA professor of psychiatry, FBI hostage negotiation trainer,suicide and violence prevention expert, and one of the world's foremost experts on listening. He is the author of the best-selling "Just Listen": Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, which became the top book on listening in the world. Dr. Goulston's HBR IdeaCast episode Become a Better Listener is ranked number one of all their podcasts. He is also host of the My Wakeup Call podcast. Dr. Goulston is on the Board of Advisors for Health Corps and will be receiving the Dr. W. Mark Warfel Resilient Heart Award in April 2019.

For more information, visit Dr. Goulston's website at www.markgoulston.com.

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