While sitting in one of the most boring seminars of my life, I was surprised to learn something that has added years (maybe decades) to my marriage. It’s the principle of matching emotion with concern.
You see, for much of my early marriage, I had it all wrong. When my wife and I would get into arguments, there would be lots of emotion. Lots of yelling. Lots of slamming things. I hated it. My teenage, drug-using years were full of these types of conflicts with my mom, and I learned that matching emotion with emotion just gets you more emotion. Each person tries to increase their volume to get up and over the other person, and when yelling stops working, some people resort to physical displays and violence to make their points. If they start at a “Level 6 Anger” on a ten-point scale, they will soon be at Level 8, 9 or 10 as they try to outdo the other person. This is called “Escalation.”
Matching emotion with emotion doesn’t work, so I learned over time to match emotion with lack of emotion. Someone had to keep their head in an argument. Emotional people say bizarre, exaggerated, unrealistic things. Someone had to maintain logic and good sense. That was the way to keep things safe, I reckoned. For years, I tried this approach with my wife. When she would get angry and emotional, I would take the “high road.” Nothing she could say would bother me. I stayed calm and rational during the entire argument. But it didn’t work.
Emotion is about volume. People use it because they want the other person(s) to recognize how important something is to them. When I tried to match my wife’s emotion with my lack of emotion, she felt that I wasn’t hearing her…that I didn’t understand how crucial the issue was. So in order to get her point across, she would increase her volume by getting even more emotional. This is called “One-Sided Escalation.”
During one extended argument, I was proud of myself for keeping my cool during the entire ordeal, but I was tired and had lost hope of finding an easy end to our disagreement. When my wife took a breath, I stepped in and said, “I’m tired and going to bed. When you are ready to talk like adults, come and get me.” Condescending, controlling, unfair. Just because I was in control of my emotions didn’t mean I was above getting my shots in.
I headed off to bed and was in the early stages of sleep when I heard, “Thump! THump! THUmp! THUMp! THUMP!” Suddenly, my wife, who had been stewing over my arrogant dismissal, came sprinting down the hallway to our room, leapt up on top of the bed and began to jump – up and down, up and down…narrowly missing my head with each landing. This was a level of escalation I had never seen before. In a panic, I remembered stories I had heard of wives who had been pushed too far and the things they had done to their husbands while they slept.
Obviously, my calm, cool and collected approach was no better than matching emotions with emotion. In fact, it was worse. Unless they are willing to go to extreme lengths, emotional people are no match for logical people in an argument. Emotional people say things they wouldn’t say during calmer circumstances. It’s easy for logical people to identify exaggerations and discrepancies, and this often leaves the emotional person feeling frustrated and embarrassed. A logical person can easily out-maneuver and even humiliate an emotional person (which tends to make emotional people even more emotional). In short, matching logic with emotion isn’t a fair fight.
So, what’s the right answer? It doesn’t work to match emotion with emotion, and it doesn’t work to match emotion with lack of emotion or logic. Here’s what I learned in that boring seminar: You’ve got to match emotion with sincere concern. It’s brilliant! It’s simple! But it’s not easy.
When someone is emotional, the best way to respond is to show genuine concern. If they are “Level 6 – Anger,” you’ve got to try to match it with a “Level 6 – Concern.” It might sound like this:
My Wife: “I hate it that you are always coming home so late from work! You’re never here for dinner! I always have to take care of the kids all by myself, and I’m tired. I never get anytime for myself!”
Me: “I’m very sorry, Sweetheart…I didn’t realize how difficult this has been for you. I can tell you’re very upset. Can we sit down and talk about it?”
Chances are, my response didn’t hit a “Level 6” for Concern. Depending upon my tone and my body language (they have to match my words for my words to be believable), I may have only reached a Level 3 with this response. But I shouldn’t give up. This is a skill that takes patience and practice to learn.
My Wife: “Yes, this has been difficult for me! And I’m not just upset….I’m exhausted! You should try taking care of the kids for days on end without any help! I need a break!”
Me: “Okay, I hear you. This has been a lousy situation with my work, and it’s gone on longer than I thought it would. You’re exhausted, and you need a break, and it doesn’t seem fair that you have to carry the full load at home. Have you already thought of some solutions, or would you like to talk those out together?”
As I’m expressing concern, I’m using other tools to help my wife see that I understand. I’m trying to reflect her emotions (i.e., “I can tell you’re upset.”), and I’m trying to summarize what I’m hearing, seeing and reading between the lines (i.e., “You’re exhausted, and you need a break, and it doesn’t seem fair that you have to carry the full load at home.”) I’m asking clarifying statements (i.e., “Have you already thought of some solutions, or would you like to talk those out together?”)
I have to be completely sincere at all times, or I’ll just make things worse. But if I’m patient and keep trying, a wonderful thing happens. When my wife feels like I have honestly heard and understood how important this issue is to her, she begins to let the steam out of her emotion. It will typically take several attempts of matching emotion with concern at different levels, but if she believes me, she can lower the volume bit by bit. There’s no need to continue to be emotional when the other person really understands what you are saying and how you are feeling. Before too long, we will be able to have a rational discussion about the problem without the exaggeration and without the strong emotions. This is called, “De-Escalation.”
At the foundation of using this method for dealing with conflict are two essential practices: patience and kindness. It won’t work unless you care enough about the other person to set aside your own personal agenda. In short, it’s an act of love.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)