Increasing Options with Teeter Totters

An old saying proclaims that “cooler heads will prevail”. Zen Buddhist Takuan Sōhō wrote that when you feel insulted, you had already lost rightmindedness prior to the offense. Colloquially, we speak of someone “getting your goat”.

In each case, the message is the same. In-the-moment emotion often sabotages decisions. When things get heated, when emotions run high, you can act rashly. When other people’s emotions run high, this changes how you should approach them. Hostage negotiator Dan Oblinger illustrates this with a teeter totter. In the “seats” on the beam are logos and pathos, or, loosely, rationality and emotion. They are like ends of a spectrum, balancing on the fulcrum of ethos, of beliefs and values.

Dan teaches people to become more observant of which seat is more “up” in a person. When logos is higher and pathos lower, reactions are more thoughtful and considered. When pathos is higher and logos lower, reactions are more automatic, driven by the gut, by fight or flight.

Nonverbal behavior expert Michael Grinder teaches a similar concept he calls “BLIP”, which stands for “breathing indicates level of permission”. (In his book, The Elusive Obvious, this is one of his non-verbal “Pentimento Patterns”.) You can think of it as another teeter totter, shown below.

Generally, when emotions are high, when pathos is high, breathing will tend to be higher as well, what’s sometimes called “chest breathing”. If the other person is taking shorter, shallower breaths, less oxygen is getting to his brain. The metabolism increases and the amygdala takes over. When this happens, as Michael puts it, you have less “permission” to influence; i.e., the listener will be less receptive to your ideas.

As Dan teaches, this will also show up in what is said. If the other person is saying things like, “I don’t see the benefit”, if she sounds more intellectual, then logos is likely up. Feel free to discuss content, to appeal to rationality. If she is saying things like, “I don’t have time for this”, if she sounds more emotional, then pathos is likely up. Don’t bother arguing points. In Michael’s terms, you do not have “permission”. When this is the case, Dan says, you shouldn’t focus on the content on what is said. Instead, focus on the undertones.

Emotion must be “discharged” before discussion can proceed, and emotions are not “safe” to discuss until stated. It’s like there’s an elephant in the room, and it will continue sabotaging the dialogue until it is named and dispelled.

This is where active listening skills come in. As described in Dan’s book, Life or Death Listening, use emotional labeling and reflecting to get the other person to “discharge” the air. This will change the dynamic and begin to “tip” the seesaw.

In in terms of Transactional Analysis, by way of David Sandler, if the listener sounds more intellectual, then go to Adult. Be intellectual. The path is clear. You have permission. If the listener sounds more emotional, worked up, defensive, or critical, then be nurturing. Absorb the emotion before proceeding. Go to Nurturing Parent.

This applies to you too, by the way. Imagine you’re in a meeting. Things are getting heated. Your ego is front and center. You feel attacked. Your vision is focused. Your face is tight. Your jaw is stiff. You’re breathing in the top half of your lungs. There’s a tension in your chest. To get the best of your perceived foe, you start saying whatever comes to mind…and you later regret it.

You were strongly locked in first person, highly identified with your in-the-moment thoughts and feelings. This is sometimes called “first position”, a concept taken from Fritz Perls and Gestalt therapy. Imagine being able to step out of this, into “third position”. Imagine stepping out of the interaction and seeing it in third person, as though you’re now an owl in a tree.

Back in first person, you focus more on your peripheral vision, relax your jaw, and breathe deeply. You take note of what you are feeling and move on, now with greater options at your disposal. These teeter totters can help you do this. They can help embed new observational skills into your behavioral repertoire.

Start with yourself. As Michael teaches, place one hand on your upper stomach. Place your other hand on the opposite shoulder. Focus your attention on your hands. Which hand is moving more? If it’s the hand on your shoulder, then you’re breathing higher. If it’s the hand on your stomach, then you’re belly breathing. You want to learn to detect this, and not just academically, but in the moment, where it counts.

Often, you don’t want to respond to someone while in fight or flight. When you are put on the spot, caught off guard, or feeling cornered, the psychological response is the same as to a physical threat. Responses will be more automatic. When your pathos is up, you have less flexibility, fewer options at your disposal. When you’re in danger, that’s a good thing. You don’t want to stand there, like Buridan’s Ass, pondering what to do.

As Michael teaches, if you’re breathing high and in real danger, then trust your gut. If you’re not in actual danger though, you want to develop the presence of mind to “step out” of this, to sidestep first position. Take longer, deeper breaths. Switch to belly breathing. Relax your jaw. Slow down your speech. Take note of what you’re feeling, as though now a dispassionate investigative reporter.

If the exchange in question is an email, don’t reply while chest breathing. Sit on your response. Come back to it when you are calm, when your metabolism is lower, when your ego isn’t hooked. If you want some Kissinger-level diplomacy, try this trick I learned from negotiator Kwame Christian: Find the one sentence in the email you can agree with and reply only to that, pretending the rest of the message doesn’t even exist.

An email, after all, is typically not a saber-toothed tiger. The other person in your one-on-one isn’t a wooly mammoth you’re hunting. Your amygdala doesn’t know that though. And so, when you get caught off guard or something “pushes your buttons”, boom, there you are, in fight or flight. Even though you’re not in real danger, it’s still dictating your options, limiting your “degrees of freedom”.

As Dan teaches, when the other person is in fight or flight, you want to recognize this as a signal for how to effectively approach. Now, you’ve probably heard it’s actually “fight, flight, or freeze”. You attack the perceived threat, flee the perceived conflict, or freeze, caught off guard, the proverbial “deer caught in headlights” (or as Michael puts it, “Surprise is the enemy of competence”).

My friend April Mills recently told me there is also “fawn”, which is when you give up and take what’s coming. Interestingly, Dan says that in his experience as a hostage negotiator, these four “Fs” still don’t contain what might be the most common gut reaction. When people feel backed in a corner, trapped, they start bluffing. To make this fit with the other four “Fs”, we can call this “feign”.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. People start claiming more expertise than they have, that there’s more research backing their position than there really is, they act more interested in your services than they are just to make things easier, or they claim they don’t have enough budget for your services when they could always go get it, so on and so forth.

Learn to spot it. It’s not only a tactic, it’s an automatic, thoughtless, and very common one. When you spot it for the tactic that it is, when you recognize it and name it, then you can deal with it more effectively. To close, let’s return to the expressions at the beginning of the post.

You don’t want to let the situation “get your goat”. Interestingly, this saying supposedly comes from horse racing. The story is that a goat would sometimes be placed with a racehorse to keep it calm. An opponent might try to steal the goat prior to a race to upset the horse, causing it to race poorly. When someone “gets your goat” then, you’ll do worse in the race. When you lose your cool head, you sacrifice presence of mind and decision quality.

So, learn to spot it when your pathos is up. Learn to step out of first position.

Remember, if you’re not in real danger, slow down.

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