It's All Your Fault episode 20 season 1

Using Empathy, Attention and Respect to Calm Current Conflicts

Anger, accusations, and opinions are flying everywhere. People are having conversations that most would have not engaged in a few years ago but now seem to be unable to stop themselves. In this episode, Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter talk about how using EAR statements in conflicts about today’s hot topics may be the best way to keep the peace.

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In this episode, Bill and Megan discuss the use of EAR Statements to calm current conflicts experienced by people across the globe. Anger, accusations, and opinions flying everywhere. People having conversations that most would have not engaged in a few years ago but now seem to be unable to stop themselves. Megan starts off with a recent example from the show ‘Sister Wives’ about the need for the use of empathy in relationships and conversations.

Bill explains what an EAR Statement is and how to use them in various scenarios in every day life, such as:

  • reducing political polarization
  • arguments over vaccines, masks, and social distancing during this pandemic
  • family and marital conflict
  • curriculums in your children’s schools
  • law enforcement encounters
  • protests
  • customer service

Listen in and learn how to use EAR Statements in any walk of life.

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Episode Transcript

Megan Hunter: Welcome to It’s All Your Fault on TruStory FM, the one and only podcast dedicated to helping you identify and deal with the most challenging human interactions, those are with people with high conflict personalities. I’m Megan Hunter, and I’m here with my co-host, Bill Eddy.

Bill Eddy: Hi, everybody.

Megan Hunter: And we are the co-founders of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. In today’s episode, we talk about the much requested topic about communicating with high conflict people. But first, we have a few quick reminders. First, we’d love to hear from you about your high conflict situations if you’ve been involved in interactions with someone with a high conflict personality or been targeted with blame. Send us your questions and we just might discuss them on the show. You can submit them by clicking the submit a question button at our website, highconflictinstitute.com/podcast, emailing us at [email protected], or dropping us a note on any of our socials. Please know that we are not diagnosing anyone in our discussions. Merely discussing patterns of behavior and how to improve interactions and manage relationships with high conflict people. You can find all the show notes and links at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast as well. Please give us a rate or review and tell your friends, colleagues, or family about us, especially those who are dealing with a high conflict situation. We’re so grateful. And now on with today’s episode. Tell me more. That sounds frustrating. I’ll pay attention. That sounds hard. I respect that. I’m paying attention. I’ve just given a lot of little phrases that contain just three little words. What are the commonalities of those? They’re all statements that show empathy and attention and respect. These little phrases are what refuse we refer to as EAR Statements, statements that convey empathy, attention, and respect. They’re used to calm people. We’re focusing on them in this episode because it seems to be one of the most challenging dilemmas when dealing with either high conflict people or anyone who is upset. In this day and age, especially in this last couple of years with the pandemic, we’ve seen conflict really increase and people being so divisive and tribalistic and just really divisive. We’re talking about that today. Now, in my quest for my long sought after PhD in reality television, I’ve been watching a show called Sister Wives for several seasons, and we could translate that to, yes, it’s been years. It’s a show that has followed one man named Cody, whose religious convictions are such that he believes in plural marriage. He has four wives and around 20 some kids. In the current season that just wrapped up, we witnessed the unraveling of one of the marital relationships with his wife Christine, with the final episode revealing that after two plus decades of marriage, they’ve divorced and she’s moved to another state. She tells viewers her side in this final episode, and he tells his. Both agree that she was always unhappy being a sister wife, sharing one husband, and it’s been really, really hard for her. At one point, Cody makes a statement, and I’m paraphrasing it here, as he’s speaking with the interviewer. It went something like this. I wonder if things would be different now if I have just spoken to her with empathy all those years ago. My reaction is kind of lik, "Duh!" She was suffering. She was struggling. She was sacrificing a lot. She just needed her husband to speak to her with empathy, genuine empathy. Bill, let’s talk about EAR Statements, and we’ll come back to the Sister Wives conversation. But first, let’s talk about what ear is and how it works and how it calms people in upsetting conversations.

Bill Eddy: Well, it seems to me that the way our brains work, that we really pay a lot of attention to tone of voice and facial expressions. And that gives us cues as to how to feel. And especially the first two years of life, infants are following their parent’s tone of voice and facial expressions to see, is this a friendly person that just walked in or somebody I should be scared of or whatever. We’re kind of hardwired for calming emotions. When someone gives us an EAR Statement, and that can be just empathy, as you were describing, or attention, I’ll pay attention, tell me more, or respect, I really respect how hard you’re working or your dedication to solving this conflict, and that tends to calm people. We find within about 30 seconds that our emotions are contagious. What seems to happen is someone’s upset. Let’s say they’re angry at us. And then they say something angry. Our brain says, "Fight back." The amygdala gets hooked and our mirror neurons want to kick in and say, "Fight back." But if you switch yourself inside and give them an EAR Statement that shows some empathy, attention, or respect and focuses on what’s under their anger, often people calm down immediately. It’s like, I’m not your enemy. I want to understand. Let’s see if we can solve this together. It seems like it has a lot to do with our brain functions and how we work and probably how we’ve survived as human beings for all these centuries.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. Going back to those three little words, and it doesn’t have to be three little words, but it can be as few as that, right? Tell me more, right? That calms the brain almost instantly. And if you can’t think of anything else to say when one’s upset, you can say, "Tell me more," right?

Bill Eddy: Absolutely. We see that in family conflicts that someone says that, the other person calms down right away, but in the workplace in communities and even in political discussions.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. How about, that sounds frustrating?

Bill Eddy: Yeah. People go, "Oh, you get it." They don’t have to be angry anymore to get your attention. It’s like, yeah, it is frustrating. That really calms people and feels like now you’re with them. And that’s the goal is create a sense of us against a problem instead of me against you.

Megan Hunter: That’s brilliant. Now, I had a recent experience where I was on the phone with customer service, and I had a complaint and it was legitimate. I wasn’t being high conflict. I was trying to go on vacation and I wanted this country to let me in, but they wouldn’t. I was trying to find out why, and they just kept repeating over and over, "That sounds frustrating. That sounds frustrating." They knew to use an EAR Statement. But what I found in those conversations is that if you repeat it too much, it might make the person a little more upset, because they just kept saying the same thing over and over.

Bill Eddy: Yeah, I think you get the message that it’s just words. It’s not sincere. And that’s why you can’t just repeat an EAR Statement. You’ve got to move on and show interest in working on the problem.

Megan Hunter: Basically EAR is a calmer and opens… The way I like to look at it is it really opens the door to whatever you’re trying to get done, right?

Bill Eddy: Absolutely. I think that’s a really good way to think about it, and then go on to problem solving.

Megan Hunter: Okay. Now, back to the Sister Wives scenario, the wife, Christine, as I said, I’ve watched it for years, she wasn’t showing high conflict behaviors, and I would never even consider her to be high conflict. She was just very upset with her relationship. She was sad. I don’t know if she was depressed or not, but I mean, there was just a wealth of sadness over the years, and she always put on a brave, brave face. Would the use of EAR Statements by her husband, Cody, help their relationship even though she wasn’t high conflict?

Bill Eddy: Absolutely. I don’t think of EAR state… We developed EAR Statements about 15 years ago for high conflict situations, but what we’ve learned it’s for anybody who’s upset at any time. It really has so much more with being human than it does with being high conflict. If somebody’s stressed and upset… And plus, we need EAR Statements in close relationships and I’d say a marriage, even with four wives. Those are close relationships. You got to nurture all of that. I think that that may be part of what the husband realized.

Megan Hunter: Unfortunately, it was too late, but how and ever. Let’s not turn to what types of difficult or high conflict conversations people are having today such as vaccines and masks. You’ve heard them.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. Well, I think the pandemic has really made us pay a lot more attention to controversy. And frankly, I think we spent a lot more time watching the news on TV, on Facebook, on the internet. We see conflict everywhere, and the conflicts relate to the pandemic in many ways, like vaccines, like masks, like after the George Floyd murder, is the history of racism in the country and arguments about, should we talk about that or not? Should children’s books be censored? Protests. Which kind of protest is okay? Which isn’t? It’s not just the United States. We just had the monthlong truckers protest in Ottawa and Canada. And what was that about? Vaccines. We’ve really got an age almost of conflict that’s escalated over the last two to three years.

Megan Hunter: I guess the question is, can we have useful discussions about these types of issues, or are we hopelessly polarized? Just the use of one word. Like you were just saying, the George Floyd murders. Now, someone who doesn’t believe they’re murders is going to instantly want to fight that, right?

Bill Eddy: Yes. You can actually be polarized about anything. And I want to mention in here, polarization is generally an emotional process. It isn’t like, you know, I disagree with you on that. It’s like, if you think that way, well, then I hate you.

Megan Hunter: Yeah, and you’re wrong.

Bill Eddy: And you’re wrong. It’s so emotional. And that tells me we’re into the area really of emotional relationships and not really issues. In many ways, the issues could be anything. Let me just throw in briefly. Some people will remember, in the 1960s, there was a school teacher who did an experiment with the kids and treated them differently if they had blue eyes or brown eyes.

Megan Hunter: I love this study.

Bill Eddy: One day, the kids with blue eyes had an advantage and the brown eyed kids had to wait and didn’t have cups for drinking and whatever. The next day she switched it so everyone got to experience both roles, but it was amazing. She said, "Within 15 minutes, I had all these angry prejudice people." And actually I should mention that today such an experiment would not be allowed because it actually was quite upsetting to some of the children. You can be polarized over anything. I think people don’t realize, hey, we’re getting emotionally hooked here. This is about more than the issue. It’s about emotions and we can calm each other’s emotions.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. It’s so important. I’ve seen so many people in conversations where one is shutting down the other just because they disagree. Like, "We can’t talk about this. I won’t talk to you about this," instead of just having a rational conversation. I’ve even had that happen to me a few times. If you don’t agree with me, then I can’t talk to you. That seems kind of ridiculous.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. And that gets reinforced by… You see people yelling in the news and you’re not really seeing that. But I wanted to tell you and give you a quick example here. If people talk one-to-one, they can often realize, hey, we can respect each other and still have different opinions. And that’s why I encourage people, don’t take your feeling about polarization from the news. The news media tells you how terribly polarized we are and that makes you watch. If you go, "Well, let’s talk one-to-one." Can I give you an example here?

Megan Hunter: Yeah.

Bill Eddy: Okay. In October 2019, 526, people were brought together for four days in a hotel complex in Dallas, Texas. They wanted to see… These were a cross section of political opinions. And by the way, this is like three or four months before COVID. What they found is after four days, people talking one-to-one in small groups about all kinds of issues, about healthcare, about gun control, about politics, all of this, but without labels. No one was identified. They had name tags and where they were from, but they didn’t say Democrat, Republican, independent, or whatever. And after the four days, by the end of the weekend, most people hadn’t changed their minds on the issues. But voters on both the left and the right had softened their positions and moved more toward middle. They were surprised to find so much common ground with each other, and they were surprised to learn each other’s stories and realize, I have a lot of empathy for this person. I can relate to that. Some of them who had differing opinions found they liked each other and decided to stay in touch. I tell people all the time as they were horribly polarized and I say, "I’m not so sure. Talk one-to-one to people." I think that most polarization can be overcome.

Megan Hunter: Particularly with EAR statements, right?

Bill Eddy: Yes. Yes. I’m glad you mention that.

Megan Hunter: There will be some people that probably it will be difficult, particularly a high conflict person. It might be challenging because they’re very much all or nothing. They kind of do take sides more, so that can be trickier, but you can still use EAR and just give it a try. Bill, let’s talk about an example of using EAR Statements to calm an upsetting conversation.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. I can give you an example of two people arguing about masks in a grocery store, because this is something that’s come up a lot. Here’s the example and I want to give you conversation, and then see if it changes if each person fits an EAR Statement into the middle of it. Someone wearing a mask and they’re coming down an aisle towards each other. Okay? The mask wearer says, "Don’t come so close to me and my child. You should be wearing a mask. ‘It’s the state guideline." And the person without a mask says, "Don’t tell me what I have to do. It’s just a recommendation, so I don’t have to wear a mask if I don’t want to. Besides, it’s abusive for you to require your child to wear a mask. You should remove that all at once," because the child’s right there. The mask wearer says, "Now, listen, buddy, don’t you tell me what to do. I don’t want us to die because of you. Stay away from us. You’re too close." The one without a mask says, "I have a right to get my groceries off the shelf. Get out of my way." That’s an escalating conversation and we hear about those in the news all the time. What if one of them tried an EAR Statement? Here’s the same scenario. Mask wearer. "Don’t come near me and my child. You should be wearing a mask." Person without a mask. "Don’t tell me what I have to do. I don’t have to wear a mask if I don’t want to. Besides, it’s abusive for you to require your child to wear a mask. You should remove that at once." Mask wearer. "Okay, look, I respect your right to not wear a mask. Just give me a minute to get my cereal and back up." You can feel it calming there. Well, what if the other person used an EAR Statement? Mask wearer. "Don’t come near me and my child. You should be wearing a mask." The one without a mask stepping back a couple feet. "Actually the law allows me to decide for myself. However, I respect your right to wear a mask. Can you just let me in here for a second to get a box of cereal? It’s right there." Mask wearer backs up. "Oh, okay." Either one person can change with an EAR statement. I like that example because that’s such a common dispute and people feel helpless, like the other person, they can’t control the other person, but you can control your own emotions and what you say. And over and over again, I’ve seen that calm a conversation. I might add, I did a lot of couples therapy before I became a family lawyer and got into the high conflict stuff. It’s so common that people just don’t do their part, that they expect the other person to shift the conversation. But anyone can shift a conversation. I think the burden’s on all of us to give that a try.

Megan Hunter: So true, Bill. It’s such a simple thing to do, give an EAR Statement. Tell me more. That sounds hard. That’s really frustrating, I bet. I guess we have a selfish interest and maybe we’re right fighters, or maybe we’re worn out, tired, stressed out, which the pandemic and the political environment the last couple of years have put all of us in a higher state of anxiety or most of us. It requires a higher level of discipline and thought. I think that’s what a lot of people aren’t doing. They’re really coming to the anxiety instead of saying, "I might have to be a little bit better prepared when I go to the grocery store because there might be a lot of other anxious people there as well."

Bill Eddy: Yes. I think this is a tool that anybody you can use, anybody should have. With the book, Calming Upset People with EAR, I wrote that even with high school examples, so that people can start learning how to give EAR Statements even at a young age.

Megan Hunter: That’s a great communication skill. Let’s talk about using EAR Statements then in a different type of situation, like to calm a tense protest. I mean, like you mentioned, we have the truckers in Ottawa. There have been a lot of protests in the US throughout like the Black Lives Matter movement, in Australia, against the lockdowns, those were fierce, fierce battles and protests over there, and all over the world, the UK, Europe. What are some EAR Statement examples for those protest type situation?

Bill Eddy: Well, here’s an example and I also have in our book, the Calming Upset People with EAR book, and this came from a police officer I talked to who was involved with helping manage the protests after the George Floyd murder. He said that at one point, protestors were on a highway, went up on a highway and we’re backing up traffic two or three miles. There’s the police kind of 50 yards, like half a football field, away on the highway from the protestors. I guess there was a few hundred protestors there. This is the kind of situation, it was very tense and in the news. But in this particular case, the officer I talked to said, "We have someone in our division that’s really good at talking to people in conflicts." What he said is this officer walked individually over to the group sitting down on the freeway. He said, "Can you show me who one of the leaders is for this march?" And several protestors pointed to the same man nearby. The officer said, "Are you one of the leaders of the march?" And he says, "I am." I guess there are a few leaders. And the officer says, "You’ve gotten quite a lot of publicity for your march, TV, news cameras, even a helicopter is covering this. I have to admit, it’s pretty impressive." That’s respect, right? The leader, "Yes. It’s time that racial injustice gets the attention it deserves. We just want to peacefully protest what’s happening in this nation." The officer says, "Well, we also want to help keep things peaceful. Since you’ve gotten a lot of great attention to your cause, I want to suggest that now is perfect time to start moving off the freeway. We have several miles of rush hour traffic backed up now, and those people are going to start getting very cranky with your group and your cause if they can’t get home to their families. It would probably help your cause more now that you’ve gotten lots of news coverage to just go home. Drivers will be much more sympathetic if this can end now. It’s gotten pretty violent in other cities, and we hope to avoid that here. What do you say?" Leader says, "Let me discuss it with our leadership team." The officer returned to the ranks of the police on the freeway. Within about 10 minutes, the protestors started chanting loudly and marched off the freeway. And that’s an example that you don’t hear about in the news because it went very peacefully. I thought of that with the Ottawa truckers recently and was thinking, I wonder how much communication there was. And some situations are of course different, but it’s an example where many times people will solve things peacefully.

Megan Hunter: Right.

Bill Eddy: With EAR Statements.

Megan Hunter: With EAR Statements. Yeah, exactly. I’ve been having conversations with members of different law enforcement groups who have a lot of experiences. We’re trying to develop, as you know, Bill, a training for law enforcement and part of it would be how to use EAR. Can EAR be used by law enforcement? And If so, at what stage? They have to also protect themselves in some really scary and potentially fatal, deadly situation. Kind of where we’re coming to is that EAR as a deescalation tool could be very helpful, whether it’s in a protest or one-on-one. Just while keeping themselves safe, but to deescalate in that moment when someone is very upset. If an officer observes that someone is highly emotional, maybe yelling, threatening, things like that, I think an EAR Statement can be useful in that moment while an officer still is protecting themselves. Like a moment of just stopping and saying, "Hey, buddy, it looks like you’re having a rough day, a pretty tough day." Now, I think a lot of law enforcement officers would be like, "Ugh." Even the term EAR Statement they, "Uh, I don’t know about that," but I think it could be really useful. What do you think?

Bill Eddy: Yeah. Well, what I’m thinking, I think back to when I worked in a psychiatric hospital with people with schizophrenia, people with head injuries, people with substance abuse and that’s one thing we learned is really empathy is so big apart. Like someone with schizophrenia, you don’t argue with them. They’re having delusions and hallucinations, but you treat them with empathy because that’s what they’re really needing. I think that influenced me. I was trained in a psychiatric hospital before coming up with EAR Statements, which happened during a mediation, and that’s where that started. And people with head injuries have a very short fuse, so calming them with your facial expression, your hand gestures, your tone of voice really makes a huge difference. Today, there are so many people with mental health problems that it’s important for anyone in a position of authority to try to convey empathy in the process of trying to get them to follow the rules or set limits or even impose consequences. You can do that with EAR Statements. We teach that to judges. Make the decision you have to make, but present it with some empathy and understanding. It’s going to be hard, but this is the decision I have to make.

Megan Hunter: All right. Well, let’s go to a listener question and this comes from Amanda in Australia who says, "We love your work here in Australia and would like to ask the following question. How can a parent who is being alienated from their children better handle their communications and their situation when they’re dealing with a high conflict personality parent, who potentially has a high conflict personality. In other words, how could EAR be useful or can it be useful?"

Bill Eddy: Oh, I think so, absolutely. I think one of the problems we see in alienation cases where one child resists or refuses to have contact with the other parent in a divorce is they’ve absorbed the emotions usually of one of the parents. That’s the favored parent. They’ve absorbed that parent’s emotions. They repeat the same words, but they deny their influence by that. But the other parent, when let’s say the rejected parent has contact or communication with the favored parent, that they’re often really angry. It’s like, "What are you doing here? You’re preventing contact. You’re influencing our child," all of these terrible things. They tend to get into anger, which pushes that parent farther away, makes them more upset, which their upset leads over to the child and makes it worse. If a parent can, and it’s not easy, and I understand this is hard, is say, "I know you’re upset. I know you’re concerned, whatever. Here’s what we need to do, or here’s what I want us to do. Here’s my proposal. Or mostly, we need to get ourselves to some kind of family counseling that includes everybody to learn the same skills of communication." You can use EAR Statements to calm perhaps that other parent. Say," I respect you," or maybe you heard that they got a new job, "That’s great. Congratulations on that." The more that you can be empathetic with a high conflict person, the more you have a chance to calm the situation and maybe solve some problem and maybe help the child kind of get back on their feet again in their relationship with both parents. Oh, let me add, family members are often impacted by alienation as well. There’s the rejected parent and often their parents, the grandparents also get rejected and sometimes the family pack gets rejected. It is a complex emotional situation, but it’s usually driven, from my experience, from the high conflict emotions of the favored parents. Grandparents also, try not to get angry at that person, show empathy for them, show interest in them, pay attention to them. Because often we see there’s this whole family, like you said, tribal warfare or tribal conflict. And the more people that can use EAR Statements, the calmer it will all be.

Megan Hunter: All right. Well, I think we’ve done quite a bit about EAR, and I hope our listeners heard, had listened with their ear about EAR. You’ll find a link to Bill’s book, Calming Upset People with EAR in the show notes, along with some articles and links to some courses. Now, you’ll want to listen in next week when we have a special guest, Dr. Jay Lieberman, a retired podiatrist who was diagnosed late in life with bipolar, which eventually tanked his career and really was hard on family relationships. He has a very interesting perspective and he’s willing to share his, his story from the inside out, which is kind of rare. He’s very transparent about all of the impacts of some extreme behaviors, what they did to his life, but he’s doing great now and he’s going to share that story and you won’t want to miss it. We’ll also talk about, is that high conflict or not? Send any questions you have to [email protected] or submit them to highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. Tell all your friends about us. We’d be grateful if you leave us a review wherever you listen to our podcast. Until next week, have a great week and keep learning about high conflict behavior so you can avoid it or manage it in your life. It’s All Your Fault is a production of TruStory FM. Engineering by Andy Nelson, music by Wolf Samuels, John Coggins, and Ziv Moran. Find the show, show notes, and transcripts at trustory.fm or highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, please consider doing that for our show.

Each week, Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter will be exploring the five types of people who can ruin your life — people with high conflict personalities — and how they weave themselves into our lives in romance, at work, next door, at school, places of worship, and just about everywhere, causing chaos, exhaustion, and dread for everyone else.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Bill Eddy is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.

Bill Zoom
Megan Zoom

Megan Hunter, MBA

Megan Hunter is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. Within her role at HCI, she also serves as a leading expert in high conflict personalities in all settings, focusing primarily on the workplace, customer service, government/public service, ombuds, and religious organizations. Her degrees in business and economics combined with her years of experience in the legal arena are a valuable blend for many conflict settings.

Bill Zoom

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Bill Eddy is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.

Megan Zoom

Megan Hunter, MBA

Megan Hunter is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. Within her role at HCI, she also serves as a leading expert in high conflict personalities in all settings, focusing primarily on the workplace, customer service, government/public service, ombuds, and religious organizations. Her degrees in business and economics combined with her years of experience in the legal arena are a valuable blend for many conflict settings.