by Arielle Essex

What to do when all rapport is lost

What do you do when someone is losing it? When the outward behaviour is negative – anger, sadness, fear, guilt, tears and so on; don’t match that! And be careful if you are tempted to console. When people express anger, tears or some other negative emotion, you need to use different skills.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Martin Luther King Jr

In these circumstances, it’s helpful to match the energy with an appropriate alternative (more positive) energy. When someone is enraged, it often exacerbates the anger if you try to calm them down by speaking softly and gently. Instead, meet them with an equal level of passion, which addresses the importance of the issue and helps them feel heard and understood. First, you may need to intuit the deeper cause behind the emotion that is being expressed, and address that.

Five steps to handle someone who is upset

The following five-step process will help you to handle someone who is clearly upset, in which case simple matching will not be useful.

  • Observation: what specifically has happened as the immediate trigger?
  • Feeling: identify what the emotion is – sometimes you may need to ask.
  • Tip

    The five-step process can also be used to amplify a happy state.

    Need: what is the need they have that hasn’t been fulfilled?
  • Match: how can you agree with and match that same need?
  • Request: what can be done to help meet that need now?

1. Observation

The specific trigger will be something that a video camera could record – something that is being said or seen. By limiting your statement of the current situation to neutral facts that everyone can agree on, you avoid inflating or exaggerating the situation. So, say things like,

When you said ‘XX’...

When I saw ‘YY’...

When ‘XYZ’ happened...

2. Feeling

It is always better to question a person about how they are feeling rather than tell them how they are feeling. This allows them some grace, and protects you from jumping to conclusions and adding to the upset. So, continue your sentence with


To help deflate intense emotions, choose the lesser forms to describe a feeling: for example, ‘irritated’ rather than ‘angry’.

...were you feeling ‘ABC’?

...it seemed like you might have been feeling ‘ABC’?

...could you have been feeling ‘ABC’?

3. Need

You may or may not know what the underlying need might be. People never get upset without good reason. The bigger the upset, the bigger the underlying need. In a business context, the individual may not wish to divulge intimate details of the personal needs involved, so it’s best to limit the enquiry to the business aspect. Something in the business environment has triggered the feeling. It would be a good idea to identify that so that a solution can be found. So you could continue your questions with

Is that because you needed ‘X’?

Could that be because you value ‘X’?

Is it because ‘X’ is important to you?


You are not matching the outer behaviour or emotional expression; you are agreeing that what they value is something that makes sense to you.

4. Match

Hopefully, you can identify some need behind the feeling that you can agree with on some level.

Verify that you understand and/or agree:

‘X’ is important to everyone here

We all want to achieve ‘X’

I don’t blame you for wanting ‘X’.

5. Request

Here, you get to either offer your services or brainstorm some solution to the problem. The person may themselves offer to supply the solution.

Would you like me to do ‘Z’?

Would it help if ‘Z’ could be applied?

What ‘Z’ solution would be useful?

Example 1

A job hasn’t been completed on time (observation) and your boss is angry (feeling). The ‘needs’ were to deliver on time, satisfy professional obligations, honour commitments, be seen to do a good job, get more business or a promotion and so on. So, with positive conviction in your voice tone (matching), you could say how important it is to you that those commitments get met. The facts are that it hasn’t happened, but what might help would be to offer to re-negotiate with the client, extend the deadline, work overtime or find some other solution (request). Your response might sound like this:

When the ‘X’ job wasn’t completed this morning, were you feeling frustrated because the June deadline could be jeopardised? I know meeting that deadline is important, so would you like me to work overtime so we can complete it for next week?

Example 2

Someone gets upset or bursts into tears. You know they’ve been having a difficult time lately and news about the grading has just pushed them over the edge. Identify first what the precise trigger situation is; don’t jump to conclusions about the emotional reaction. Then find out whether the tears are frustration, fear or sadness. What do they need right now in this specific situation? How can you reasonably concur with that and how can that need be met now? Your reaction might sound like this:

When you received the downgrading instead of a promotion, you seemed upset. I don’t blame you because doing well is important to everyone in this department. Would it be helpful if I arranged for you to have some expert coaching to improve your performance?