An Interview with Bill Eddy: Calming Upset People with EAR Ongoing Blog Series

©2021 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

1.     What does “EAR” stand for and why did you develop it?

EAR stands for Empathy, Attention and Respect. In working on high conflict disputes in families, the workplace, and legal cases, I realized that people were constantly upset and needed help calming down. I specifically developed the technique we call “EAR Statements” as described in the book, as a quick and easy way of calming people who were in an increasingly intense conflict. It is especially useful with people who are stuck in high conflict and can’t get themselves out of it. After one or two or three EAR Statements, most (probably more than 90%) calm down at least enough to start working on solving problems instead of just blaming each other.

2.     How can we avoid “catching” other people’s strong emotions?

Emotions are contagious. Our brains are designed this way to help us work together or save our lives through group action in dangerous situations. Upset emotions are particularly contagious, because they tell us there is an urgent problem that needs to grab our attention. Emotions activate several parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which is particularly sensitive to upset emotions. If someone is anxious or afraid or angry, the amygdala tells us to get ready for fight, flight or freeze. It can happen in less than a tenth of a second. The more anxious a person is, the more likely they are to catch other people’s strong emotions.

Another aspect of the brain is our mirror neurons, which tell us to imitate the behavior that we see other people doing. This can be positive or negative. For example, if you see a group of people running away from the ocean (probably to avoid a tidal wave), there’s no time to waste thinking about it. Your body just immediately starts running before you have time to really analyze the situation. Likewise, with strong emotions, if someone nearby is angry, it’s very likely that you will get angry too—either at the same target of anger or at the person who is angry. This is the nature of mob behavior, which may be totally emotional and people join in without any knowledge of what the issues are that are driving the mob.

To avoid catching others’ emotions takes some training, which we do with High Conflict Institute. We teach people to focus on giving an upset person an EAR Statement, rather than reacting with the same emotions. We also teach people to give themselves EAR Statements to help them manage their own emotions and avoid getting “hooked” emotionally. For example, you can tell yourself “It’s not about me,” when someone calls you names or yells in your face in a way that’s totally inappropriate.

By regularly reminding yourself that such behavior is “Not about me,” you can maintain calm and avoid getting “emotionally hooked.” With High Conflict Institute trainings, we give people practice exercises with someone being upset and angry, and the other person responding as calmly as possible with an EAR Statement. It takes practice and no one becomes perfect at this, as its still hard-wired to some extent in our brains. But people do get better and better at this. And it can be positive emotional contagion, such as when you give someone else and EAR Statement and it helps them feel better.

3.     How are EAR statements different from the reflective/active listening that counselors often use?

Reflective listening and active listening are great tools and everyone should learn to do them. But they focus on only reflecting back what one has heard, including the content and emotions. Counselors help their clients become more self-aware by using reflective listening or active listening.

 But EAR Statements in daily life are designed to give a little bit more of yourself by making a statement that gives the other person your empathy, your attention and your respect. EAR Statements were originally designed for situations in which someone is dealing with high conflict people, who are generally more intensely upset than the average person. So we developed EAR Statements to do more than just reflecting back what someone is saying and feeling.

For example, a reflective listening statement might be “I hear that you are aware that I arrived late and you are angry about that.” An EAR Statement might be “I hear that you are aware that I arrived late and you are angry about that. I have a lot of empathy for the awkward position I put you in.” Or: “I”ll pay attention to your concerns; tell me more.” Or: “I hear your frustrations about his problem and I have a lot of respect for your efforts to solve it.” These statements all show more than reciting what you have heard. They show an investment in the other person by giving empathy, attention, and/or respect.

 4.     How can EAR statements transform contentious relationships?

In making an EAR Statement, a person needs to listen to what the other is saying and find something that they can show empathy for, listen to more, or show respect for. This focus on connecting with a positive intent immediately reduces a contentious relationship from the point of view of the person giving the EAR Statement. But since emotions are contagious, their EAR Statement often is very pleasing for the other person to hear and it reduces their anger or defensiveness, so that they may feel neutral or positive toward the person who gave them an EAR Statement. It may seem complicated, but its really about each person shifting themselves into a positive state of mind rather than staying in a negative state of mind, regardless of how negative the other person may be.

5.     Do these statements always work to calm people down?

From my experience and other High Conflict Institute trainers and staff over the past dozen years or so, they calm people down at least 90% of the time in different cultures around the world. They are not perfect and there are always some people who really want to stay upset. But they are definitely worth using because most people really like hearing statements that show them empathy, attention, and respect. Since we all need that, they almost always work.

6.     How can we use EAR statements in polarizing political discussions?

Political polarization occurs at a distance when thinking about people far away who we are not speaking to directly most of the time. If people want to reduce polarization, it is very simple. Talke turns listening to each other and then give each other EAR Statements regarding what you have heard. For example: “I hear your frustration when people say XYZ about your group. Its always hard when something like that happens. I want to listen and understand more about your experience being someone with ABC characteristics.” Research shows that when people actually talk directly in small groups or one-to-one, that they reduce their feelings of polarization, often soften their differences on political issues after hearing each other’s experiences, and sometimes even like each other. There’s examples of that in the book.

7.     Why might we want to use EAR statements on ourselves and what would that look like?

Many people don’t realize that they can often improve their own mood by giving themselves EAR Statements. It’s our own self-talk that can bring us down or boost us up. This is the basis of cognitive therapies for everything from depression to anxiety to recovery from substance abuse. For example, you could say to yourself “You’re good at bouncing back from bad situations” or “you have a lot of good skills that will help you in the long run.” So many people get stuck or feel helpless and hopeless, but we all have the ability to help ourselves feel better regardless of how awful things may feel at the moment. You can use EAR Statements to turn your life around at any time and people in terrible situations have done that over and over again through the ages.

8.     Who might benefit most from your book?

I’d like to say that everyone on the planet would benefit, in all cultures and situations. In the meantime, it should be especially useful to people dealing with conflicts between people, such as family members, co-workers, and community members. But anyone who has an interest in people and wants to help people get along will benefit, because it’s all about the conflicts that arise in any relationship.

Get your copy of Calming Upset People with EAR today!


BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. 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. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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