Mark Goulston has a book on it, but I think he sums it up pretty good in this article. The most important thing is to use verbiage that demonstrates to the person, and is believable to him, that you are able to put yourself in his shoes and be there with him. The person is in despair, or des-pair, he has been unpaired from society, and his amygdala takes over, and you have to re-pair him with human society.
There’s a good chance you’ll meet someone in your life, maybe more than once, in such a state. I’m pretty sure this is what happened to Jimmy Leshkevic. This is a subject worth studying. You don’t need to be a trained shrink to learn this stuff either — it’s pretty simple. The big hurdle is coming off as convincing and even charismatic to people. That’s all a matter of your manner, your own emotional state. A charismatic person is probably the most adept at talking someone down out of their despair.
Also, what is happening in the despairing individual is that they operating on their amygdala rather than their pre-frontal cortex. Come to think of it, this could probably be induced as well.
Neurologically, the job of talking someone down is unhooking their amygdala and reconnecting them to their prefrontal cortex again. Basically electrical re-wiring through talk and perhaps sedative drugs.
Be glad to be operating on your pre-frontal cortex, and always stay emotionally healthy. It sucks to get hijacked, or to live even partially hijacked. I was hijacked myself for a time as a high school kid, though I had no thoughts of violence as a result. I retreated into Russian literature and language study as an escape. I think there’s a lot of partially hijacked people out there. Their state of being hijacked makes them unpleasant to be around, which compounds their loneliness. Many of them don’t go on shooting sprees, but just live lonely lives. Perhaps going into the world of drug addicts, where at least they are calmed down and get to hang out with other people, is a sort of self cure. I think it’s probably better to be a heroin addict than to be emotionally hijacked.
As a former clinical psychiatrist, suicide specialist/interventionist, out of the box trainer of FBI and police hostage negotiators and someone who’s passionate about neuroscience, I was hoping to be able to make sense of such shootings and more importantly how to intervene effectively with such troubled individuals before they act on their imbalanced minds.
You can read about some of my thoughts on the subject from this 2005 ebooklet, Change This: About Teenage Violence: It’s the Rage, following the Virginia Tech mass shooting.
Essentially, my current view is that mentally imbalanced individuals are reduced to acting from their most primitive, fight or flight, reptile brains. As such they are nearly completely reduced to acting on reflex, with the addition of the ability to be “cunning” to inform that reflex.
And Rodger’s reflex? Put Down + Pushed Away = Get In + Get Even.
We have heard about some conversations that law enforcement had with him prior to this where he came off as “polite and timid,” but judged to be a “non-threat.”
Sucking the Poison and Rage Out
I’m not sure how often this happens, but most of us have seen or read about the need to suck the poison out of a poisonous snake bite once a person has been bitten.
Assuming that most of these mass shooters have been bitten by rejection and humiliation that led to outrage that led to them becoming enraged, what might be ways to suck that poison out of them?
Over recent years I have become an avid fan of the work of Dr. Matthew Lieberman and Dr. Robert Cialdini.
Lieberman is a PhD in psychology and Director of Social Cognitive Neuroscience at UCLA and author of Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect and has done a great deal of research on “affective labeling.” In essence he has said that when people accurately attach the correct emotional word to their true underlying feeling (vs. a reaction to their underlying feeling) it reduced amygdala activation by as much as 33%. The amygdala is located in our middle, mammalian, emotional brain and when it becomes over activated it will hijack us away from using our prefrontal cortex and prevent us from being able to objectively and more accurately assess a situation we are facing. When people have “flipped out,” “become unglued,” “become wigged out,” “snapped” or gone “out of their mind,” their amygdala has hijacked (a term coined by inventor of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman) them.
Cialdini is a PhD and Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and author of: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and many other books on that topic. He has spent his career studying what persuades people to do what they do. One of Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion is “Commitment and Consistency.” By that he means that once you get someone to declare their commitment to something by saying, “Yes,” they will then act in a way to be consistent with it.
Taking both of these research findings into consideration I developed something called the “Magic Paradox” which I have used in training hostage negotiators and explained in my book, “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.
Essentially the Magic Paradox involves:
Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
Articulating what they might be feeling and emphasizing how nobody knows or understands that feeling
Further articulating that the feeling is getting worse and they don’t know how much longer they can handle it
Gaining their commitment (and consistent action based on it) by finishing that declarative statement about what they might be feeling with, “Isn’t much of that true? And if not, what would you change?”
So in the case of being called to check out a reportedly agitated individual that may sound something like:
“I’m (or we’re) guessing that you feel that nobody understands what it’s like to feel put down, pushed away, rejected, unable to catch up with others and be at the end of your rope about that. Isn’t that true? And if not, what would you change to make it true?”
Hopefully that will cause them to start speaking and through words relieve some of their distress.
You can then follow up with something like:
“And I’m guessing that you can’t keep handling this situation much longer and are feeling that something’s gotta give or you’re going to explode. Isn’t that true also? And if not, what would you change to make it true?”
You can adjust some of the verbiage depending on details you have heard as details come in, but hopefully you’re getting the gist of it.
By doing this, you are causing the other person to feel not just understood by you, but to “feel felt” by you.
Why is that helpful?
If you think of the word “desperate,” it is closely related to the word “despair.” And if that speaks to you and if you think of the word “despair” as “des-pair,” it means feeling unpaired in a world that you perceive to be pair with hope (vs. your hopelessness), help (vs. your helplessness), worth (vs. your worthlessness), meaning (vs. your meaninglessness), a point to going on (vs. your pointlessness).
When you are in a state of utter des-pair, it is natural to begin to pair with a desperate act (suicide or homicidal retaliation followed by suicide) to relieve it.
Speaking with a person in a way as to help them to “feel felt” is a way of “pairing” with them so that they don’t have to pair with a desperate solution and act of violence.
The problem of this is that “leading the suspect” this way can be thrown out of legal proceedings because you’re “hedging” with facts not in evidence.
I appreciate that this will then need to be figured out legally to preserve people’s civil rights and leave that to the legal experts out there.
As for me, I’m just trying to figure out ways to prevent future Isla Vistas.
Mark Goulston is a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and the author of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.” He is the co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership. Contact: email@example.com