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How Emotionally Intelligent People Use the ‘Emergency Exit Rule’ to Win Almost Every Argument


This is an article about emotional intelligence. It’s a good one if I say so myself, but I also understand that you might not get to read it all, right away.

  • Maybe you’re simply too busy at the moment.
  • Maybe you’re skeptical that it’s actually so useful.
  • Maybe you saved this article to your phone, and you meant to go back-;but you just never got around to it.

These are understandable reasons, so let’s not worry about them. Instead, let’s just move ahead. Ironically, by doing that, we’ll illustrate the entire point of this article.

Here’s the key takeaway: People who have high emotional intelligence understand that if you want to be more persuasive and even win most arguments, it’s important to do two things:

  • Avoid distracting, emotional mini-controversies.
  • Offer easy ways for people to overcome emotional objections, and more easily follow the path you want them to take.

I call this the whole concept the “Emergency Exit Rule.” It’s about planting seeds that allow people to save face and maintain their pride-;while ultimately agreeing with you.

Let’s illustrate with a few quick, high-stakes examples.

Imagine a police detective arrests a suspect. During interrogation, he or she uses a common but controversial strategy called  the Reid technique. It involves questioning frameworks that can be summarized by example, like this:

  • “We know that you walked out of the store with the jewelry, but you don’t seem like a bad person. Maybe you didn’t realize how expensive it really was?”
  • “It’s clear you were intoxicated when the police pulled you over. Am I right in thinking you’d probably only had a couple of drinks, and didn’t realize you might have been over the limit?”
  • “They’re saying you took that money from your employer’s account. You strike me as the kind of person who would only have done that if you thought you could pay it back before anyone noticed. Is that what happened?”

Do you see what’s going on here? In each case, the detective gives the suspect a rhetorical off-ramp — an emotional emergency exit — to explain away what happened from a moral or self-worth perspective. 

But at the same time, the explanations don’t really matter. Agree to any of those statements, and the suspect has done what the detective wants him or her to do: admit to at least some of the elements of a crime.

This is why most criminal defense attorneys will tell you never to answer police questions without a lawyer. But, the same kind of technique works in all sorts of other circumstances.

Another example. A few weeks ago, the CEOs of two of the biggest airlines gave testimony before Congress casting doubt on the federal government’s rules requiring airline passengers to wear masks.

Soon thereafter, Dr. Jerome Adams, who was President Trump’s surgeon general, took to the airwaves to criticize their comments. Here’s what he had to say:

I’ve got to tell you, there’s no other way I can put my feelings about that than, it was irresponsible. It was irresponsible. It was reckless.

I want people to understand how that happened. I’ve testified before Congress a lot, and there’s a lot of theater. They’re trying to set you up …

I was disgusted when I heard that, but I understood how they were set up, how they led into making these comments. And, they need to be more careful next time.

Summarized: I hated what they had to say, but I can see a way they could have made those comments without really focusing on what they were saying.

Lo and behold, both airline CEOs soon came around to what Adams wanted -; suggesting that their comments had been rushed and taken out of context, and that they hadn’t really meant to advocate for the end of the mask mandate.

I hope people won’t get caught up on whether they agree with mask mandates on airplanes or not. The point is that a rhetorical device like this lets people minimize their disagreement.

Importantly, in many cases, people don’t want conflict. They gravitate toward comity. In fact, if we’re focusing on acute disagreements specifically, there are really four possible setups:

  1. You’re eager to fight, but the other person is not.
  2. You’re not eager to fight, but the other person is.
  3. You’re not eager to fight, and neither is your opponent.
  4. You and your opponent are both eager to fight.

Thus, in half of all possible scenarios, even when you’ve articulated a challenge or an argument, your opponent actually wants to avoid the fight. The Emergency Exit Rule is all about giving them the easiest, most attractive way possible to back down and agree with your position.

This works when the stakes are lower, too, in a wide variety of situations: 

  • At the grocery store: “I’m sorry; you must not have realized there was a line of people waiting, or you wouldn’t have marched to the checkout counter ahead of everyone else.”
  • Dealing with clients who don’t pay: “We understand that things can get busy and it’s easy to overlook. But you’re now 60 days behind on this account.”
  • When you were in grade school: “I think you might have forgotten that you’re in first grade now, and first graders don’t yell out without raising their hands first.”
  • Handling potential retail scofflaws: “Sorry, we failed to remove the inventory control device from your purchase. Somebody will assist you momentarily.”
  • Dealing with brilliant but difficult people: “You’re so good at the engineering part of your job, that we’re going to create a new position and allow you to focus on that, without worrying about having to lead other people or deal with management.”

(That last example comes from Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, describing how General Electric managed to remove its essential engineer, Charles Steinmentz, from leadership positions while letting him save face and even turning it all into a promotion.)

In the end, this is really a simple rule, but it’s striking how often people ignore it, or perhaps never learn it. It’s also truly the core of emotional intelligence.

As I describe in my free ebook, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, emotional intelligence isn’t just about developing empathy or being nice to people.

Instead, it comes down to a simple, practical definition: the practiced awareness of how emotions affect your communications and efforts, coupled with strategies to leverage emotions (both yours and other people’s) to help you achieve your goals.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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