Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Emotional hijack

People with high levels of Emotional Intelligence are able to adapt their emotional expression to the situations in which they find themselves. They do not over-control or stifle their natural feelings. Neither do they have emotional outbursts or negative feelings.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman uses the idea of emotional hijacking to describe situations in which people are so overwhelmed by their feelings that they act without concern for their own safety or that of others. They are out of control and do not think about what they are doing. Some people even say they have no memory of what happened after they were hijacked by their instincts and emotions. Strong emotions that can trigger an emotional hijack include fear and anger, as well as the positive emotions of love.


In a busy metropolitan airport, a traveller angrily throws his briefcase into a plate glass window. Within moments, airport security guards wrestle him to the ground, handcuff him and lead him away.

Why did the man have such an angry explosion? The plane he was waiting to board was cancelled.

Anger stole away this person’s good sense. What did this outburst of emotion accomplish for the traveller? What could he have done differently?

The emotional hijack is triggered by the most primitive part of the brain – the part that developed millions of years ago to cope with the immediate dangers of a hostile environment. The problem arises because this part of the brain reacts to perceived danger faster than the more recent, thinking part, sending us into the fight-or-flight response before we have had time to consider other options. It may have been a healthy reaction when the danger was the scent of a sabre-tooth tiger; it’s less than helpful when the reaction is triggered by your boss giving you some extra work or less-than-tactfully-delivered feedback!

When people’s angry emotions take over their logic, it is very difficult to communicate effectively. From time to time, everyone has to deal with a person who loses control, whether it is an associate, a supervisor, a customer or, indeed, themselves. Angry feelings are like a thief. They steal away the part of your brain that prevents you from saying things you regret later. Angry feelings sometimes become so intense that people become verbally abusive or physically violent.

Being aware of the impact of your emotions on your behaviour may help you to

  • Select better responses to challenging people and situations
  • Become more calm and peaceful when you have to deal with stress
  • Help others deal with their angry feelings
  • Avoid physical or verbal violence.

The challenges to controlling your emotions are

  • Your own anger
  • Others’ anger directed at you
  • Stress and negativity.

What causes you to lose emotional control?

You risk losing control

  • When you feel that you have no choices or options
  • When other people lose their tempers
  • When you are in physical or emotional danger
  • When you are treated unfairly
  • When your intentions are misunderstood
  • When you are disappointed with yourself for making a mistake
  • When you feel overloaded (‘the last straw...’)
  • When something or someone gets in the way of what you want to do
  • When you feel someone has violated your values – for example, by lying to you.

Steps to becoming calm

These critical steps only take a few seconds, but they will help you to calm down and can make the difference between losing control and maintaining it.

Slow down your breathing rate

Take a breath and relax.

Be aware of your feelings

Are you embarrassed, offended, frightened, or confused? Be aware that certain situations cause you to lose control. For example, you may become frustrated when you are rushing to reach a deadline.

Understand the true cause of your reactions

Are you upset because you have been unjustly accused of something?

Step into your circle of excellence

In green zone behaviours (see Handling defensive behaviour ), you can handle this. Think about what you know you need to do to get a positive outcome.

When other people get angry

There are two phases or aspects to maintaining emotional control when other people get angry and you sense the danger that you might, in turn, suffer an emotional hijack.

Phase 1

Before you can respond to others’ anger, it is essential to manage your own overwhelming feelings. Be clear about what triggers these feelings for you, it could be a visual trigger, such as seeing a frown or flushed face from the other person; it might be a vocal trigger, such as a sarcastic or accusing tone of voice, or perhaps a verbal trigger – for example, ‘You’d better get it fixed’ or ‘Don’t be so stupid!’

Phase 2:

Prepare yourself for responding appropriately to others when they become angry, and their behaviour is frustrating and irritating to you.

Emotional control is the answer – essentially, you need to keep your thinking, reasoning faculties (your higher brain) engaged. Prepare yourself by understanding what causes you to become angry (see above), and understand that similar causes might be in operation for the other person.

Steps to maintaining/restoring calm

So, if someone is in danger of ‘losing it’, these steps will help you handle the situation and, hopefully, turn a negative experience into something positive.

Keep calm

Don’t react to their stress by becoming stressed yourself – follow the steps for becoming calm (above) and get yourself into the healthy, effective green zone.


When people are on the brink of an emotional hijack, they often feel that no-one is listening to them, no-one cares and/or that what they are saying is being misunderstood. Use the full range of Listening Skills to get to the root of the problem and ask reflective questions (see Questioning Skills) to discover the true cause of their anger:

  • So our department has provided you with insufficient information before and you think we are doing it deliberately?
  • So you were promised this delivery today and without it you will have to let your customers down?
  • So you feel I have made this mistake because I don’t care about the job?


Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and, if mistakes have been made, acknowledge what has happened and, if appropriate, apologise on behalf of yourself or the department or organisation, but without casting blame on others.


The key to avoiding the emotional hijack is to be assertive, not aggressive or passive (see Assert yourself).

Move on

Move on to looking for a solution. Look for the best outcome you can offer. Be positive. What can you do now? How can this problem be avoided in future?

For more, see Hints and tips.