post written by: Marc Chernoff

Hack People’s Emotions to Rest via “The Break Script Technique”


Ease Emotions in a Heated DiscussionOn occasion, we all find ourselves knee deep in a heated discussion that seems to be escalating rapidly without any sign of resolution or agreement.  As soon as the intensity elevates, agitated personal emotions are bound to influence the direction and tone of the conversation.  These emotional influences usually cloud the open-minded exchange of information with a series of scripted, opinionated statements.  Once this happens, you can be fairly certain the discussion will result in little practical value.

In a heated argument we are apt to lose sight of the truth.
- Publilius Syrus

Emotional People Think via Known Scripts

When people become inundated with a rush of emotion, they tend to fall back on predetermined personal beliefs as a foundation for their reasoning.  Some physiologists and cognition experts refer to these predetermined personal beliefs as “scripts”.  Someone consumed in an emotional state will think and communicate in a scripted fashion based entirely on what they presently believe to be true, instead of keeping their mind open to new information.

Break the Script to Ease Emotions

How do you ease emotions and restore order in a heated discussion so that the focus of communication realigns with the original intended purpose?  The key is to ask a specific question that forces the emotional communicators to break out of their emotionally scripted thought process.  I call this “The Break Script Technique”.  If you can break their script, they will typically become cognizant of the current communication problem.

Questions with Known Answers Work Best

To successfully implement “The Break Script Technique”, you have to ask a simple, familiar, off-topic question.  Your question should be so common that most people, including the emotional communicators, have a reflexive, scripted way of answering it.  You are essentially breaking them out of one script by substituting it for another script they are familiar and comfortable with.

Here are a few example questions that can assist in breaking the emotional script:

  • “Sorry to interrupt, but do you know the time?”
  • “How are you doing?” (or some variation… may be a bit odd in the middle of a conversation.)
  • “What time do you usually break for lunch?”

Although off-topic, these questions will not seem unreasonable or inconvenient to the emotional communicators because they already know the answers to each.  The goal is to interrupt their train of thought just long enough to make them aware of their emotional state.

“The Break Script Technique” is not applicable in all situations, especially when untamed emotions have turned a civil discussion into a full-fledged argument.  However, if used correctly in the context of a fairly civil discussion, I have found this simple technique to be extremely effective.

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8 Comments

  • For the first time I disagree with one of your posts…One’s predetermined response may not be solely on emotion but on a set of values that sets someone up to be labeled as a opposite to the questioners belief. In other words if we ask a question about a hot topic of abortion, war or corporate America we will receive many different responses…however if the receiver of the information does not agree with the response then they will default to either emotion, immaturity or ignorance, passion or belief…the sender may not be able to effectively get their point across, interpolate the response effectively or use inflammatory words to justify a heated response. But emotion is not a bad or scripted thing…

    So I think that if people believe that other people are scripted, as opposed to the fact that they are stating their beliefs then that is being as ignorant to the fact that we all have opinions…so to say that pro-choice folks or religious conservatives tie their arguments to scripted believes I think is naïve…each and every person on both sides has their own opinions and beliefs…I do not think there are scripts, or talking points to a given argument…

    I also believe that emotion and passion are essential to a debate…if there is no passions then why fight for the dissent? People who follow the talking points are those that are lazy and will not form their own synopsis of what they think of a matter or issue…the “group think” mentality is a danger to free speech…One will always win a debate against another that has no core values, beliefs or passion to the discussion.

    The maturity and intellectual honesty to a debate is to hear all sides…those that will not listen to all points of view are intolerant…regardless if the belief is popular or not…regardless if it is liberal or conservative or in between…regardless if the belief is valid or not…I think that we in America need to listen more, think more and spout off at the mouth less…passion is a emotion and should be included in any and all debates…tolerance should be given to all dissenting views/ideas…decisions for support or dissent should be based of one’s beliefs…

    Listen to all and respond as needed

  • @Duck:
    I completely agree with your points concerning the need to “hear” all sides of the story. In fact, this article is structured around a method for calming emotions so that everyone’s voice is heard clearly without being diluted by an emotional state of mind.

    Everyone should be allowed to follow their beliefs and passions, but beliefs and passions should never seal up someone’s ability to listen to others. There is a big difference between genuine passion and emotional fluster.

    My primary point is: people overly consumed with fleeting emotions rarely listen to others rationally. They are stuck in a rut of their own emotion, which hinders rational communication, thus preventing “all sides” of the story from being heard.

    I think we were both looking at this from a different angle. Hopefully this clears up my point of view.

  • Well, it only works if the person is really in a script. Seems you might be having a rational discussion.

    One way to surely screw with people is to ask a question that is outside of the script. For instance, go to a restaurant and order a salad. The person taking your order will ask you want type of dressing you would like. If you don’t answer after two seconds, the person will start to drone off the types of dressing they have. When they say oil and vinegar, ask what type of oil. They won’t say anything, and just look at you in a confused manor. That’s breaking the script, but with a question they don’t know the answer to. If instead, you ask them what time it is, you break the script in a good way. Then they will forget about the salad, and you can ask a real question, like what time they get off work ;)

  • I like your other posts on this site, but this one seems a bit off. If you want to ‘Break the State of mind’ in someone, there’s better ways than this! This could easily be percieved as someone trying to *distract* or change the subject. And, in fact, that’s what it is. And with many people, it will not only be ineffective, it could be turned into fodder for them to throw further at you, or piss them off.

    My first contention with this is that you’re unclear if this should be used in a public setting or one-on-one.

    If I were trying to “break script” from someone, I would be brave enough to directly address their “metaphor”, which would be demonstrated in thier language as they articulate thier “personal belief”. Not only would it bear personal significance to the person since you’re using their language/metaphor, but you will be actually responding to what’s said instead of saying “look over there” and hoping the person takes the time to get introspective all of a sudden.

  • It could be good, but it could also really enrage the person you’re talking to. “You don’t love me??” “Hrmm… do you have the time?”

    There are probably more appropriate and less appropriate places to use this.

  • @Fred:

    I like your other posts on this site, but this one seems a bit off. If you want to ‘Break the State of mind’ in someone, there’s better ways than this! This could easily be perceived as someone trying to *distract* or change the subject. And, in fact, that’s what it is. And with many people, it will not only be ineffective, it could be turned into fodder for them to throw further at you, or piss them off.

    You use the “The Break Script Technique” when someone is already on a misdirected rant driven by a rush of personal emotions. You are not using it to distract someone from rational thought or dialogue.

    My first contention with this is that you’re unclear if this should be used in a public setting or one-on-one.

    It could be used in either a public or one-on-one setting. But, it won’t work under all circumstances, especially if the emotional person is extremely enraged.

    If I were trying to “break script” from someone, I would be brave enough to directly address their “metaphor”, which would be demonstrated in their language as they articulate their “personal belief”. Not only would it bear personal significance to the person since you’re using their language/metaphor, but you will be actually responding to what’s said instead of saying “look over there” and hoping the person takes the time to get introspective all of a sudden.

    The idea here is to prevent further time from being wasted and bring the discussion back on track with the intended topic. While I agree that you should always attempt to relate to someone and hear them out first, “The Break Script Technique” is only used on someone that is obviously drifting into an off-topic emotional rant.

    No, this will not work under all circumstances… but there are many situations where it will be extremely effective at making an emotional person aware of their fickle state.

  • I’ve used the technique often and with quite a degree of success but until know I was unaware that it was a specific tactic with a specific name. In arguments, I try to bring the intensity down by asking a series of specific questions, some related, others not, just to get a feel of where the other person is mentally as well as where they may be headed. Depending on their resposne now and what their response may have been in the past I can get a good mark and adjust accordingly.

    Having knowledge of this more specific tactic excites me and I intend on trying it out the next time me and my lady friend start exchanging words.

    @Zifina: Well the article points out that heated arguments are going to realize less effectiveness from this techniques. Also, I think there are probably more appropriate and less appropriate questions you could ask. So, “Don’t you love me?!” “Of course I love you! What did you have for lunch today?” I don’t know…

  • I agree very much with this post. It immediately calls to mind a situation I’ve had for years with my youngest daughter (I’m 50, she’s 24). She’s extremely emotional and reactive to the slightest perceived criticism, and immediately starts ranting and working herself up to rage and/or tears. I do my best to encourage her and praise her, but she still can jump on something I’ve said and twist it to mean something different, to which she reacts at great length without allowing response or clarification. I totally agree that it’s a great idea to interrupt her momentum and “bring her back” to a calmer, more rational position.

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