THE BLOG
01/25/2011 06:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning From Loughner: How to Calm an Angry Person

As we discover more and more details about Jared Loughner's life, we try to piece together what may have pushed him to commit the shootings that killed six and wounded 13.

I remember Peter Finch's role in the movie Network, and how he screamed out at the world, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" In that movie, however, rather than being shunned and ostracized for his ranting, he was embraced and started a movement that the other characters in the movie and the audience embraced -- the latter so much that Finch posthumously won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.

From what we are learning about Jared Loughner's life and his mind, it appears that he, too, was mad as hell and not going to take this anymore.

Understanding what he was "mad as hell" about may offer not only keys to figuring out Loughner and the actions he took on that fateful day, but also may present steps to intervening in the lives of the other Jared Loughners of the world who haven't yet reached the point of "not going to take this anymore."

In Loughner's case, it was possible that after experiencing so much rejection, he descended from "anybody" to "nobody" to "shunned (fueled more by fear he triggered in others) nobody." Over time, when you're a nobody and don't know how to make it back into the world (much less get ahead in it), you feel increasingly powerless. Eventually, you reach the point of feeling impotent.

It's a slippery slope from feelings of impotence to rageful actions, especially when a mental illness is present. At that point, taking any action is empowering. The possibility of terrifying people feels more empowering still.

Seven Steps to Defusing a Human Ticking Time Bomb:

Hearing the rant. Note when a person is verbally ranting or communicating by e-mail, on YouTube, on Facebook, etc.

Engaging the ranter. After you have heard or seen or read a rant, say or write to the ranter, "What you're saying is much too important for me to not understand exactly what you're trying to communicate, so could you please tell me what exactly happened to lead you to what you're saying right now?" Implying that something about this ranter is important often strikes at the core of the ranter's rage and immediately lessens it.

The ranter slows down and repeats what he or she is saying. Now that the ranter has your full, undivided and respectful attention, there is less reason to be so angry. The ranter is no longer as impotent as he or she had felt before. Granted, this is not so simple when a serious mental disorder is present. But even in those cases, calling what the ranter is saying important (versus getting into a debate then and there) can have a significant calming effect.

"Tell me more." When the ranter pauses after providing an explanation of his or her rage, the ranter is anticipating that you will either say that he or she is wrong, be dismissive, take issue with him or her, look at him or her like he or she is crazy or have some other negative response. The last thing the ranter expects and what the ranter needs most is for you to continue to be interested in what he or she is saying. Saying "Tell me more" communicates "I'm still listening," "I'm not offended," and "You're making sense." This further calms them down.

"Give me a specific example." After the ranter has finished what he or she has to say, asking them to give you a specific example will cause them to re-experience underlying feelings -- deep frustration, hurt and fear that, when left unabated, may have led to the rage at the surface.

"Do you feel frustrated, angry, at your wit's end or disgusted?" According to UCLA researcher Matthew Lieberman, when you offer a ranter "feeling words" and have them say the words themselves, you significantly lower amgydala activation. The amygdala is in our middle brain. When it becomes overly activated, it produces what is referred to as an "amygdala hijack". This pulls us away from engaging our prefrontal cortex and away from using or listening to reason.

"That is why we really need to either fix this. You can't take this much longer, can you?" At this stage, much of the agitation will have dissipated and the ranter may feel connected enough to you to engage in a collaborative conversation. The ranter may give you one outlandish solution after another, and you can say empathically, "You know, if I were you, I would feel exactly the same way, and maybe tempted to do exactly what you're saying. But honestly, I don't think it will have a good result. Let's keep thinking of other things we can try that might work better."

In essence, the seven steps transform the conversation from the ranter talking at or over you to talking to you and, finally, talking with you.

If the above speaks to you and you want to learn more, please check out my book "Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone."