How to Save Someone’s Emotional Life you ever saved anyone’s life?

My eleven-year old niece did just that.  The story is rather remarkable. 

Elizabeth Marie was in the front room watching TV; she had let the family’s pet, Sampson, a large German shepherd, out the door to go to the bathroom.  Suddenly, the dog sprinted away from the house and attacked a five-year old boy, who was just ambling past the house and down the street. 

No apparent reason

The child was not doing anything inappropriate, such as throwing rocks at the dog, etc. 

The dog knocked the boy face down into the paved street and began chewing on the child’s neck and ear.  Of course, he was crying and screaming.  Who would not be?

Call 911!

Ellie, without conscious thought for her own safety, went running after the dog, calling his name, and demanding that he return to the house.  When he did not respond, she jumped on the dog’s back, wrestled it away from the child, dragged the dog back to the house, and yelled to her family to call 911.

Because of her immediate response and lack of concern about her own participation, the young boy’s life was saved.  The hospital doctor was 100% convinced of this fact.

Stitches, doctors, attorneys

Of course, there were complications—134 stitches, medical bills, and a day in court.  However, the parents were grateful for Ellie’s quick thinking and immediate action.  And, fortunately, the plastic surgeon did a fabulous job and the resulting scar were minimal.

What if…

Normally, we apply “what if” scenarios about thing that go wrong.  In this instance, there are “what ifs” even though the end result went right.  

What if Ellie had gone back into the house to watch TV?   What if Ellie had decided someone else needed to solve this problem and had gone back into the house to get her father?  Would those few extra minutes in either of these situations have spelled disaster?


It seems to me that it requires super-hero abilities to be physically in the right place at the right time to do the right thing to save someone’s life.  However, many of us often find ourselves in the right place and the right time to save people from emotional trauma and yet we do nothing.

The signs of emotional pain—a hint of hurt in the eyes, trembling lips, withdrawing from the conversation—are obvious to those of us paying attention, but frequently, I think, we ignore the clues.

Learn as I go

So, why do we pass over the signs and the opportunity? Do we underestimate our own abilities? Or, perhaps, our influence? 

I know I do. But I’ve learned through trial, error and lots of practice to have confidence in my ability to step in.

Intervening to save someone’s emotional life isn’t easy. And it is almost impossible when we don’t know what to do. The hard part is speaking up—without offending—about observations.  How to deliver a message without insult requires the utmost of tact—and a careful balancing of words and actions, in order to reduce social distance and solidify communication. 

But there are steps we can take if we know what to do and how to do it. I would like to share with you how to save someone’s emotional life when they are about to lose it.

How to save someone’s emotional life

To save someone’s emotional life requires three things:
Step #1. Listen twice as much as you speak. No further explanation is necessary. :-)
Step #2. Ask, do not tell. Do not give them advice. Ask your person questions to elicit the truth beneath their surface beliefs.

  • What do you truly want?  What do you truly need?  We all want jobs that pay $250,000 year.  However, in truth, we need jobs that pay the rent, put food in our mouths, clothes on our backs, and some fun in our lives.  Or, we think we want Prince Charming as our significant other, when what we really need is someone in whom we can confide; someone we can trust; someone who has our backs; and someone who loves us in spite of our warts.
  • How do you get the knowledge, skills, and ability to obtain what you need?  Does this require more schooling, a stronger network, a new skill? Do you need to become an expert/guru in something you presently are only proficient?  Do you need more creativity and less rigidity in your approach?
  • What are you willing to give up to achieve your goals?  Perhaps less sleeping time?  Less time traveling?  Less social time–at least for a few months?  Less time reading those mystery novels you love so much?
  • Ask them how important the issue is to them, ask them to give it a rating out of ten, ask them how they would evaluate the situation, how they could move forward.
Step #3. Acceptance of, and approval for, the very thing the individual is worried about and is rejecting in his or her self. Find some way to show them their view is negatively skewed.
  • Perhaps the individual is lamenting his/her lack of ability in math; share with them that one of the things you admire/love about them is their ability to spatially arrange items in the fridge/on the wall/in the trunk.  
  • Perhaps he/she deplores their lack of planning/organizing skills; find a way to appreciate his/her forecasting ability, decision-making, or ability to rouse others with his/her words.
  • Listen to their lament and come at it from a different perspective, if necessary.

You will find these steps have universal application; the situation doesn’t need to be serious or emotionally life-threatening for them to be helpful. Any point of confusion or uncertainty can be supported by these three steps.

But when someone’s emotional life is threatened, when serious distress and life-altering actions persist, the danger can be dissipated by following the above. Saving someone’s life, physical or emotional, is deeply rewarding. Both for the saver and the saved. Quick thinking, emotional compassion, an “other” focused mindset together with the above skills will reap enormous dividends both for you and your loved one.

Not long now! The 7th International NexusEQ Conference is taking place at HARVARD UNIVERSITY in Boston, June 24-26, 2013. There isn’t a lot of time left to sign up so don’t delay! Join me, and luminaries such as Peter Salovey, Marco Iacoboni and Herbert Benson, for a ground-breaking three days. You can read more details about it here. :-)

About the author - Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.

View more posts from Anabel Jensen

Comments for this article (6)

  • Ilaria Boffailaria boffa says:

    Thank you Anabel for this wonderful post! It seems to me that your 3 empathic steps describe the Way to Compassion…one of the most important gifts human beings need.

  • Hi Anabel–so insightful and accessible at the same time….I love the idea of reframing, as in #3, and with that, the power of asking powerful questions, as you’ve so beautifully explained in # 2. I know that I am working on # 1, “listening twice as much as I speak”–thanks for the reminders!

  • Shabbir Latif says:

    Hi Anabel–The example and the info/steps you have posted are so valuable. I know I have avoided taking actions in the past when I feel that it won’t make any difference. I hope I go with the beginner’s (child’s) mind and take action and let the difference, what may be, to follow. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

  • Thank you Anabel. Certainly, most of our reactions are autonomous and vary in its extent according to event intensity and our skill in handling the event. We see variety of reactions in candid camera programs,but all are intuitive actions and is exactly what happened with Ellie at a certain moment. whereas dealing with emotions depends fully on skills and experience. It is like physicians, their ability to diagnose their patients case develops with practice. So I totally agree with you as you mentioned:

    “But I’ve learned through trial, error and lots of practice to have confidence in my ability to step in …
    Intervening to save someone’s emotional life isn’t easy. And it is almost impossible when we don’t know what to do.”

    So, can I say that the EQ-Skills are compulsory to save someone’s emotional life, which are spelled out in the three steps?

  • Tauqir says:

    Thanks Anabel for drawing attention to a very important but oft-forgotten aspect of our social responsibility: we need to discover the therapist in us to soothe others. The three steps laid out above can be marvelous.

  • Right on, Anabel — well put!

    In the weekend, intensive EQ workshops we’ve been teaching for 25 years now, we come up with similar steps to helping someone in emotional crisis.

    yours were:
    Step #1. Listen twice as much as you speak. No further explanation is necessary. :-)
    Step #2. Ask, do not tell. Do not give them advice. Ask the person questions to elicit the truth beneath their surface beliefs.
    Step #3. Acceptance of, and approval for, the very thing the individual is worried about and is rejecting in his or her self.

    what we teach:
    Step #1: Listen about 10 times as much as you speak! Much of the time, if we can care enough about someone to actually Shut Up and Listen (SUAL) to their distress — with acceptance, understanding, compassion and a non-judgmental viewpoint — the speaker often ‘magically’ feels heard, validated, relieved, better.

    Step #2: Ask about feelings, not events. It doesn’t really matter all that much what happened, the story… it matters more what the person Thought about and Felt about what happened. The event happened, now we can only control our reaction to it all.

    Step #3: If there are major feelings involved, see if you can get them to explore how their current unresolved feelings are connected to their past unresolved feelings… “when, in your past, did you feel like this before?” (then go back to step #1, SUAL)

    Step #4: See if you can get them to explore what Meanings, or Belief Systems (BS) they created the first time this happened, and how those (probably) unconscious decisions are still effecting, and adding to, their current problems.

    Step #5: Release, Replace, Rejoice! Release backed-up negative feelings, Replace negative internal BS with more positive, mature decisions, and Rejoice with them for their courage and hard work!

    We had 4 people in 2012, 2 men and 2 women, come up to us and say, to our face, that this process saved their lives… and they’re all still with us today.


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