How to Drain an Emotional Wound
Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8:49AM
Mark Goulston

Disclaimer: It's probably not a good idea to read this before you eat.

I was trained as a medical doctor and remember the visceral -- and even nauseated -- feeling I had when as a medical student I drained my first abscess in a patient.  We called the procedure "I & D" in our hospital notes which stands for, Incision and Drainage (I told you not to read this just before you eat).

When you do  an I & D, you locate what is the most protruding and bulging part of the abcess, wipe it off with alcohol, than pierce it with a scalpel.  At that point, the pus comes out (isn't this a yummy blog) and after that, blood comes out and if it's a big enough abscess you put a drain in to keep it open.

Following this procedure you may put the person on an antibiotic.  After that the wound heals from the inside out.

BTW if you don't drain the abscess, and just go the antibiotic route, the wound may not heal if there is too much pus.

When you are faced with an upset customer, client, employee, shareholder, child, parent, spouse, friend, it actually feels like they are bulging with upset and about to explode.  Your instinctual and intuitive reaction may be to try to calm them down, urge them to cool off, etc. or stay away from them to fester and cool off on their own.  Sometimes that may work, but at other times you may need to drain their emotional abscess just as you would have to with a physical abscess.

So, FAW away...

The way to go about that is to ask them the following three questions:

  1. What are you most FRUSTRATED about? - This is a good question because when you ask them about their feelings, it often sounds condescending. And if you ask them about their ANGER too soon, they may feel that you are telling them they are wrong to feel that way. Consider this the same as sticking a scalpel into their wound.  Let them vent their feelings and when they finish, pick any of their words that had a lot of emotion attached.  These can be words such as "Never," "F--ked up," or words spoken with high inflection. Then reply with, "Say more about 'never' (or 'f--ked up,' etc.)  That will help them drain even more.
  2. What are you most ANGRY about? This is where their emotional pus drains. Again let them finish and have them go deeper by asking them, "Say more about _________ (emotionally charged words).  Don't take issue with them or get into a debate, just know that they really need to get this off their chest and if you listen without interrupting them and also inviting them to say even more, they will get it off their chest. A good visual is to look them straight in the left eye (which is connected to their right emotional brain) and imagine you are looking into the eye of a hurricane and allow whatever they're yelling (if they are yelling) to go over your shoulders instead of hitting you straight in your eyes.
  3. What are you really WORRIED* about? This is like the blood that comes out of wound following the pus.  It is as the core of their emotional wound and if you have listened and not taken issue with their frustration and anger, they will speak to you about what they're really worried about.  Again push them to go deeper by asking them: "Say more about ___________."  When they do that you will not feel they're being assaultive anymore. After they finish getting to the bottom, respond with, "Now I understand why you are so frustrated, angry and worried.  Since we can't turn back time, let's put our heads together to check out your options from here. Okay?"

* BTW something that many people worry about deep down --- and you may want to "air" this out --- are two very deep fears that people will often exert 80+% of their psychic energy to keep out of awareness: 1. That they have made one of the biggest mistakes and bad decisions of their life (regarding job, marriage, etc.) and now they are trapped; 2. That down deep inside they are unstable or even crazy and nothing can be done about it.  Often asking them if they are feeling either of those will not make them feel worse, but actually make them feel better because when those fears are out, it takes the steam out of both of them.  If they do agree with either of those and they look alarmed and say that is exactly how they feel, say in the most calming way, "And so?" They may then vent some more and then you can reassure them that most people feel the same way and after they admit, they actually discover that instead of feeling powerless and helpless, that some options will come to them.

As I wrote about in my book, "Just Listen" Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (Amacom, $24.95), "When people are upset, it matters less what you tell them than what you enable them to tell you that gets their upset up, out and off their chest so that they can then have a constructive conversation with you."


Article originally appeared on Heartfelt Leadership (
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