Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Ways to Respond to an
Over-emotional Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/reactive.htm

Updated  01-30-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as "over-reactive' or "over-dramatic." It assumes you're familiar with...


      Have you ever known someone with an "expressionless" face and a "flat" voice? How about someone who had a very animated, expressive face, body, and voice, and loved to speak dramatically? Can you think of someone who often over-reacts (in your opinion) to mundane events?

      Such people often emphatically pepper their comments with fantastic, exciting, horrible, terrible, horrifying, disastrous, catastrophe, awful, embarrassing, amazing, thrilling, outstanding, marvelous, precious, etc. They may laugh, gasp, scream, rage, or cry "at nothing" and "over-emote." If you hurt, confront, or offend them, they may react as tho you physically assaulted them.

      "Reactivity" refers to how impulsive and volatile a child or adult is in various situations. The opposite of "reactive" is "stoic," "impassive," "unemotional," and "intellectual."

      Over-dramatic, reactive behavior can hinder effective communication by...

  • distracting from the current topic;

  • overstimulating the listener;

  • appearing more emotional than rational, inviting discounting and disrespect;

  • inhibiting certain topics or confrontations ("If I bring up finances, Pat goes ballistic!");

  • inviting disrespect and distrust ("Alex just can't keep a lid on it!"); and...

  • using emotionally-provocative terms, phrases, and gestures (e.g. shaming labels, profanity, or extreme metaphors and images) that distract or disturb the listener.

      Adults and kids range from never to occasionally to always overdramatic. What accounts for this range? The question really asks "Can people intentionally learn to (want to) moderate their emotions and impulsive behaviors?" A comprehensive answer is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, consider this...

      Premise - a major factor that shapes how intensely people (like you) react to their environment is whether reactive false seves or their wise true Self controls their personality. People ruled by volatile Inner Kids and their intense Guardian subselves risk losing the calm, reasoned guidance of their wise  Manager subselves.

      Typical people ruled by protective false selves are unaware of it and what it means. One meaning is - logical requests, demands, and threats to "calm down" will never work for long because the person's controlling subselves distrust her or his true Self to keep them safe.

      Implication When a (wounded) adult or child  says "I can't help being so emotional!" - s/he really can't! - s/he is not disregarding or disrespecting your requests, tho it may appear otherwise. Chastising or shaming an overdramatic person only increases their frustration, guilt, and anxiety! A more practical response is to refer them to this quiz and self-improvement Lesson 1 here.

      You may have a range of responses to over-reactive behavior, like amusement, affection, irritation, frustration, impatience, anxiety, scorn, detachment (tuning out), interrupting, out-shouting, shut-ting down, withdrawing, etc.

      Can you describe your normal responses to over-reactive, over-dramatic kids and adults? Your response will depend on what you need - to vent, inform, affirm, confront, change their behavior, set or en-force a limit, avoid conflict, or something else.

      Compare your reactions to these...

 Response Options

  • Use awareness to (a) realize the other person is being overdramatic and/or over-reactive, and to (b) identify how their behavior is affecting you (above).

  • Mentally review these basics until they become automatic;

  • Decide if you want to respond now or later. If so, decide what outcome you need from your response.

  • Ask if the person is willing to hear some personal feedback now. If not, consider asking why. if so, get good eye contact and choose responses like these...

To Vent or Inform

"(Name), when you talk so loudly / fast / emotionally / intensely / dramatically / I  get distracted / tune you out / feel overwhelmed.

This is an assertive ''I-message.'' Notice the difference between it and a judgmental message like "When you're so hysterical / over-expressive / over-dramatic / out of control  /  reactive / ..."

"When you gesture so vigorously, I focus on what you're doing, rand I miss what you're saying."

"(Name), I'm aware of how intensely you feel about _________." This is affirmative empathic listening.

You're E(motion)-level is way above your ears now."

To Confront

"Do you realize how you're expressing yourself now, and how it affects me?'

"(Name), I feel like you're over-reacting to _____________."

"When other people are disturbed by your emoting, I get uncomfortable / uneasy / distracted."

"When you use (vulgar, disgusting, provocative) terms and examples like that, I lose respect for you."

I feel like a false self is controlling you now."

"(Name), You're doing it (being over-reactive) again."

To Change Their Behavior

"(Name), I need you to speak more slowly and quietly, and stop waving your arms so I can hear you better. Are you willing to do that?" Notice the difference between this and a response like "Jeez! Calm down, will you?"

"So you really feel __________ about __________, and you need __________."  This is empathic listening, which often helps an over-excited person calm down.

"Will you try to get your true Self back in charge (of your personality)?"

To Set a Limit

"I've asked you before to try and talk more calmly (about _______)." If you're not willing to do that for me I'm going to (hang up  /  walk away  /  put my fingers in my ears  /  turn my back  /  yell 'STOP!!"  /  (or __________)."

      Whatever response you choose, expect the other person to "resist" - i.e. to deny, attack you, get resentful, clam up, whine, explain, minimize, discount, justify, argue, shut down, and/or withdraw. If you don't get a response that feels right, use empathic listening to respond, and then calmly and respectfully repeat your original response. Do this as often as you need until you feel heard.

      Note the theme of these sample responses - clear, brief, respectful, and direct. No hinting, name-calling, pleading, joking, labeling, moralizing, sarcasm, or lecturing. Then experiment with your own responses to excessive drama or reactivity. As you do, keep your definition of an ''effective response'' in mind, and enjoy the results!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to unpleasant social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on why some people are excessively dramatic and/or reactive, and (b) illustrates effective ways to respond to their behaviors. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • knowing what you feel and need,

  • clarity on your personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

      Also see these response-options to aggression, egotism, interruptions, and insensitivity (rudeness).

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