Listening Others Into Existence with Douglas E. Noll [Podcast]
Dr. Nathan Regier welcomes Douglas E. Noll to today’s episode. Doug has stumbled upon a communication strategy that is changing lives around the world, from boardrooms to prisons. Doug is a business and commercial trial lawyer who teaches people to bring compassion even to the most difficult places.
For his innovative work, Doug Noll has been voted as one of the Best Lawyers in America since 2005, by US News & World Report and has been recognized since 2006 as a Northern California Super Lawyer. He has been honored as Lawyer of the Year in 2014 by Best Lawyers in America. In 2014, Doug was honored as a Purpose Prize Fellow by Encore.org. In 2018, Doug was named the Distinguished Neutral of the Year by the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals.
Doug Noll is the author of the book De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less, which was the winner of the Book Excellence Award for 2017.
Today, Doug is sharing the methodology outlined in his book called Listening Others into Existence, a counterintuitive method that is backed by science and proven to be effective in deescalating even the most charged situations.
- Conflict dynamics are essentially the same, no matter the dispute or the people involved.
- Labeling emotions helps regulate oneself and kickstart the brain to stay calm rather than react.
- Great listeners use deep reflection while engaged in a discussion.
VOICEOVER: Are you tired of the negativity and drama? Are you trying to make a difference only to be drained by people problems? The world needs more compassion, not just more civility and empathy. We need in the trenches compassion that struggles alongside people, instead of against them. We need a radically different way to engage for breakthrough results. And now, here is your host, Dr. Nate Regier.
NATE REGIER: My guest today stumbled upon a communication strategy that is changing lives around the world from boardrooms to prisons. Doug Noll, is a business and commercial trial lawyer, turned peacemaker who teaches people how to bring compassion into even the most difficult places. As a lawyer, Doug, has been voted one of the best lawyers in America since 2005 by U.S. News and World Report and has been recognized since 2006, as a Northern California super lawyer.
Along with his colleague, Laurel Kaufer, Noll was named California Attorney of the Year in 2012 for their pro bono Prison of Peace Project. As a purveyor of compassion, Doug, is an awarded author for his publications on peacemaking, mediation and conflict resolution and the winner of the Book Excellence Award for his 2017 book De-Escalate: How To Calm An Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less. Today, we’re going to learn all about the methodology outlined in his book called, listening others into existence. This method is counterintuitive but it’s backed by science and proven to be effective at de-escalating even the most charged situations. Doug, welcome to On Compassion.
DOUG NOLL: Hey, Nate. Great to be here. I mean, I just so admire your work so it’s really fun to be able to have a conversation with you.
NATE REGIER: Well, I’m always delighted to connect with people that are purveyors of compassion. That’s what I called you today. I know you may not have labeled yourself that way but I sure see you bringing that into the world. So we’re so excited to learn more.
DOUG NOLL: Absolutely. Compassion is one of those things that I think evolves naturally as you learn how to listen other people into existence. So both of us are very aligned in that regard.
NATE REGIER: Fantastic. Well, you say you’re a lawyer turned peacemaker. Will you give us a little background on that journey?
DOUG NOLL: Sure. It was a long one but I’ll keep the story short. Basically, I grew up in Southern California. Went to Dartmouth College. Came back to California. Went to law school and worked for a judge for a year. Then went into private practice in Central California and was a commercial and business trial lawyer for 22 years, mostly trying large complex cases involving a lot of money. Through a series of events that changed my life basically starting with some martial arts training, I came to the understanding that being a trial lawyer was not my calling.
But I really didn’t know what I was going to do, so I finished a trial and was on vacation contemplating what I was going to do next in my life. After that trip, I came back home and I was driving down out of the mountains to my office. Heard a public service announcement for a new master’s degree in peacemaking in conflict studies being offered at Fresno Pacific University, which is the West Coast Mennonite University and I signed up. They accepted me. A little bit we both had trepidations.
At the time I was a law professor. I still am a law professor but I was a law professor at our local law school, had a full-time trial practice and they weren’t sure whether they really wanted a hardcore trial lawyer in their program or not. I wasn’t sure I was ready for their approach to stuff. But it turned out to be a marriage made in heaven and they completely changed the way that I saw the world. As a result of that, I ultimately left the practice of law in 2000. I did everything I told my clients never to do, which is no money in the bank, no business plan. My firm basically gave me an ultimatum to stop this peacemaking crap or else.
I said, “Okay, I’ll take the or else.” So I left $10 million dollars on the table. Walked away with a week’s notice and never looked back. That’s kind of how it all started. So I am deeply schooled in restorative justice and obviously mediation and other forms of alternative and dispute resolution. Today, I divide my time between developing online courses, helping people learn how to listen others into existence doing virtual workshops because of the pandemic. We’re working on … We’ve completely filmed our whole Prison of Peace Project, which we can talk about. So that’s going to be released later this year internationally and enjoying life in my home on my 10 acres just south of Yosemite National Park.
NATE REGIER: Oh, man. Well, yeah. We have a common background there. When you mentioned Fresno State, I was thinking, “Yeah, we’ve got some Mennonite Institutions around here as well and that is our West Coast one.”
DOUG NOLL: Yeah. Fresno Pacific is one of the West Coast Mennonite Universities. There are other ones as well. There’s one up in Seattle for example but Fresno Pacific is where the International Restorative Justice Movement really got started. It’s a really interesting history and my mentors were the guys that made that happen so it’s pretty amazing. Pretty amazing, the people that trained me.
NATE REGIER: Well, you are no stranger to drama and negative conflict having been a business trial lawyer. My guess is you have seen the toxicity and the damage to work cultures from this. Would you share a little bit about what you’ve experienced when this kind of conflict infects workplaces?
DOUG NOLL: It is about the most unproductive, unprofitable, unhappy experience that people can have. I’ll tell you a story. One of the very first conflicts I was engaged to solve involved a very large and wealthy real estate brokerage firm in Silicon Valley. It had gotten so toxic in that firm that the CEO and the COO could only communicate by exchanging written notes under doors. This was before email. They couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other. They couldn’t stand to talk to each other and of course, they had something like 300 brokers spread all over Silicon Valley. It was a huge firm and they were destroying their wealth because of their anger.
I’ve seen that kind of conflict occur over and over and over again, whether it’s conflicts on boards of directors or conflicts in the leadership team or in family business conflicts. Conflicts between siblings and parents. We see the same dynamic over and over and over again. It seems to me that conflicts are all the same. The only thing that changes is the name and the company but the basic conflict dynamics seem to be the same just about everywhere. They’re extremely destructive as everybody knows because everybody’s been involved in conflict and knows how awful it is.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. People who are in the business of trying to understand the psychology, the science, the background of conflict, we see these patterns. There are definitely repetitive patterns and it just is the same. Maybe it’s because of how humans are but so you … Oh, go ahead. You were going to say something?
DOUG NOLL: I was just going to say that I’ve come to the conclusion that the patterns are the same because of the way the most of us have been raised as children. We learn these conflict patterns at a very, very young age. A very famous family therapist in the ’70s, Virginia Satir, once commented that 96% of families are emotionally dysfunctional and produce emotionally dysfunctional adults.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, that’s why we see these patterns, is that parents don’t know how to train their children to be emotionally competent. Therefore, when they become adults, they’re in physically adult bodies but they basically have the emotional competency of six-year-olds. So when things get tough, they revert back to that childhood pattern and that’s why we see … That’s why the conflict patterns are one, predictable and two, are so unsophisticated because they’re reverting back to childhood.
NATE REGIER: Oh, man. So you had a change of heart. You had a change of calling. You’re still in the field of dealing with conflict but you’ve discovered some techniques and come upon some things that you’ve studied and you’ve proven. You’ve found the research. Your book is called De-Escalate: How To Calm An Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less. Give us a little overview of how you came upon the discovery, so how you discovered the techniques in this book.
DOUG NOLL: The one thing that I did not learn how to do in my intense study of human conflict in my master’s degree program was how to de-escalate somebody. I was trained the way that almost everybody is still trained, which is to use the old active listening skills from psychologist Thomas Gordon, who was a student of the great humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers in the 1960s. In fact, Thomas Gordon invented the term active listening in when he contributed to a chapter in one of Carl Rogers’ last books in 1958. Well, the Human Potential Movement picked up on that in the 1960s and they completely perverted what he had to say.
So that was the use of I statements and then that was the source for nonviolent communication, now called compassionate communication. It was basically the same basic idea but the problem is that none of that worked. It never worked in an intense situation and most people who were subject to active listening felt patronized and manipulated and just got even angrier. So here I was. I didn’t have any skills but I had-
NATE REGIER: Wait. So I’m going to interrupt you real quick.
DOUG NOLL: Yeah.
NATE REGIER: You said, “They didn’t work.” Based on what? Was there research?
DOUG NOLL: Practical experience. Yeah, research. Practical experience field research. Nobody I’d ever talked to had ever said that it worked but it was taught because it was the only thing the trainers knew how to teach. But it never worked, especially in a really intense conflict. Well, I had in my master’s degree program, in the late ’90s, I started studying neuroscience. This is before anybody knew what neuroscience was because functional magnetic resonance imaging technology had only been developed in 1993. So up until that time, neuroscience was really restricted in how they could understand brain functions.
But I got turned onto it and I was tutored by a neuroscientist at Caltech, John Allman. Was just reading all the literature I could get my hands on, academic literature, to study actual neuroimaging studies, to try to understand more about emotions in the brain. So all this stuff had been percolating in my head, when in 2005, in Santa Barbara, California I was confronted with an extremely challenging mediation. I had this divorced couple in front of me who had spent $50,000 dollars each on an $18,000 dollar problem. $50,000 dollars on attorney’s fees on an $18,000 dollar problem.
The attorneys had given up and said, “Noll, you’ve got to figure this out. Get rid of it for us.” So I had this well presented couple in front of me, well dressed. The moment I started letting them talk, they both stood up across the table and started screaming at each other vile obscenities. That was so intense that had there been knives on the table there would have been blood on the floor. I sat there and I just watched them for about 45 seconds saying, “What am I going to do?” The thought came into my head, “Listen to the emotions.” and so that’s what I had them do. Two hours later, the ex-husband looked up across the table at his ex-wife and he started sobbing.
Then that took about three or four minutes for him to clear and then he looked across the table at her and said, “That’s the first time you’ve listened to me in 25 years.” They settled the case and walked out holding hands to have lunch with each other. My jaw dropped. I said, “What just happened?” I knew what I’d done and so I started seeing if I could replicate it in other conflicts. I was able to. It worked like a charm. So then I started introducing it into my training and other people, my students started reporting the same results.
Then in 2007, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, issued his seminal study called Putting Feeling Into Words, which is brain scanning study trying to understand why this concept, which is called affect labeling worked to calm the brain down so quickly. What he discovered in his brain scanning studies was that when you affect label somebody, you reflect back their emotions. It simultaneously reactivates the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, while at the same time it inhibits the amygdala and other limbic regions of the brain that are associated with the neural networks around emotions. So it’s the-
NATE REGIER: All right, break it down for me. Break it down for me. So you mentioned two brain-
DOUG NOLL: Brain areas.
NATE REGIER: … areas of the brain that both are really importantly affected by affect labeling. Will you give us a little bit of detail about what each one does that helps the situation?
DOUG NOLL: Sure. So the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex is part of what we would call the executive function of our brain. It’s the part of the brain that processes information at a higher order, allows us to make decisions, allows us to reason basically and is where we experience consciousness. The amygdala, actually we have two of them, are two very small, almond-shaped regions of the brain deep, deep inside the brain, in a portion of the brain that basically is called the limbic system, which is the inner brain.
All these parts of the brain are associated with affect and emotion. Two different words meaning two different things. So what happens when we get really upset? Well, let’s just keep it at 50,000. We become very emotional. What happens is there are centers of our brain that basically dominate and overrun and overwhelm the part of our brain that’s the thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. The emotional centers of the brain can become so intense that the prefrontal cortex can’t even operate. It completely shuts down and at that point in time people can no longer think. All they can do is react.
When we look at conflict behaviors, this is exactly what we see. We see reactive behavior with no conscious thought. What Lieberman’s study showed was that when you label somebody’s emotion, you tell them exactly what their emotional experience is using a you statement, what happens is that the thinking part of the brain comes back online. And the emotional centers of the brain go offline. They happen reciprocally so as one goes up, the other goes down and it takes about 30 to 90 seconds for this to happen.
NATE REGIER: So, okay. This is amazing. Thank you, for sharing this. I just want to for the listeners here, so you happened upon something. You were kind of in a situation where it’s like, you didn’t have a tool for this. People were freaking out and you said, “If they’d have had knives there’d be blood on the floor and you just tried something.” You just thought, “Listen to the emotion.” So you started. That was the beginning of the process of just naming the emotion, giving it a label. Then later, Lieberman’s work showed that this process has a name called affect labeling. It just seems so paradoxical that naming affect reduces the inappropriate control of emotions on our thinking. Am I getting that right?
DOUG NOLL: That’s right. But now, so the question was, why does this work the way that it … I mean, we understand how the brain what happens but now we turn to the work of a psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is out of Northeastern University. For years, she has been studying the nature of emotions and has come up with a constructed theory of emotions, which now many neuroscientists in the field of emotion and affect have accepted as the probable theory for what emotions are. Her basic theory is number one, we’re not born with emotions. Number two, we construct emotions as cognitive constructs starting at about 18 months of age.
We actually build a database that associate words in English or in any other language depending upon the culture you’re in that associate words and concepts with affective states. Now, what I mean by an affective state is basically the feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness that we experience throughout our waking day. This is called affect. Depending on who you talk to, there could be as few as three affect and as many as nine affect. I chose the nine affect model to use developed by Sylvan Tomkins, a psychologist in the 1960s because it’s the richest.
Basically if you think about these nine affect, two are positive, one is neutral, six are negative and think of it as the primary colors of an artist’s palette. An artist can take basic primary colors, mix and match with hues and intensity and create an infinite number of different colors. The same thing is true with affect. We can take these nine affect and mix and match them with intensity levels and duration levels and arousal levels. Come up with an infinite number of emotional experiences. What we do as humans is learn how to label those different affective experiences with words that describe the experience.
This is all from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work. So now if you take Feldman Barrett’s theories and what her research shows. Then couple it with Lieberman, now it makes sense. What happens when the emotional centers of the brain are activated, the prefrontal cortex no longer has access to the emotional database. It can no longer process what the emotional condition is and it basically is shut down. It’s just lost. It’s lost contact with its database.
When we affect label somebody, we are literally lending our prefrontal cortex and our emotional database to the upset person for the 30 to 90 seconds it takes for their prefrontal cortex to come back online and reconnect to the emotional database so they can start processing their own emotional experience. When they do that, they calm down instantly and that’s how it all works.
NATE REGIER: So that’s the science. That’s the neuroscience behind the scenes.
DOUG NOLL: Correct.
NATE REGIER: So this concept of listening others into existence, how does it work and how does it take advantage of what you’ve just shared?
DOUG NOLL: Okay. I coined the phrase listening others into existence because initially, I thought I had a really cool way to calm people down that seemed bombproof and it is bombproof. But I noticed something over the years and that is that as I continued to develop these skills, I saw people feel deeply relieved and validated as if they had never been heard before in their life. I’ll never forget training some teachers these skills and one of the teachers … We were in a circle and I was teaching them how to do this stuff. She said to me, “That’s the first time I’ve ever been listened to in my whole life. I had never been heard before in my whole life. That’s the first time I’ve ever been listened to.”
Actually, I started hearing that a lot and we started getting it in the prison program. We started hearing a lot of our incarcerated students talking about this and so that’s where the term listening others into existence comes from because … Then I started studying family dynamics and realized that emotional invalidation exists everywhere. Though one of the outcomes of emotional invalidation is that people never feel heard. They never feel validated as a human being. So the question is how do you … Oh, go ahead.
NATE REGIER: So, yeah. No, I have a question there. So does affect labeling, is the validation of the person, is it the validation of the emotion?
DOUG NOLL: Yes.
NATE REGIER: Or is it by naming the affect?
DOUG NOLL: That’s correct, by naming the emotions. It resonates with people in a very deep way.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, yeah. So we’re deeply emotional. Or sorry, we have affect. We’re deeply affective beings. We have these experiences.
DOUG NOLL: Correct.
NATE REGIER: They’re so much a part of who we are, we make sense of those. We give them names. We learn to talk about them but when we name and see that, we’re seeing such a deep, powerful, vulnerable part of what it means to be human.
DOUG NOLL: Correct. Now, here is the problem. The question is why now, why has this not been talked about before? I did a lot of research around that and it turns out that for 4,000 years, we have been fed a fundamental lie about our human nature. Theologians including Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo who constructed the catechetical theology and philosophers going all the way back before Plato, Socrates and Aristotle have basically declared that what makes humans human and distinguishes them from other humans is rationality. It turns out that the neuroscientists now have told us starting with really people like Antonio Damasio at USC that humans are not rational. We are 98% emotional and only 2% rational.
NATE REGIER: Interesting-
DOUG NOLL: This whole idea of rationality is a complete myth and lie. And has caused more abuse and human suffering and lack of compassion than any other single concept in human history.
NATE REGIER: I want to share an interesting little fact to kind of corroborate that. So I mentioned earlier when we were talking that we train a model of personality called the process communication model. But it’s fundamentally based in how people experience the world, perceptual frames of reference. There are six perceptions in this model. One of them is logic and rationality. That particular perception is only shared by 20% of the population.
So historically, human beings, only 20% at best even experience the world rationally but they assume that, that’s the way it is. That type tends to be more likely be in leadership positions, positions of authority, positions of education. So I can kind of see what you’re talking about here, that it’s just a progressive lie you could call it or just progressively honing in on only one part of our experience by claiming it’s the whole thing.
DOUG NOLL: That’s right. I will tell you that the 20% of people that claim to be rational and logical are actually highly emotional people that are hiding their fear emotions with this so-called rationality. Actually, there is no such thing as rationality. I teach a course at Pepperdine at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution as a graduate professor called Decision-Making Under Uncertainty and Stress. The very first thing I teach my students is there is no such thing as rationality. That is a complete myth and also, if you want to find definitions of rationality, it’s different depending upon which academic discipline you’re looking at.
NATE REGIER: Right, right.
DOUG NOLL: Economists define rationality in a way that of course, totally violates human nature, which is why the Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s conception of rationality in 1944 was almost immediately refuted by what is known as the Allais Paradox, which Kahneman and Tversky picked up. Of course, Kahneman the Nobel for their work in prospect theory showing that humans are not rational. Today, the field of neuroeconomics, the field of behavioral economics, there’s these huge fields that are burgeoning studying the fact that humans are not rational. They’re highly emotional beings.
NATE REGIER: Well, can we try it?
DOUG NOLL: Oh, yes. So let me talk about what the technique is and then I’ll go ahead and affect label you.
NATE REGIER: Awesome.
DOUG NOLL: So the technique, so when you listen to me, it’s a three-step process. Step number one, is you ignore the words. Step number two, is you read the emotional data fields, which your brain can do automatically and step number three is you reflect back the emotions with a simple you statement. No I statements. No questions. Just a simple declaration with the experience, so that’s the technique and this is what it looks like. So what I’d like you to do is just tell me a quick little story of something that happened to you in the last couple of days that has a little bit of emotion content. I will reflect back your emotional experience and you’ll see and feel what it feels like.
NATE REGIER: Should it be something where it was negatively laden or could it be anything?
DOUG NOLL: It could be happy, negative, just so long as it has emotional content.
NATE REGIER: Okay, okay. I have one.
DOUG NOLL: Good.
NATE REGIER: So this past weekend, we made a quick trip down to Pittsburg, Kansas to visit my middle daughter. She’d been home for Christmas and she had a new puppy all through Christmas. We got to-
DOUG NOLL: So you’re really excited. Boy, you were excited. You get to see your daughter and the puppy, really exciting.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, so we went. We were missing the puppy. We went down there to spend just an overnight. We decided to stay in and cook. We brought our dog and there was this moment where we’re cooking, we’re talking, we’re laughing, our dogs are playing. A country song was playing that is all about … The line was another day in paradise. It’s about parents with children and just that messiness and the beautifulness of it. We were in that moment.
DOUG NOLL: You were just having an incredible amount of joy and love and happiness. You just felt completely light and full of joy and love. It was just an amazing almost transcendent experience for you.
NATE REGIER: It was absolutely.
DOUG NOLL: All right. So anything else?
NATE REGIER: No. That’s it.
DOUG NOLL: Awesome. All right, so the first thing I want to ask you is what was that experience like for you?
NATE REGIER: When you named it even though you jumped in really fast I felt like I was still in the middle of my story it was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You get it.”
DOUG NOLL: There you go.
NATE REGIER: You’re with me.
DOUG NOLL: That’s exactly right. So for people who are listening, that might have sounded like the rudest thing I could possibly do was interrupt but you have to understand that you’re applying rules of conversation to rules of listening. Listening is not conversation. The rules that we learn at two years old, not to interrupt, do not apply to this kind of listening. What you want to do, is name the emotion as soon as you see it even if it means somebody only talks for a second or two.
You jump in and immediately label the emotion. You might be thinking, “Well, jeez. People are going to say that’s really rude.” But, no. They say exactly what you said. They, “Wow. I first thought that he was interrupting me but, man, he was really with me. He totally got it. He was totally with me.” That’s the experience that people have. They feel like they’ve been listened into existence and it’s that simple.
NATE REGIER: So if I’m a listener I’m thinking, “Okay, that’s great. He shared a positive story. Of course, it’s easy. There’s no tension. There’s no negative conflict.” Can we try it again with something a little bit dicier?
DOUG NOLL: Absolutely.
NATE REGIER: So I’m guessing you want me to think of a situation that maybe wasn’t so positive in my mind.
DOUG NOLL: Sure. It could be anything. Anything, well, unhappy or negative or …
NATE REGIER: Okay. I got one.
DOUG NOLL: Okay.
NATE REGIER: So two weeks ago, I was preparing for a big training. The first of its kind. There were going to be political people in the room and the stakes felt high to me. I was trying to get my materials ready and the materials that came were not what I was expecting and-
DOUG NOLL: So you were anxious and you were a little bit pissed off.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, yeah, I was.
DOUG NOLL: And really frustrated.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, and confused and-
DOUG NOLL: Confused, really confused and really worried.
NATE REGIER: Because I thought, “Okay, I don’t have time to get right materials. I’m going to have to present this thing that looks chaotic to these people. What are they going to think of me? How are they going to judge our company?”
DOUG NOLL: So you’re really worried about your reputation and you’re anxious about how you’re going to be perceived and how your reputation’s going to be affected. You’re proud of your work and you’re really frustrated because you’re not going to be putting your best foot forward.
NATE REGIER: I was and I thought I knew what the materials were going to be. I had seen a version of those materials a week before that was perfect. Then the one that showed up in my inbox was not at all what I thought.
DOUG NOLL: So you were really frustrated and really angry that what you thought you were going to get was not what you received at all. You really felt betrayed like somebody had really let you down and you were really sad about it.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. I can’t even go on because I’m feeling fine about it right now.
DOUG NOLL: Yeah?
NATE REGIER: Yeah. I experienced something really unique this time. Is so often when people complain or bitch about something, we join in almost as … It escalates in the way that we do it. I see this often like, “Oh, I can’t believe they treated you like this.” It becomes all about, I got victimized or I got this. Somehow the energy you were bringing was as if you were getting on my side but it wasn’t about … It didn’t escalate in any way.
DOUG NOLL: No, it calmed you down.
NATE REGIER: Yeah.
DOUG NOLL: So how did you experience that?
NATE REGIER: I experienced it just the same as the last one and I just felt calmer and calmer and calmer. But less upset at the external things that I couldn’t control. Just more feeling like, “Yeah. Yeah. I was okay.”
DOUG NOLL: Right, exactly. The thing to understand is that this all happens unconsciously. I am literally lending you my prefrontal cortex as you go through this and it’s all happening at an unconscious level. You’re not even aware that your brain is processing information this way. That’s why it’s one of the reasons it’s so effective is because you can take any angry, upset person, calm them in 30 to 90 seconds and they don’t even know what you did once you’ve mastered the skill.
NATE REGIER: I was going to ask you about why is this not manipulation? But I’m not going to because I think anybody that experienced the last five minutes will know the answer to that. But what I do want to focus on is you said, “I’m lending you my prefrontal cortex.” That assumes that you are thinking clearly, right?
DOUG NOLL: Well, I have to be aware. That’s right. I can’t be triggered and I have to be aware enough to be aware of your emotion experience. Now, here is the cool thing about this. When you learn to ignore the words and the words are just white noise, you no longer get triggered. When you start affect labeling somebody else’s strong emotions you put yourself into a protective bubble that people cannot penetrate. It doesn’t matter what they say. They can be spitting angry at you and you are calm and as cool as you can possibly be because all you’re doing is focusing on their emotional experience. There’s no room in your brain for your ego to get involved and it just happens automatically.
NATE REGIER: Well, I would love the … Powerful, thank you for trying it right here and taking me through this. I’d love to go more into this but I know we need to land a plane. I wanted to just give you a brief chance to talk about how … I know how passionate you are about bringing these tools to other audiences and like Next Element, I think one thing we both share is a passion for scaling because if you’re really going to make a different in more lives, it can’t just rely on our time and our energy.
DOUG NOLL: That’s right.
NATE REGIER: So I know you’re particularly proud of the work you’re doing in prisons. Will you just give us a little snapshot of what’s going on?
DOUG NOLL: Yeah, Laurel and I started the Prison of Peace Project in response to a woman who was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in the largest, most violent women’s prison in the world, which happens to be about an hour and 15 minutes from where I live here in Central California. As a result of her letter and a lot of work, we started the Prison of Peace Project in 2010 with the idea that we would train lifers and long-termers in this women’s prison, all women, how to be peacemakers and mediators so they could stop prison violence.
We had no idea how it would start. For the first seven years it was all pro bono. Both of us almost went bankrupt doing this because we gave up our professional practices and dedicated ourselves to training this incarcerated population how to be peacemakers. The very first skill we decided to teach was because Laurel was aware of my work in affect labeling. We decided the very first skill was to teach them deep reflective listening, which is basically core messaging and affect labeling. That became the foundational skill of the project but as we progressed our students from having no skill whatsoever to becoming mediators and peacemakers, they had to learn about 30 or 40 different kinds of skills that we taught them over a year’s period.
Today, of course, the pandemic came along in 2020 and shut down all in-person prison programming but we spent this last year taking our entire curriculum and filming it. Now, we have a 40-hour film curriculum. It’s in post-production right now. We’re in the process of writing all the manuals to go along with it. In a couple of months, the Prison of Peace curriculum will be available to anybody in the world willing to facilitate the training in any kind of penal institution or in reentry programs for people coming out of prison to learn these skills.
I’ll just give you a couple of statistics, just the efficacy. We or our inmate trainers have trained over 20,000 inmates in California, Connecticut and in Greece. Now, in Italy and soon in Nairobi. In California, we’ve had about 2,000 of our students released. Not one report of recidivism. Not one of our students who graduated from our-
NATE REGIER: 2,000, you said?
DOUG NOLL: Uh-huh (affirmative). Roughly, 2,000. Not one of our students has reoffended, which is remarkable. Now, these are all lifers and long-termers and lifers and long-termers tend not to reoffend at the same rate as short-term inmates. But still, the reports that we get from people who have been released is that their lives are completely changed. They’re productive members of the community. Many of them are going back and working with other inmates training. They’re teaching. Many of them have gone back to school, gone to college. I mean, it’s just amazing how their lives have changed as a result of this. So in essence, that’s the program.
NATE REGIER: So Doug Noll, lawyer turned peacemaker, accidentally happened upon a technique in a situation where he was completely unprepared, replicated it, learned the neuroscience behind it and is now with intention scaling this model to change lives. 2,000 students, 2,000 inmates released from prison and not a single reoffense. Wow. Doug, what an incredible legacy. What an incredible journey you’re on.
DOUG NOLL: Yeah, it is amazing and it’s just beginning.
NATE REGIER: Wow. I can feel the enthusiasm in your voice. You’re excited. You’re passionate. You are proud.
DOUG NOLL: Oh, thank you. Good affect labeling. I am.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. Well, I’d love to leave people with how can people get ahold of you if they want to learn more about this project and how to get involved?
DOUG NOLL: I created a webpage for everybody who’s listening, only for this audience. Nobody else and the URL is dougnoll, D-O-U-G-N-O-L-L.co/on-compassion.
NATE REGIER: Oh.
DOUG NOLL: Dougnoll.co-
NATE REGIER: So it’s dougnoll.co-
DOUG NOLL: … co/-
NATE REGIER: … /-
DOUG NOLL: … oncompassion, with a dash, on-compassion.
NATE REGIER: Wow.
DOUG NOLL: That will take you to my website dougnoll.com, special page just for that audience. On that page are four resources going from free to expensive depending upon what you want to do. You can get a free eBook that really describes everything that we’ve been talking about today. You can buy my book De-Escalate off of Amazon. There’s a link there to do that. You can buy the De-Escalate Video Course, which is $200 dollars to teach you the basic skills we’ve been talking about.
Then if you’re really interested in developing your emotional competency, there’s a high-end basic and advanced Emotional Competency Course. I’m discounting it 50% for listeners but it’s pricey at about $795 dollars. The typical price is $1,500 dollars for that course. Then from there from that page you can also of course, navigate through the rest of my website where I’ve got blogs and YouTube videos and just a ton of resources if you’re interested in learning more about this work.
NATE REGIER: Doug, thank you for giving resources for everywhere from beginning all the way up to serious involvement with you. Thanks again for being on my podcast. Thanks for what you do, what you’re doing in the world and thanks for giving us your time and energy.
DOUG NOLL: Hey, thanks a lot. Great, great conversation. A lot of fun.
NATE REGIER: Here are my three top takeaways from a powerful, personally impactful and incredibly enlightening conversation with Doug Noll. First of all, negative conflict is predictable because of how we were raised. Doug asserts that most children don’t get the emotional awareness and management training that they need as children. So when we grow up, we repeat these six-year-old habits, except in adult bodies.
The second key takeaway for me was that the process of affect labeling is a way of seeing and affirming another person. By naming the affect, we validate a deep, vulnerable and intimate part of our humanity. This is why so many of the people who experience this technique say, it’s the first time in their lives that they felt seen and heard.
I certainly experienced the benefit of it in the two scenarios that we went through during the interview. Finally, 2,000 prisoners released, not one reoffense. The Prison of Peace Project has trained 20,000 lifer and long-term inmates in the techniques of listening others into existence. Of those 2,000 who have been released, none have reoffended. That’s a remarkable statistic.
VOICEOVER: I hope you enjoyed this episode of On Compassion with Dr. Nate. If you found new hope or guidance for your life, will you share it with your tribe? If you know someone who could be a great guest, please let us know. Are you ready for a practical way to bring more compassion to your organization? We have a solution. Visit www.thecompassionmindset.com. Check out the show notes for links and contact information. Remember to subscribe, rate and give a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep your compassion mindset engaged.
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