What High School Chemistry Taught Me About Dealing with People Who are Upset


There is very little I remember about high school chemistry.

Now, in fairness, this is not a cause of great concern because I learned very little to begin with, so there wasn’t much to forget.

As I liked to remind my chemistry teacher, “I am never going to use this in my real life.” (Ok, I only said this in my head. I went to Catholic school and did want to make it out in one piece.)

But one concept that is drilled into my memory is “like dissolves like.”   While I vaguely recall something about polar and non-polar solvents, the basic concept is to dissolve something polar must be matched with polar (i.e. salt and water) and non-polar with non-polar (i.e. oil and iodine).   But as we all know from the old adage, you cannot mix oil and water.

So what does this have to do with coping with highly emotional moments?

Like dissolves like.

To calm emotion use emotion—not ration!

“Look on the bright side” is hardly useful when a friend is mourning the loss of their beloved pet. “Susie has been doing gymnastics longer” isn’t helpful when your child is disappointed with her competition results. No one wants to hear “you’re better off without him” as the first response to learning of a break up. And just try telling irate customers “that’s against our policy” before you acknowledge their frustration.

Always begin dealing with the problem on the level at which it was brought to you.   Yes, even if you hate dealing with emotion. Yes, even if the person is being wholly irrational.   And yes, even if you disagree with the person.

Logic won’t dissolve emotion. Emotion will dissolve emotion. We call this empathy.

Acknowledge the person’s pain. Let them vent. And then, and only then, when the emotion subsides, logic can enter the picture and you can move toward problem solving or helping the person reframe their feelings.

On the other hand, if you enjoy watching a good combustion reaction, then please go ahead and try using logic instead of empathy. They don’t call emotional outbursts explosions for nothing!

So, I apologize to Mrs. Dabrowski, my high school chemistry teacher. I guess my 10th grade self was wrong when I said I will never use chemistry again.

Go figure.