How Should I Respond to an Emotional Outburst?

Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi describes a difficult conversation between his parents. His father, Lehi, had led the family away from their comfortable home in Jerusalem to live in tents in the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:2-3). Then, he had been inspired to send his sons back to Jerusalem on a dangerous mission (1 Nephi 3:2-5). When their sons did not return within the expected time frame, Nephi’s mother, Sariah, feared the worst. She expressed her worries and her grief to her husband in an emotionally charged statement. Calling him a “visionary man,” she said:

Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness (1 Nephi 5:2).

Elder W. Craig Zwick invites us to consider what Sariah was thinking and feeling as she spoke those words:

She was filled with anxiety about her quarrelsome sons returning to the place where her husband’s life had been threatened. She had traded her lovely home and friends for a tent in an isolated wilderness while still in her childbearing years. Pushed to the breaking point of her fears, Sariah…expressed legitimate concerns to her husband in the language of anger and doubt and blame—a language in which the entire human race seems to be surprisingly proficient (“What Are You Thinking?” General Conference, April 2014).

Under the circumstances, it’s not hard to understand why Sariah’s would express her doubts and worries in this way. But to Lehi, those words probably felt like a personal attack. She seemed to be questioning his judgment, his concern for their children, and even his sanity. He might have been tempted to respond defensively or even to escalate the conversation, criticizing her in return. Instead, he responded with moderation and with encouragement (1 Nephi 5:4-5):

  1. “I know that I am a visionary man.” That label may have sounded derogatory, but Lehi was willing to claim it. It was accurate to say that their current challenges were a direct result of the revelations Lehi had received through dreams and visions. So he began his response by acknowledging that the heart of her message was true: He was a visionary man, and their situation would have been different if he were different.
  2. “If I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.” Sariah was comparing their current situation with their life before they left the city. Lehi suggested a different strategy for evaluating their circumstances: Instead of comparing their current life with their past life, why not compare it with the life they would now be leading if they had stayed in the city? They had seen the darkening clouds: His life had been threatened, and the people of the city were responding poorly to the warnings of multiple prophets. If they had not left Jerusalem, they would be worse off, not better.
  3. “But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.” Here is the positive side of being a visionary. Lehi knew that there were brighter days ahead, and he had an assurance that God would protect his sons. Sariah’s faith was faltering, so he lent his faith to her, in the form of a testimony. His words of conviction helped her to quiet her fears.

Today, I will follow Lehi’s example when I’m faced with an emotionally charged situation. I will strive to respond in a measured way. I will acknowledge the facts spoken by the other person, suggest alternative interpretations of those facts, and share my confidence and faith with them. Above all, I will avoid becoming defensive and remain focused on helping them to calm their fears and rebuild their hope.

4 thoughts on “How Should I Respond to an Emotional Outburst?

Add yours

  1. I was just on this chapter this morning and dealing with stressful situations at home with finances and kids behavior along with my seemingly absence of the situation. I feel frustrated misunderstood and a lack of appreciation at times. The kindling of mistrust hurts and says what a horrible horrible person I am. But I have to realize this is just to make aware of a situation and its not a reflection of character. Are there changes needed absolutely. I think as men we feel blamed when we are out of town for work and providing while getting calls from our wives crying over the phone at how the little one just ruined the couch or the teenage daughter is being sassy with mom. But responding with Well what do you want me to do about it. We dont realize the intent of the communication at times and I dont feel that Sariah was there to verbally beat up her husband into questioning his rationale.


  2. *What I meant was to not respond in frustration with questions like “Well what do you want me to do about it?”


    1. Thanks for your comment. I completely agree: the key is to listen from the other person’s perspective, and not to take their words personally. Easy to say, hard to do.


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