Recipes for Controlling the Emotional Hijack: An Interview with Harmony Goorley

Under normal circumstances, most of us are likely rational, likable human beings.  But given the right stressors — a fight with our spouse, job loss, or even just traffic — even the mild manner Dr. Bruce Banner can lose his temper… suddenly becoming a raging, irrational Hulk.

But when your job is to be the guardian, the one who calmly handles crisis or conflict, how can you avoid this sudden transformation?


Join us for this recorded webinar, when Falcon, Inc’s Harmony Goorley is here to:

  • Review predictable characterological and personality patterns commonly seen in the jail population.
  • Examine strategies to convey empathic and attentive listening to individuals in distress.
  • Construct specific recipes for effective communication when under duress and perceiving threats to safety.
  • Prepare practical de-escalation techniques to diffuse potentially violent situations.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Harmony, you’re a new presenter for us… Tell us about yourself. 

Harmony Goorley: Passionate about mental health yet aware that my frank approach to therapy would not be a match for certain counseling careers, I obtained a Masters of Forensic Psychology with a concentration in corrections. I was drawn to the intensity and volatility of the field.

For the last decade, I have held positions inside civil commitment, jail, and addiction recovery facilities. When I was still green and unaware of the norms inside custodial environments, I found myself experiencing these surges of emotionality early in my career. Anxious and embarrassed, I was unsure how to rectify these repeated moments of unprofessionalism. Learning to develop strong and influential therapeutic alliances with more challenging clients (and colleagues) became my primary motivator during my early career.

Tired of feeling frustrated and frustrating my clients, I began a self-study on strategies to improve my emotional intelligence. Around this same time, I began to regularly practice yoga – focusing on self-awareness and resiliency.  Suddenly, I found myself enjoying my work more and building meaningful alliances with individuals I had previously wrote off as unreachable. What matured me as a therapist seemed to similarly assist my clients whom were struggling to cope with the demands of correctional environments.

Currently, I work as a technical expert for Falcon Inc., providing correctional behavioral health consultation services to jails and prisons nationwide. I am also a correctional magazine contributor and peer reviewer. While still susceptible to the occasional emotional hijack, I continue to work on increasing my degree of emotional intelligence and conflict resolution skills. Supporting others in their own professional development continues to be one of the most rewarding privileges of my job.



These emotional takeovers result in thoughtless retaliation,

hurt feelings, and fractured relationships.



JCH: Your webinar is about emotional hijacking. What is emotional hijacking exactly? 

Harmony: It is quite common for people to experience episodes in which emotions take over sensible thinking and behavior. What begins as calm, cooperative dialogues with spouses or children quickly turn into disrespectful and competitive arguments with all parties furious with one another. These emotional takeovers result in thoughtless retaliation, hurt feelings, and fractured relationships. For some, blunt responses to a supervisor’s critiques even result in formal disciplinary actions threatening job and financial security. Once momentary (yet intense) feelings like rage, anxiety, or humiliation subside, we are left with the aftermath and deep regret of our bad behavior.

In 1996, psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, to describe these all too common emotional seizures. In theory, the small almond-shaped structure in our brain, known as the amygdala, serves as our internal alarm system. If it perceives physical threat, it will instantaneously activate fight-or-flight responses. Immediately, the amygdala directs the release of chemicals like cortisol to prepare the body to ward off predators. Imagine a hungry bear chasing after us looking for its next meal. Meticulous planning would slow our escape. Luckily, the primitive brain shuts off the highly complex parts of the brain responsible for careful and complex decision-making. Split-second reactions take over instead. Sometimes, fast is better than smart.

While these responses may save us during life-threatening situations, everyday quarrels with family, colleagues, or clients do not warrant such alarm. In the era of litigation, even genuine threats of bodily harm must be addressed while adhering to strict policy and procedure. Oftentimes, wisdom must override speed. Allowing our emotions to hijack rational thinking, especially when these emotions are strong and disproportionate to the situation, can result in risky and regrettable actions with catastrophic outcomes. Threats to our ego must not warrant the same alarm as threats to our physical safety.



Allowing our emotions to hijack rational thinking,

especially when these emotions are strong and disproportionate to the situation,

can result in risky and regrettable actions

with catastrophic outcomes.



JCH: How is emotional hijacking particularly applicable to justice professionals working with incarcerated populations?

Harmony: Even on a good day, justice professionals work inside cortisol-rich environments. Danger is an ever-present reality. The incarcerated population is comprised of unhappy and unhealthy individuals residing in stark and overcrowded facilities. Where cortisol, the stress chemical, is present, so too is the potential for violence. To effectively engage this population for interview, risk assessment, or a variety of other objectives, professionals must be able to approach offenders in a firm, non-threatening, and most importantly, composed manner.  Feelings of disrespect will quickly spoil the potential for safe and collaborative exchanges. Justice professionals proficient in practical diffusion techniques will greatly reduce the potential for inmate-on-inmate/inmate-on-staff violence and related liability issues.

Swift communication and efficient coordination of duty between staff serve as pillars to the security of our nation’s correctional facilities. Trust and respect among colleagues strengthen the flow of floor and administrative operations. Emotional outbursts between colleagues can similarly increase the potential for crisis situations. Feuding colleagues are more easily manipulated by cunning inmates and can contribute to a disorganized and vulnerable system. Individuals’ leadership potential and an agency’s overall job performance increase as justice professionals become more skillful communicators while under duress.


JCH: Without giving the webinar away what are the most important things people should remember when they find themselves feeling emotionally stressed, or to use your words, being hijacked by their emotions?

Harmony: When dealing with emotionally dysregulated individuals, professionals must maintain their composure to cognitively out-maneuver potentially violent individuals. Staying in control when emotions run strong involves the close monitoring of feelings and impulses before they generate any type of action. Being a strong observer of oneself will widen the gap between impulse and action, lessening the probability of regretting decisions later. Reflective listening, which extends far beyond attentive smiles and nods, helps to translate this contagious sense of calm to others, particularly those suffering from mood, thought, or personality disorders.


Click Here to Watch “Recipes for Controlling the Emotional Hijack When Roasted, Shaken and Stirred Amid Crisis.”



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