There is real skill involved in being able to stay present and committed to a conversation or exchange with someone when there are obvious emotions present. These emotions may show up as healthy expression, like when someone tells you “I am upset because you cut me off in the meeting today”, but more often than not they may show up in body language (clenched teeth, crossed arms, lack of eye contact) long before the person you are communicating with is able to get to a place where they can realistically discuss feelings.
Most of us dread this occurrence; in fact the very presence of emotions takes a normal conversation into the realm of “difficult”, which may cause you to get emotional too. You may then become defensive (“I only cut you off because you weren’t letting anyone else contribute!”), or rationalize (“Just because I cut you off you’ve no reason to get upset – it happens all the time, we all do it!”) or we acquiesce and take the brunt (“I don’t remember cutting you off, but I guess I must have if you say I did”). Emotions are a needed and vital part of us, without them we can’t make decisions or discern the best choices/options. We have no access to our intuition without emotion, so there is much to be gained by building skills that allow us to stay in community with someone who is emotional and who may make us emotional too.
The first step is recognizing emotions are in play. In this context recognizing is the process by which you cognitively understand something is present in the exchange that needs to be explored to be fully understood. Recognition is an act of knowing you need to give more space to something. Sounds simple, but it can be quite difficult when it comes to being aware of, and then giving more space to, emotions. How many times have you walked away from a conversation thinking, “What did I miss?” It means recognition didn’t take place (for you, possibly for the other person as well). This is not just about ensuring the other person is able to speak, but understanding the nuance and complexity of the context they are experiencing…this requires you to be sympathetic and curious.
Inquiry is allowing curiosity to manifest itself as an empathetic and open action. When you are truly being inquisitive you are not invested in the outcome or answer, but open to whatever is present; you are open to understanding both the context and content of another person’s expression of their experience. In the end you may not share their point of view, but you can understand that it is what she/he experienced. This requires skilled listening. Listening is the intent to be open and receptive to what is being said…active listening is an action sourced in the “here and now” and comes from a place of compassion. Only when you are able to give of yourself and be present for another person will you really listen and the person you are speaking with be really heard. Inquiry and listening go hand-in-hand as they work in concert to enable things like objectivity, perspective taking and constructive two-way dialogue.
Acceptance is also a player in working with emotions. Acceptance is the act of realistically acknowledging what is present and deciding (whether you agree with it or not) to work within it. You may not agree with someone getting angry about being cut-off in a meeting, but you can accept that what they are experiencing is anger, and that anger is sourced in something that is very important to the other person (like expectations of mutual respect).
Once you have traversed recognition, inquiry, listening and acceptance you have access to influence. Influence is what becomes available to you when you choose to work in emotions and give them space using the four steps outlined above. If you miss one of those key steps, you will not have demonstrated credibility in your continued exchange with the other person and therefore you will have no influence. Without investing in the four previous steps you may also not be in a conscious place to continue the exchange in a constructive way, which also impacts your credibility. It is at influence that you can work actively both with the other person and the emotions present, helping to collaboratively shape what comes next.
Here is an example:
A: “I am hearing that what happened in the meeting today made you angry. You have said that I cut you off while you were speaking, and I can appreciate how that would make you feel angry, I would feel the same way in your position.”
B: “Yes, yes it did. You were insensitive and rude!”
A: “I don’t have the same recollection as you do about what happened in the meeting today, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Can you tell me what you were speaking about and how I cut you off?”
B: “I can’t believe you don’t remember this! I was presenting the plan for the Monroe project today and you stepped in and went off on how critical our budget would be on this project.”
A: “You are right, I did do that. I am sorry I cut you off.”
B: “Well, that doesn’t help me much now does it? Now I look like I didn’t have that information when I did in fact have it, I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. I looked incompetent!”
A: “I can appreciate how that made you feel, I never intended for you to feel incompetent.”
B: “Then why did you do it?”
A: “While you were reading aloud from your notes, our CEO looked at me and motioned to raise the issue of our budget. You likely didn’t know that since you were focused on your notes. It is perhaps why I didn’t realize I had cut you off, and for that I am sorry. What can I do to remedy this?”
B: “Well there is nothing to be done about it now!”
A: “You are right, what should I have done differently in that meeting?”
B: “You could have brought my attention to what the CEO was looking for – I had that information, including the emphasis on the budget.”
A: “You are right, that is what I should have done, and I can promise that if this situation ever arises again, that is what I will do.”
B: “Our CEO is so impatient! It is likely this will happen again.”
A: “It may, and now I am better prepared to handle it in a professional way, without cutting you off. I appreciate that you took the time to help me see this and to find a better path forward.”
B: “OK, I am sorry if I was angry with you. I am feeling better about what happened I’m glad we talked this through.”
Emotions and difficult conversations happen every day, at home, at work…everywhere. Difficult conversations don’t easily go away, they get harder the longer you avoid them. However, it is possible to have a constructive conversation if you chose to work with the emotions that emerge (both yours and the other person's), allowing everyone to walk away being heard and feeling valued.
This article was inspired by the writings of Fred Kofman in his book Conscious Business: How To Build Value Through Values. An exceptional resource and excellent read.