2.6 Making Feelings And Emotions Serve Conversations

Poor emotional control destroys millions of conversations every day. People lose their temper and say things they later regret. People get moody and sulky and withdraw from the interaction. People wallow in their feelings of hurt and then go on a revenge mission, sniping at the other person.

Strong negative feelings can make it difficult for someone to assemble their thoughts clearly and put them into words. A vital Conversation Manager skill, therefore, is keeping an eye on your own emotional temperature gauge and knowing when and how to manage your own strong emotions so they enhance, rather than interfere with, the communication.

a. Monitoring your state of mind

We're all familiar with the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me." Well, that's nonsense. Words can harm us in many different ways. In fact, the usual distinction between ‘words’ and ‘actions’ doesn't hold true in many cases. Words often are actions. Words spoken in anger can have the impact of a battering ram. On the other hand, soothing words for a person in physical or psychological pain, can sometimes be better than medication.

Since communication is a form of human behaviour, it is subject to the laws of human behaviour. For instance, behaviour that is rewarded tends to be repeated. If you laugh at the sick jokes of a friend, your friend is likely to continue in his or her behaviour. Another law: ignored or unrewarded behaviour tends to decrease. So, if you don't laugh at the sick jokes and start talking about something else, it’s likely that your friend's unwanted behaviour will decrease or disappear, at least in your presence.

The basic laws of human behaviour, once understood, go far in helping understand one's own, and other people's, communication style.

One of the responsibilities involved with being an effective Conversation Manager, is monitoring the emotional state of a conversation — particularly your own. This isn’t a fulltime job, but something you do from time to time, as part of a regular sweep, so to speak. As soon as the reading gets anywhere close to the red zone, the internal alarm bell should ring — action stations, emotions in danger of getting out of control!

b. Communication and emotion

Almost everything we hear in our conversations creates a reaction. For instance, when we receive praise, we feel good about ourselves — unless we think it’s phony praise, or that we don't deserve it. On the other hand, if somebody criticises us, we may well feel hurt and angry, even when we do deserve it.

We all know that feelings and emotions are no strangers to conversations. They are woven into the fabric of conversations. Therefore, learning how to make them serve conversations is very important. There are many things you can do, and refrain from doing, to make emotions friends, rather than enemies, of dialogue.

The starting point is this: We can control our emotions and make them serve our relationships more than we realise. It's easy to ‘blame’ our emotions for our actions. "He made me angry, so I told him off. We haven't talked for over a month." If we are not in charge of our emotions, they will quickly take charge of us. This is another demonstration of the need to balance openness with self-discipline in pursuit of effective communication.

You can choose to be ‘emotionally aware’ or ‘emotionally unaware’ in your approach to communication. It key responsibility of the Conversation Manager role to make sure your ‘awareness’ system is switched on.

Let’s look at a conversation from the perspective of ‘emotional self-control’.

Toby, a college student, is talking with his younger brother, Gordon. Their parents are away for a couple of days, and Toby has been asked to "keep an eye on Gordon." Gordon has failed to do the chores assigned to him.

Let's consider two different ways that Toby can address this issue. We'll call them Toby A and Toby B.

Toby A says in an exasperated voice, "Gordon, stop being a selfish little brat. Grow up. You know what you have to do. Do it!"

Miracles aside, Gordon is more likely to react than respond. Indeed, a verbal war breaks out with Gordon shouting back, "Hey, shut up. You're worse than I am!" Does this sound familiar?

Now let's try Toby B. He says, "Hey, Gordon, Mum and Dad will be home this evening. Let's surprise them and have the place looking better than when they left. I've got some time."

While this does not assure that Gordon will rise to the challenge - he may well be a ‘selfish little brat’ - it does give him a chance to respond, rather than react. One critical difference between Toby A and Toby B is emotional self-control. Toby B does not let his annoyance with his younger brother get the better of him.

In that conversation Toby demonstrated emotional self-control in the Explainer/Teller role. We can also apply the same idea when in the Understander role — in this case, choosing to respond thoughtfully rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion, even when provoked.

Here’s another example. Jennifer, a single woman in her late twenties, is talking with her mother about her friends from work. Her mother keeps finding fault with everyone Jennifer mentions. At one point her mother says, "What a sorry crowd you hang out with."

Let's take a look at the responses of Jennifer A, B, C, and D.

Jennifer A reacts, saying angrily, "Well, I'd rather be with them than here." And she stalks off.

Jennifer B takes a different approach, saying, "By the way, when are we going to have dinner with uncle Ben and Sally? I'd like to do it sooner, rather than later. They're great to be with."

Jennifer B simply changes the topic and remains upbeat. She does not reward her mother's remarks with a reply or, worse, with a fight, which her mother seems to enjoy.

Jennifer C takes a third approach. She says, "Mum, my friends are my friends. Since you don't have to spend time with them, I'm not sure why you get so upset by them. I think it would be better for both of us if we simply didn't talk about them."

Jennifer C confronts the issue directly and suggests a remedy.

Finally, Jennifer D takes an even different approach. She says, "Mum, I know you don't care much for my friends, but I'm not sure why. They're all so different, but you don't seem to like any of them.”

Jennifer D wants to get to the bottom of it and ‘work things out’. Jennifer A reacts, while B, C, and D respond in different ways. The Jennifers in B, C, and D, have one thing in common - holding negative emotions in check. Which response do you prefer and why?

c. Some principles of emotional management

In a book called Emotional Intelligence (1995; see also Working With Emotional Intelligence, 1998), David Goleman has put together the case for emotional self-control. Here are some of the principles for such control:

Emotional Self-Awareness

Get to know your own emotions and your emotional patterns:

"I tend to blow up easily when I'm challenged."

"I sulk when people don't pay enough attention to me."

"I'm optimistic and friendly with almost everyone."

Self-awareness is the starting point for an upbeat use of emotion in conversations.

Emotional Self-Management

Once you get an understanding of how you use emotions - or let them use you - in your interactions with other people, learn how to manage them well:

"I realise that Evelyn gets my goat easily, so I'll be more careful when I'm around her."

"I don't get excited about other people's successes. So I don't celebrate with others easily. I'd be a better friend if I were to get more involved with my friends in the ups and downs of their lives."

The key is being in charge of emotions that you can control, and being in charge of your reactions to emotions that arise spontaneously. If you know that you blow up easily when you can't get your way, you can control your emotions, at least to a degree, by preparing for situations in which your desires might be thwarted.

Susan says to a friend, "Given all the mess at his job, I know that Tom is probably going to come home one of these days and say that we're going to have to put off our vacation. Blowing sky high won't get us anywhere. So, I have to figure out how to handle it."

Picture a different scene. The same Tom, who is happily married to Susan, is having a drink one evening with Nell, an attractive, hard-working colleague, at a conference hotel. During the conversation Nell makes a sexual overture, and emotions surge spontaneously in Tom. Since this is unexpected, it's not a question of controlling his emotions but of controlling his response to Nell. He says, "Nell, you're a wonderfully attractive person, but for a whole host of reasons, I'm not right for you." She replies, "Just thought I'd give it a try." They continue to discuss other issues.

Emotions as motivators

Use emotions to motivate yourself. You can use your feelings, emotions and moods to get yourself to do things:

"I really feel good, so I'll have that talk with Felicity that I've been putting off. I'm in the right mood."

"I'm finally annoyed enough with Claire to challenge her selfish behaviour."

You can also use your feelings, emotions and moods to keep you from doing things.

"I'm down in the dumps. I'll get over it. But until then, I'm not going to inflict myself on others. I'll mess around on the internet for a while."

"I'm too angry to talk to Martin right now. I'll be in a better state of mind tomorrow."

Emotions tend to drive behaviours. Knowing what you want from a conversation can help you control, or direct, that drive.

Understanding other people's emotions

Recognise other people's ad-hoc emotions and emotional patterns:

"Carl's in a bad mood. I'll talk to him about the problem with the furnace later."

"Edmund is easily hurt when you criticise his brother, Ray. Edmund knows that Ray has problems, but Edmund doesn't want them shoved in his face."

"Carol is almost always upbeat. She's always fun to be with."

What you're doing here is taking a look at the other person's emotions in terms of your relationship with him, or her. This is not a psychological assessment. When it comes to negative emotions such as hurt, anger, and fear, your job is to recognise patterns of emotions, on-the-spot emotions and moods in others, not cure them. You're allowed to cure your own, however.

Managing emotional mixes

It's important to manage the interaction between your own feelings and emotions, with those of others, in order to make relationships go more smoothly:

"My tendency to fly off the handle, coupled with Mohammed’s thin skin, is a volatile mix. I need to read his reactions carefully, and watch myself."

"When Andrea's down, I get depressed, too. Then we're no good for each other. I've got to watch that."

The ideal is obvious - all parties to the conversation know and use the strategies outlined here. But ideals are just that, ideals. You are in charge of yourself no matter what the other person does.

d. Managing anger

Since anger in all its forms - from annoyance to rage - is such a common emotion, and spills over so frequently into our conversations, it’s useful to take a closer look.

Giving free vent to anger does not have the benefits it's supposed to have. We are human beings, not pressure cookers with release valves. The use of steam and hydraulic engineering as metaphors for the workings of the human mind was common practice among many early psychologists, simply because these were the dominant technologies of the age.

Often enough, giving vent to anger makes us even more angry. This does not mean that we should become emotionally ‘neutral’, or bland. That robs life of its colour. There are times when we should express anger. How we do so is the issue. The challenge is neither to swallow our negative emotions, nor give in to them in a wholesale fashion.

The principles that govern emotions generally and, in this instance, anger, apply to communicators in both the Explainer/Teller and Understander role.

How often have people done things, failed to do things, and said things that have deeply annoyed you? You felt they were being snide. You disagreed strongly with the point of view being expressed. You didn't like the message they were delivering. You thought the story they were telling was too self-serving. And on and on.

In cases like this, how often do you say something that gives you some immediate satisfaction but doesn’t exactly help the cause of dialogue? Something like, "That’s a really stupid thing to say,” or, "Look who’s talking! You're worse, far worse, than me.” That’s anger talking.

The key is to keep your mouth firmly clamped shut to prevent your knee-jerk reaction coming out. The few seconds of silence that follow will not be noticed. The age-old advice of counting to ten (or less) before responding has been confirmed by many studies on anger, which in reality, dissipates very rapidly if the flames are not fanned.

In any case, thinking before speaking, responding rather than reacting, is totally in keeping with the spirit of reflection that permeates true dialogue.

Virginia Williams and Redford Williams, in their book Lifeskills, (see also Anger Kills, 1994, by the same authors), provide some questions you can ask yourself as you reflect on how you might manage your anger in conversations with other people.

What are the facts? Am I making any of them up? Am I exaggerating any of them? For instance, I'm in an aeroplane on a short flight. The kid in the seat behind me kicks the back of my seat once in a while. These are the facts.

Is this matter really important? You ask yourself, "Is the occasional bump I get, even though I don't like it, a big deal?" In conversations, sometimes the issue that annoys you is important, sometimes it's close to being important, and sometimes it’s not important at all.

Is what I'm thinking appropriate to the situation? How well am I controlling the thoughts that merely make things worse? If I'm saying such things to myself as, "His mother doesn't give a hoot about the kid's behaviour," or, "She thinks it’s cute," or, "She's probably the type that doesn't know what discipline is," then I'm probably not in control. I could just as well have said to myself things like, "I don't envy her having to fly with a youngster," or, "I bet the kid gets bored being strapped in like this." Or other sentiments: "It's a short flight. Forget it."

Can I modify this situation in ways that will ease my anger? I see a free seat across the aisle and move with no fanfare. I smile genuinely at the mother and say, "He's full of life, isn't he?" I say to the flight attendant, "The kid behind me is a bit careless. I don't want to be an ogre. What's the best way of handling it?" Or, since the flight is short, do nothing.

Is taking action worth the trouble? Even though I might be able to answer "yes" to questions two, three, and four above, the ‘economics’ of doing something about it might be poor. "Get back into your reading. Chicago's just a half hour away." The economics of venting anger in conversations is almost invariably poor. Standing up for your rights is a different issue. Venting anger and standing up for your rights are different things.

This is not to suggest that you take time out for a long debate with yourself, or that you are always this rational. But if you have a framework for assessing anger-provoking situations, you can use it quickly, almost instinctively.

e. Schooling yourself to think of options in tricky situations

Ned is needling you about your letting yourself be fooled by a fast-talking salesman. Substitute "I let him make me angry," for "He makes me angry," in your thinking. Then choose an option for dealing with your anger that makes sense for the situation.

Don't let others get to you. "He gets my goat," is a common enough sentiment. The truth is that some of us go round ‘goat in hand’, making it easy for almost anyone to get it. If you are thin-skinned, find ways of reducing your sensitivity. You can say to yourself, "I'm a sensitive person, all right, and that's not bad. But too often I'm sensitive about the wrong things."

If you need to vent, choose a sympathetic third party. Get things off your chest with someone who understands you. Then you can discuss the best way of handling the situation that made you angry in the first place.

Put the reasons for your anger out in the open. While there is a case for restraining the expression of anger, there is no reason for not letting the other know why you are angry. Even then, be careful not to build such a solid case that your conversational partner has no room to move. Don't nail people to the wall with your logic.

Consider the difference between the following two approaches to responding to someone who has vented his anger.

Conor and Alice wanted to have at least three children, but nature supplied them with only one, Melanie. There have been ongoing disagreements about the best way to relate to Melanie, how she should be brought up, and so forth. They have been talking about some problems she has been having with other children.

During the conversation, Conor says somewhat heatedly, "You're just too protective. You can't put her into a cocoon and pretend other children don't exist. You can't so arrange her life that nothing ever goes wrong. It's unfair to her. You're really protecting yourself. I think you're jealous about any relationship she has. Maybe even her relationship with me."

As is often the case when people get very angry, Conor says more than he means. He exaggerates to build his case. In the process, he says hurtful things.

So what is Alice to do? A number of different dramas might unfold. Here are some possibilities. She might retaliate. And this could turn the conversation into a battle. Or Conor's attack might put Alice on the defensive, in which case she might try to change the topic of the conversation or even end it. In either case, the conversation would fail to continue on a constructive note and important things won't get said.

Alice chooses neither of these options. Instead, she pauses a bit, then says, "I know you're angry … We've never really come to grips with not being able to have more children and what this has done to each of us … It's probably time we did … The point you're making is that I haven't handled my share of the problem very well … Well, that's true. But I also think that we need to talk about what we've been doing as a couple."

She does not retaliate with an angry outburst. Instead of accusing Conor of being unfair or telling him how poorly he has handled their mutual problem, she admits her own responsibility and suggests that it would be good for both of them to have a dialogue they have been putting off. Her emotional control at the service of dialogue might well help Conor to channel his energy in more productive ways. The point is ­- you have a choice.

f. Moderation rather than emotional neutrality

Both parties in a conversation will benefit from using their emotions - both positive and negative - rather than being used by them. For instance, when Sam felt attacked by Carl, he used his anger to strengthen his resolve to get to the bottom of the issues that separated them in their business dealings, rather than club him with sarcasm. Even when Sarah didn't agree with Kate's point of view, she showed enthusiasm for the intelligence and reasoning behind Kate's argument.

Understanding the situation is important. If you have good news to report, it usually helps to show your enthusiasm. On the other hand, if you've learned that you got top marks in an exam but your buddy didn't do very well at all, you might moderate your enthusiasm as a way of helping him cope with his misery. ‘Reading’ social situations in order to determine what kind of conversation might be most helpful can do a lot of good.

g. You don't always have to be ‘nice’ in conversations

Someone might ask, "In highly charged situations, who's going to be this nice?" The answer is simple. You don't always have to be ‘nice’ in conversations. There will always be times when you need to say things other people might not want to hear. But if you anticipate how they may feel as a result, you can do your best to make your point in a way that still recognises and respects their feelings. Without downplaying your message. Even if your message arouses negative feelings in the other person. Feelings aren't ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. They just are. And they permeate dialogue just as they permeate life. However, when we talk in ways designed to increase negative feelings - our own and those of others - we are doing no one a favour.

There are a lot of myths about emotions. One is that we can't do much about them. Another is that managing emotions will make us rigid and constricted. It would be nice if everyone had moved beyond these myths and had acquired the discipline represented in the principles above, but this simply is not the case. How well do you both use and control emotions in your conversations?

Does all of this mean that you will never fly off the handle again? Does it mean you will always show enthusiasm in situations that call for it? Hardly. It does mean this: When it comes to feelings and emotions in conversations, you have options.

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