Sunday, March 31, 2013

How to Talk to Humans

I have a natural aversion to buzzwords like 'leadership,' but I've come to realize that it's just another word for 'problem-solving'.  In a recent training, I was taught that leadership is primarily about dealing with emotions, both yours and your co-workers.  After all, it's hard to solve problems if you can't work well with others, and this involves messy emotional stuff.

Thinking that my ability to deal with emotions might be due to being dead inside rather than being empathic, I decided to read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, another Jeff Atwood recommendation.  I don't even have kids, but this seemed like a better alternative to books like How to Win Friends and Influence People.

What's really great about HtTSKWL&LSKWT is that shows why it's so important to give recognition to the emotions people experience.  Imagine, the authors suggest, you have a bad day because your boss chews you out in front of your co-workers for not completing an assignment on time.  Later, you run into a friend and tell her what happened.  What are your reactions to her possible responses?
  1. Denial of feelings:  "There's no reason to be upset.  It's not a big deal."
  2. Philosophy:  "Shit happens.  Deal with it."
  3. Advice:  "You know what you should do?  You go to your boss's office and tell her about it tomorrow."
  4. Questions:  "What did you do to make her so mad?  Wasn't there some reason?"
  5. Defense of the other person:  "I can understand why your boss would be so upset.  You're lucky you didn't get into more trouble."
  6. Pity:  "Oh, that's so terrible.  I feel so sorry for you."
  7. Amateur psychoanalysis:  "Bosses are stand-ins for parents.  You're not getting back at mommy by handing in your work late."
What these responses have in common is that they all deny the reality of an emotion.  They try to get past it.  But that reality is still there for the person feeling it.  When you deny an emotion, you deny a person's reality.

You'll probably agree that the only good response is something like the following.  It shows that your friend recognizes the emotion you're feeling.
  1. Empathy:  "That must have been rough--to have been called out in front of all those people.  You must have been really upset!"
In order to provide an empathic response, you need to listen with attention, acknowledge the feeling, and give a name to the emotion.  Perhaps later, you can provide advice, but don't be too quick to do this.  If you start trying to problem-solve before you recognize someone's emotions, they will probably feel like you haven't listened to them.

Another important thing I realized when reading this book is that the emotion isn't the person.  No one wants to have negative emotions, but it can't be helped.  Emotions just happen.  I think of them as a separate entity entirely, or a different system from the well-reasoned, conscious person we all want to be.

Once I started trying to recognize other people's emotions, I noticed that they felt like I was listening better.  In fact, I was.  It's not just a bunch of psycho-babble, akin to 'I feel that you feel that I feel, etc.'  I actually started to empathize better with what others were feeling.  When you say, 'It must have been hard to be chewed out by your boss,' it's hard not to imagine how you'd feel in the same situation.  Moreover, I started being able to label my own emotions better.  I even once had an epiphany, 'Oh, I'm feeling stressed out!'


  1. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, a.k.a. How to Deal with Your Girlfriend When She is Screaming at You and You Don't Know Why :)


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