Advanced Listening Skills: Emotion Savvy Communication
How important (or intrusive) are emotions - your own or others' - when you are doing business?
Our emotions are involved in business like everything else in our lives, whether those emotions are excitement, pride, pleasure, frustration, anger, or something more subtle. Sometimes people's good feelings allow deals to close quickly and on advantageous terms. Sometimes emotions block agreement, understanding, collaboration, decisionmaking and teamwork.
When emotions are relevant, you should be able to recognize them - they can be an indicator of both opportunities and dangers - and either leverage or defuse them.
Emotions (also called "feelings") are increasingly appreciated as a complex interaction between distinct brain and body systems. Because emotions are integrally linked to decisionmaking, they are a key component of communication. But because the role of emotions is poorly understood, and "purely rational thought" has long been celebrated as an ideal within science, economics, and other influential schools of thought, emotions are often ignored, avoided or mishandled even while they are playing a pivotal role in business decisions.
The simplest way to recognize and channel the emotions that are part and parcel of ordinary business conversations is by using the template described on this page.* The hard part - and for most people it IS hard - is that you must practice both succinctly expressing your own emotions and reflecting the emotions expressed by others. When you are able to speak and listen in an emotionally savvy way, as is broken down to basics in this template, you can quickly respond to the opportunities, expectations, concerns and doubts beneath the surface of most business conversations.
The good news is that you can learn to communicate in an emotionally relevant way if you simply make the effort to develop the vocabulary and skill you need to accurately identify relevant emotions underlying conversations, both by the people you listen to and by yourself as a speaker. It's easy enough for most of us to carry this off -- with very few exceptions, we have all the equipment we need to master it -- but like anything worth doing it takes practice and some amount of trial and error to become truly skilled.
Emotionally relevant communication is not for the armchair listener or the faint of heart, however. While discussing emotions explicitly may at times be the only way for people to understand one another, poor communication about emotions can also lead to frustration and hostility. Patience, resilience, and a genuine desire for self-awareness are advisable for anyone experimenting with emotionally relevant communication.
Emotion Savvy Speaking: explain yourself using the following template.
Observation + Feeling + Need + Request = Emotionally Relevant Communication
"When I noticed _____[a person] did ____[an action] I felt _____[a feeling] because I want _______[an outcome] . Will you ______[action request]?"
(1) Observation. "When I noticed _____[a person] did ____[an action]..."
An observation is a description of something that happened. Describe a particular occurrence, ideally something for which you can place specific people at a specific date and time, without commenting on personality, intent, or worthiness. This should be an observation of an actual event -- you should be able to say "on or about date/time/place I heard/saw/noticed..." Try to be specific about who did what, although if you don't know who, or if a person wasn't involved (as with a natural occurrence) just state the event.
(2) Feeling. "...I felt _____[a feeling]..."
A feeling is a single simple word that describes how you feel. For this structure to work, you have to assume responsibility for feeling. Avoid saying "you/it made me feel X". Also, if the feeling X you come up with could be used in the phrase "you Xed me," don't use that word, try again. If all you can up with is a string of words, keep trying. If this is hard for you, that's a sign that you don't have a clear concept of what the feeling is yet, which means you're not able to communicate clearly about it -- keep trying. The feeling you convey should be internal to you and not tied to anything or anyone else. If you can put the feeling into the phrase "You [feeling]-ed me," think of a different way to describe your feeling. This is the hardest part for some people.
(3) Need. "...because I want _______[an outcome]."
A need is what is important to you about this situation, the outcome or feeling that you would like to have, whether or not that outcome or feeling is present in the situation already. The outcome is how you prefer things to be rather than how they happened. The outcome could be a state of affairs that you value such as fairness, efficiency, quiet, progress or completion. It could also be a need you have, like safety or privacy.
(4) Request. "Will you ______[action request]."
A request is purely descriptive like the observation (no personality, intent, or worthiness implied) except that you are asking someone to do a specific thing in the future. Ideally it is a thing that could be placed at a particular time and place. Avoid talking about intent or motive, and avoid requesting that people "stop doing" something -- ask them to do a specific thing instead. Your request should be for a specific action that someone can take.
Emotion Savvy Listening: After someone else explains their position to you, summarize what you have heard using the following template.
"Please let me repeat what I've heard to make sure I understand. Are you feeling _____[feeling] because you noticed _______[occurrence]? Do you want ______[outcome]? Do you want _______[action]?" [or if no request was made: "What would you like to have happen?"]
Tip: ask people to repeat back what you've just said until you feel that they understood what you meant.
If you're intrigued by this section, you may want to read the story of how someone came to understand the role of emotion in communication, and the way he became a master at communicating. I highy recommend Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent CommunicationMarshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication (Gazelle Book Service, (September 1, 2003)) (>>Amazon.com). I particularly admire the fact that he tells stories of his agonizing failures as well as his amazing successes as a listener -- I find it encouraging to think that he became a master listener because he finds it difficult, rather than natural, and has to push himself to listen well.
For those who are especially interested in improving their business listening skills, we recommend that you read (or re-read) Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Fireside (Simon and Schuster), 1989, 2000) (>>Amazon.com), particularly the parts which focus on listening to understand and acting with your desired results in mind.
We also recommend Madelyn Burley-Allen, Listening, The Forgotten Skill. A Self-Teaching Guide (Fireside (Simon and Schuster), 1995 (Second Edition)) (>>Amazon.com) for more about listening techniques and for simple listening exercises.
If listening skills are truly valuable to you, you should think about what skill level you want, when you need it, and the best way to get it. You may want to look into working with an executive coach and/or a shadow (observational) coach who can give you specific, high quality feedback on your listening skills and a learning approach structured to fit your particular situation.
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