In my previous post, I focused on the importance of factoring in the emotional aspects of an issue when your team is struggling or experiencing conflict.  If you didn’t read that post, start there first.

Once you are convinced that emotions are data to be understood and deliberately factored into business debates, try this approach to mining for the emotional data in the room.

Working with Emotional Data

  1. Spot. Watch for incongruence between what people say and what their body language is telling you. If the two jive, there is probably little being suppressed or guarded. In contrast, if your teammate is talking a good game while closing their body language, withdrawing eye contact, or getting red in the face, it’s probably a spot to start digging.
  2. Say. Start by simply acknowledging what you’re seeing. If you know the person well and they trust you, it’s probably ok to name the emotion. “Stephen, it seems like you’re getting frustrated.” If the relationship is new or more tenuous, stick to describing the behavior objectively. “Stephen, you’ve stopped in the middle of a sentence a couple of times now. What’s going on for you?’
  3. Listen. As the person responds, listen very carefully to the facts and information that they give you. In the example, Stephen might say “we have a $2 million budget shortfall.” Make sure you separate out the statements that seem like facts but are really just opinions or judgments. An example would be if Stephen said “we can’t afford to keep the group in Tulsa.” That is a subjective statement and tips you off to the other layers that are going on (see steps 4 to 6).
  4. See. While you’re listening to the facts, tune in to the feelings and emotions involved. Feelings will come out in language, particularly in extreme words or words that are repeated. “We are always backing away from the important decisions!” Body language will also provide clues. You can see if they are angry (leaning in, getting tenser), discouraged (dropping eye contact, slumping in the chair), or dismissive (rolling eyes, turning away from the team).
  5. Reflect. When you see or hear the emotional layer, stay calm, keep your tone level and ask a question to draw your teammate out. “I get the sense you’re frustrated with the team. What’s behind your frustration?”
  6. Probe. It’s not the emotions you’re really interested in, it’s the next layer. Emotions come out when values and beliefs are violated. As the person explains their emotional reaction, they will expose those values. You need to tread carefully at this point because it’s highly likely that your teammate doesn’t recognize their biases and isn’t aware of how they are affecting the discussion. Make your response sound like you’re testing a hypothesis. “Is it possible that you’re frustrated with the time we’re taking because we’re placing too much weight on the people impact of the decision and you think we need to focus on what’s right for the business?”
  7. Summarize. If your hypothesis is right, you’ll probably see the person’s relief all over their face. They might even express their pleasure “YES, EXACTLY!” You can even sum it up “We’ve talked about closing the Tulsa office for two years and you’re frustrated because you believe that the right decision for the business is obvious.”
  8. Repeat. You’ve now helped your teammate articulate the values he thinks should be guiding this decision. The most likely scenario is that your teammates will now be clear on why they are disagreeing. Three people might jump in, all talking at once “WE ARE TALKING ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE GIVEN THEIR LIVES TO THIS ORGANIZATION!” or “Taking out headcount doesn’t make sense, we need to find the money in our other expenses!” Here we go again…use the same facts, emotions, values structure to help them express their points of view.
  9. Resolve. Then once everyone is working with the same three data sets (facts, emotions, and values), you will be able to settle on what you need to solve for. In this example, you probably first need to find options for how to close the shortfall, then discuss the best option for the business, then discuss how you can implement the decision in a way that is sensitive to the people involved.

Although taking the time to draw out the feelings and the beliefs might seem slow at first, you’ll see that issues can be discussed and then resolved. Without acknowledging what’s actually behind people’s arguments, you will go around and around and struggle to come to a resolution. THAT’S slow!

Further Reading

Your Teammate is not Weird Part 2 – Emotions

Dealing with Negative Emotions

When Conflict Gets Emotional