Most people are scared to death of dealing with emotions at work. I don’t blame them. Emotions can feel like an undetonated bomb sitting in the room. Sure, you could try to defuse the bomb, but it might explode in your face.

But pro listeners know that emotions are often the key to figuring out what is really going on. The sooner we know the truth of the situation, the faster we can find solutions that work for everyone.

So how do we handle emotions in a way that preserves their power without exploding them in our faces?

  • Notice. We all give tells about what’s really going on in us, regardless of what we say. Your job as a listener starts with simply seeing the possible mismatch between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing.
  • Share. Gently point out that you’re seeing something, that it has your curiosity and attention. “Your expression is making me wonder what you’re thinking right now” or “I hear a little more energy in your voice on this topic” are examples of what you can do. You’re pointing out an observable fact (something you see or hear), not a guess or interpretation of what’s behind it.
  • Ask. “Do you mind telling me what’s behind that reaction?” You aren’t demanding. You’re asking. Be ready for a few moments of awkward silence as the other person does the math on whether they should trust you by being real.
  • Empathize. The end game here is for you to understand. To put yourself in their shoes, even for a moment. It helps to say, “I can see why I might respond that way if I were in your shoes.” You aren’t necessarily agreeing. You certainly aren’t excusing misbehavior. But you’re sitting with that person for a moment.

Why bother with all of that when you’re already busy? Because you’ve just built a bond with this person whose work matters to you. You know a little more of the whole truth of what’s going on. Now you can deal with it together instead of pushing each other around.

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