The Atomic Power of Words: Learn to Harness it. Part 1

The word emotion comes from a Latin word meaning to move.  Emotions have, over time, evolved to move us to action. As I discussed in the emotional cycle, the primary emotions of mad, sad, fear and disgust are primitive threat detectors which subconsciously alert us to and prepare our bodies to react to a threat which could have a negative impact on us if not addressed.  We manage an emotion when we validate it, adjust our arousal level and stop the initial emotional reaction before we act on it.

We go beyond emotional management to emotional mastery when we assess the nature of the emotion, decide if the emotion does, indeed, match the situation in which we find ourselves, and choose how we want to respond to that situation.  If the emotion matches the situation, we choose to let the emotion motivate us to take effective action.  If we have misperceived the situation and the emotion does not match what is happening, we can choose to change our perception of the situation and let the emotion subside.

With this in mind, I want to make you aware of what I call the atomic power of the words you use to generate feelings (same as emotions) which in turn motivate you to take specific actions. We master the power of words when we are aware of the emotions specific words can elicit and choose the words we use to match the situation we wish to create.

Most of us spend too little time thinking about the words we use both in our conversations with others and in our “conversations” with ourselves. All communication starts with an idea that you may have which you attempt to put into words. The challenge is that we try to compress the multifaceted picture we have into a static, often oversimplified word. The person to whom we are speaking has to decode the word using his, or her, own set of filters hoping to recreate the same “picture” we originally encoded in the words we use.  Use the word “breakfast” as an example. Maybe you are thinking of an American meal steak and eggs and someone else is thinking about a continental meal of yogurt and pastries.  Same word… different pictures.

Oftentimes, the other person does not accurately decode our message.  This leads to a misunderstanding which can elicit emotions we did not intend and would rather avoid.

By the way, because words can be misunderstood, you need to be careful when you send a text, a letter, or an email to another person like a boss. You may know what you want to say but what that other person “hears” is very different.  The emotions your words elicit in that other person may be very different, and sometimes detrimental, than what you intended to convey.

There are words which leave you, or someone else, feeling excited, energized, and ready to act.  These words are motivating and move us forward.  I call these “go” words.

There are other words which leave you feeling turned off, overwhelmed, unexcited and stuck.  I call these “stop” words.

There are other words which can have unintended effects.  One example is when a parent tells a child, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” We will talk about this is a future post.

Because we often only “see” what we intend to communicate, we may miss other ways our words can be interpreted. When this happens, the atomic power of the word can backfire.

We will talk more about “stop” words in the next post.

Dealing with regret.

Regret is an emotion that can increase your stress level, consume your energy, and lead you into a proverbial emotional maze from which there is no escape. Regrets can haunt you.

All emotions have a message. Mastering an emotion involves understanding the message that the emotion communicates to you about how you perceive your world, taking a breath and assessing the validity of the message, and choosing an appropriate response. You can master emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, jealousy and even envy. In fact, I wrote a book entitled Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. If you haven’t done so already, go back to the home page of this blog and download the first chapter of Beyond Anger Management.

Regret can also be mastered if you change your approach to it as I will show you below.

If regret is a troubling emotion for you or someone you know, then you, or they, may have allowed your regret to overwhelm you. When this happens, mastering regret becomes impossible and regret becomes emotionally draining and psychologically intrusive.

Let me explain.

The message of regret is that, based on some future outcome, you either did something you later wish you had not done or you did not do something you later wish you had done. By itself, this can be a healthy message. And we will use this aspect of regret below.

The darker side of regret which is the source of all the emotional pain associated with the feeling is the self-recrimination and blame that people engage in when they feel regret. This can be expressed as: “I was such an idiot when I (did or did not do) X!” or “How could I be so stupid to (have done or not done) X?” or “I lost so much when I (did or did not do) X.” The insidious face of regret is the message that not only was an opportunity ruined by my action or inaction but that opportunity was both important and, now, irretrievable and I am both blameworthy and incompetent for blowing the opportunity.

Put another way, regret continually beats you over the head with the message that you can’t change what you did and you can’t recover from the action or inaction you displayed. This is the emotional box canyon I mentioned above. Not only did you screw up but you are incompetent and must suffer forever because you can’t change what you did and the outcome you created.

While it may be true that the opportunity is lost and that you are responsible for your actions, there usually is no justification for remaining stuck in the past.

So how do you master the emotion of regret and use it to move you forward?

The key to mastering regret is the acronym IWBNI (Ih-whib-knee). The letters stand for ItWould Be Nice If.

Here is how and why this approach works.

When you change the message from “I should (or should not) have done X.” to “It would have been nice if I had (done or not done) X.”, you acknowledge the importance of the specific opportunity that was lost or ruined, you accept responsibility for what you did or did not do, you remove the self-recrimination element, and you give yourself a chance to learn from the past and move forward.

Using the IWBNI approach focuses your attention on what is true. This is why the approach is so powerful.

In every case, it is totally true that It Would Be Nice If the situation had been handled differently.

Secondly, acknowledging the importance of the lost opportunity and accepting responsibility satisfies the thinking, or logical, part of your brain and makes it possible for you to remove the self-recrimination, learn from the past and move forward.

You are now mastering your regret by acknowledging and validating the message of the emotion that something in the past led to undesirable outcomes, you are examining your past behavior and putting it into an emotionally acceptable context, and you are choosing how you want to respond to the emotion.

I welcome any comments on the above.

Effective Empathy- Step 2 and 3

In my last post, I talked about step 1 to establishing effective empathy and noted that you need to both be aware of and overcome the barriers to empathy which might exist between you and the person with whom you are trying to communicate.  These barriers act as filters through which what you say is interpreted and, often, misunderstood. Taking the time to interact with another person and find the common ground that you share begins to set up the foundation from which empathy is built.

Step 2 involves using your knowledge about emotions to provide you with a context for your interactions with the other person.  Step 3 involves showing the other person that you do understand their point of view.  You do this by communicating that you are aware of and acknowledge the barriers that exist between you. You also need to validate their feelings about the issue that both of you are trying to resolve.  This is what “understanding” is all about.

If the other person does not feel that they are being understood, you can’t establish that you care about them or that you understand them, both of which are critical to establishing empathy.

You demonstrate that you understand another person’s point of view when you address the message of the emotion they are showing you.  This is what emotional mastery is all about.

The emotion you see in the other person is based on their perception of the situation in which they find themselves.  This is the emotional process which I addressed in earlier posts. Each emotion communicates a different message.  When you understand the message of the emotion, you can address the concerns of the other person.

The message of the basic emotions are as follows:

  • Anger: I perceive a threat which I believe I can eliminate if I throw enough force at it.
  • Anxiety: I perceive a possible threat in the future that MAY hurt me.
  • Guilt: I have done something wrong that I need to make right.
  • Regret: I either did (or did not) do something that led to a negative outcome that I am powerless to correct.
  • Sad: I have lost something or someone who was very important to me.

I addressed anxiety and anger in earlier posts and I will address regret in a future post.

If a person is angry with you, you “master” their emotion and establish empathy by attempting to determine the threat they perceive.  Are you the threat?  Is a new policy the threat?  Has something changed in the work setting?  You might say, “I can see that you are angry.”  This is the beginning of empathy but does not establish effective empathy.

To be effective, you need to add, “Can you help me understand what it is that you are so angry about?”

When they tell you the object of their anger and you realize that this situation is perceived as a threat, you can then work with them to eliminate the perceived threat in such a way that both of you get what you want.

This is exactly the opposite of what happened when professional women expressed anger about a situation in their work settings and the men in that setting demeaned them and marginalized them. The men appeared to feel threatened by the women’s assertive behavior.

I have tried to give you a basic foundation for establishing effective empathy.  If you would like a more indepth discussion of this issue or a point I have made is not clear, let me know in the comments section.

Barriers to effective empathy

Remember that effective empathy involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.

Recall also, that there are three steps to establishing effective empathy. The three steps are: 1. Establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how the other person sees the world, 2. Use your knowledge of emotional mastery as a basis for your empathic communications. and 3. Take the time to let them help you understand how they see their world (and you, as part of that world).

Barriers to effective empathy include differences between you and the other person which could act as filters which prohibit you from understanding how they see their world as well as any “language deficits” which might distort the messages (either from you to them or vice versa) being communicated.

You may experience barriers as you attempt to establish that you genuinely care in step 1 and in step 3 as you attempt to be empathic.

In my last post, I mentioned some of the barriers to empathy that I had to overcome with the young incarcerated women including history and gender, race, and language. All three were critical.  As a white middle class doctor with no history of incarceration, I was clearly different from my clients in appearance, language, and experience.

Given the correctional setting in which I worked, my client’s (correct based on their experience) view of men as abusive, untrustworthy and, often, dangerous, and my graduate school based language, any words I used which implied that I either cared about or understood these young women would come across as empty, insincere, and unlikely. I overcame these barriers by clearly stating that I could not know their world, clearly stating that I wanted to help them and needed their help in order to do this, being consistent in the boundaries I set and the statements I made, and learning to communicate in a manner (using emotional explanations and examples and asking lots of questions) that was non threatening and easy to understand.

I was successful with these young women because I was able to establish that we shared a common interest or, at least, a common ground. The client wanted to get out and stay out of “jail” and I wanted to help them do this.  They needed my help and I needed them to help me be able to work with them.

Step 1 to overcoming barriers is to establish, over time, that you and the person with whom you are communicating either share common goals or share a common ground from which both of you can achieve your goals either as a “win-win” or through compromise and that you are interested in helping them achieve (as much as possible) their goals.

In a work setting, those goals might be to improve the office working environment, build a more successful business, improve worker satisfaction and productivity, be recognized for one’s contributions, and so forth.  Sharing common goals or a common ground does not mean that management and workers, or even co-workers, always agree or see goals in the same light. Indeed, the WSJ article notes the importance of “acknowledg(ing) emotions and hold(ing) employees accountable”. The implication is that a goal (perhaps improving accountability) might be obtained by empathizing with, finding out the concerns of, and ultimately helping the employee become more accountable. The manager wants more accountability and the employee wants to be heard and appreciated.  Accountability will follow being heard and appreciated.

If the goals of the employee are emotionally driven, you will need to understand what emotion, or emotions, are driving the individual and the message of the emotions being displayed.  This is the information of emotional mastery and it is this information that becomes the foundation of the empathic language you can use to overcome the emotional barriers that confront you. This is step 2.

I will continue this discussion in my next posting.