“What” is often a better, and more accurate, word to use than “Why”. Here is why.

How many times have you been asked by someone, or you asked another person, “Why did you do that?” The most likely answer is: many times.

Well, when you were asked, “Why did you do that?”, what was your emotional reaction?

Probably, you became defensive, or maybe a bit anxious or angry, and you attempted to offer an excuse or a reason which would justify whatever you did and, at the same time, help you avoid getting in trouble.

If you felt anxious, you interpreted the question as challenging, or judging, what you did and as implying some sort of future negative consequence if your answer to the question was not satisfactory.

If you felt anger, you interpreted the question as inappropriately challenging. or judging, what you did and as intrusive. You saw this question as a threat to your autonomy, your judgement in choosing the action you took, or your competence.

Whether you felt anxiety or anger, your reaction was to defend yourself and you offered an excuse or justification for what you did.

The tendency of the word  “why” to elicit a defensive reaction is the reason you probably want to minimize using this word in your interactions with others. Especially, your kids.

I am not saying you should never use the word. Rather, I am suggesting you think about the reason for the question you are asking (Why you are asking it.) and the information you seek in the answer you receive.

When you ask a person, “Why did you do that?”, what you really want to know is:

  • What was the basis for your decision to (do what you did)?
  • What did you hope to accomplish (by doing what you did)?
  • What other alternatives did you consider (before you did what you did)?
  • What motivated you (to do what you did)?

Notice that all of these questions begin with “what” instead of “why”. The weakness of the word “why” is that our behavior is multi-determined.  In other words, there are many underlying reasons or motivations  for the actions we take. Consequently, when you are asked “why”, you may not, in most cases, exactly know why you did what you did.

Now, in some cases, you may know why?  For example, you can say why you chose to watch the football game instead of the cooking show or why you chose the iPhone over the google phone.  And so forth.

The word “what”, in contrast, focuses your attention on the choices you made or the reasons you used prior to taking the action in question.  If you think about it, this is the information you are actually seeking.

For the reason, the next time you question someone about an action they took, start your question with the word “what” followed by the information you want instead of the word “why”.

In so doing, you are mastering emotions because you are using your awareness of the emotional process to avoid eliciting an emotional reaction which may negatively impact your relationship with the other person.

If it is you to whom the question “why” is directed, master your emotions by not reacting to the implications of the question.  Rather, answer the question as if the word “what” instead of “why” had been used.

I welcome your comments.

Mastering Emotions and the “irrational” beliefs of Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy and an early pioneer in the field of the cognitive behavioral approach to dealing with emotional issues, discussed several “irrational” ideas.  These ideas are “irrational” because they are extreme, can’t be supported in our interactions with others, and elicit emotions which can prove problematic.

This is where emotional mastery comes in.

Remember that the foundation of emotional mastery is the emotional process which involves the unconscious scanning of our surroundings for any possible “threat”, the unconscious reacting to the threat facilitated by the Amygdala and designed to insure our survival, initially validating the emotion, “managing” the emotional reaction by lowering our arousal level before we act out, and mastering the emotion by assessing both the nature of the “threat” and the thoughts we have about the threat and choosing how we want to respond to it. If the threat is genuine, we  accept and validate the emotion, plan our response to it and take action.  If the threat is not genuine, we “invalidate” the emotion, change our thought about the situation, and choose what we want to do next which might involve walking away, apologizing, ignoring the situation and so forth.

While not given as much attention as it deserves, it is important to note, and Ellis emphasizes this point, that the thoughts we have about our surroundings are often the underlying basis for the Amygdala’s analysis that a psychological threat exists.  Psychological threats underly the emotions of  anger, anxiety, guilt and shame. I say “often” because, as with the emotion of fear, the threat that is perceived is a survival threat and is not based on our thoughts. Ellis’s irrational ideas are, of course, thoughts.

Ellis listed at least 11 irrational ideas or beliefs.  I will discuss 3 of them.

  1. It is essential that one be loved or approved by virtually everyone in his community.

This is irrational because it is unattainable.  It is certainly desirable to be loved and accepted by others and we might need to examine our own behaviour if we are not getting along with others, but the rational person realizes that people’s reactions to us are often based on their perceptions and we have no control over what others do.

If you act as if others must accept you and they don’t, you most likely experience anxiety if you focus on a future threat that might occur because of this lack of love or acceptance or anger, if you believe you deserve or must be accepted, are not getting what you deserve, and will go to “war” to get what is yours.

In mastering your emotions, if you are feeling unloved or unaccepted, look for this irrational idea, examine what the other person is telling you about you, decide if their comments are more about them than you, and choose what you want to do next.

2. Unhappiness  (and, I would add, all feelings) is caused by outside circumstances and the individual has no control over them.

Ellis notes that most outside events are psychological in nature and can’t be harmful unless one allows oneself to be affected.  If you disturb yourself by noting how horrible it is that someone is unkind, annoying, etc, you create the maladaptive feelings you experience. The rational person realizes that he can change both his internal verbalizations about the event and his reactions to that event.

The idea that others (or events) cause our feelings is wide spread and is the reason I developed the Emotions as Tools Model.

The corollary of this idea which is not emphasized by Ellis but is often talked about in the literature, is that our emotions are negative and must be overpowered by us.  The emotions as tools model specifically notes that there is not such thing as a negative emotions and that all emotions are adaptive.

The idea that our emotions can overpower us is the basis of the Anger Management Approach which emphasizes lowering arousal and controlling behavior. While lowering arousal and controlling behavior are important, mastering the emotion by looking at the nature of the threat and choosing a response goes beyond managing the emotion and is consistent with Ellis’ approach.

3. It is a terrible catastrophe when things are not as one wants them to be.

This is an erroneous exaggeration.  According to Ellis, while frustration is normal, getting severely upset is illogical since there is no reason why events should be different from what they are, it is not rational to think that our happiness or satisfaction can only happen if a certain event goes our way, and if we can’t do anything about what is happening, we should just accept it,getting upset rarely

My discussion above about the emotions of anxiety and anger also apply here.

The message of the emotion of frustration is that a goal toward which we are striving, has been blocked.  Mastering this emotion involves lowering one’s arousal by taking a breath and stepping back from the goal (establishing both physical and psychological distance), validating that we are frustrated, avoiding blame, analying both the nature of the goal and the nature of the blocks, and choosing an effective response.

If you have ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture or a present such a bike on Christmas Eve, you will be able to identify with this irrational idea. I certainly have told myself “These instructions should  be more accurate!” or “These pictures are terrible and piece A does not fit into hole B!”

The emotion I feel is anger because things are not as I want them to be.

I think you get the idea.

The same phenomenon occurs when we tell ourselves, “I should have gotten that raise/promotion!”  or “My boss should not treat me that way!”

Albert Ellis calls this process “shoulding” on oneself.

As you practice mastering your emotions, take a look to see if one of these irrational ideas is at the heart of and is eliciting the emotion that you are experiencing.

I welcome your comments.

Emotions As Tools – Seven Top Conflict Resolution Tips Using Emotions As Tools

If you have not done so, already, I encourage you to download the first chapter of my book Emotions as Tools: A Self-Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings  by scrolling back up to the top of this page and clicking on the “EMOTIONS as TOOLS TOC_Intro_Ch 1 PDF link.  This is not an opt-in.

If you have ever found yourself facing another person who is angry with you because of something you did (or did not) do something the other person thought was important, you have experienced conflict.

When this happened did your conflict resolution strategies include using your emotions as tools to gain valuable strategic information?

If not, the 7 step process below will teach you how to use the information provided by emotions to resolve conflict between you and someone else or between two other people.

So that we are all on the same page, here are some basic working definitions:

Difference of Opinion: A misunderstanding between two people that may involve some mild emotions and can be usually be dealt with through discussion, clarification, and compromise.

Conflict: A strong disagreement between two parties that involves some action that was taken or some action that was not taken. Conflict is always accompanied by strong emotions. With human beings, conflict is almost impossible to totally avoid.

Emotions as Tools model:

1. States that our emotions are created by our thoughts and how we perceive the environment

2. Every emotion has an underlying message which reflects the perception that created it.

3. By reading the emotion and understanding the underlying message, we can address how a person perceives his or her situation and help them change that perception.

4. When the perception changes, the emotion changes.

The three steps of conflict resolution:

1. Finding out what the presenting issue is by asking questions and actively listening to the answers.

2. Using the information provided by reading emotions to determine the real underlying issue.

3. Taking the necessary time to address the underlying issues and come to an agreement about how to best deal with the presenting issue so that both parties are satisfied (win/win) or at least agree to live with what is agreed upon (compromise).

The 7 step process:

Step 1: View all disagreements as a difference of opinion NOT as a conflict.

With a difference of opinion, the presenting issue is what it is. Two people have differing opinions. Depending on the situation, the emotions that go along with misunderstandings or differences of opinion are surprised, confused, possibly frustrated, or maybe even amused. These tend to be milder emotions that usually do not get in the way of further discussion.

Differences of opinion can escalate into conflict if not resolved.

Step 2: Recognize a “conflict” by identifying the emotions (specifically anger) that are present.

If you notice that you or another person is getting angry about an issue, it is likely that a conflict has developed.

This is why.

The message of anger is that the angry person both feels threatened and believes that if he demonstrates his power through his anger, he can eliminate the threat.

When we are in threat prevention mode, we are not in problem solving mode.

The specific threat may be to his (or her) ego, to some goal, or to an ideal such as fairness. When you see anger, it means that, in addition to the presenting issue such as when a teenager gets angry when her parent sets rules for dating, there is an underlying issue of perceived threat which must be addressed first for successful conflict resolution to occur.

The presence of a perceived threat is what leads to a conflict.

Note: A future article will address the indirect anger shown by women in our society and the tendency of men to use anger as a substitute for hurt. You can, for now, assume that anger in a conflict reflects some underlying threat. You will not lose with this strategy.

Step 3: Keep your own head level.

Adopt a conflict resolution mind set.

This includes:

-Acknowledging and understanding your own perception of threat if you are angry.

-Having mutual respect for everyone and their position.

-Remaining non-judgemental.

-Being willing to actively listen to the other party and hear their story

-Expressing your own story without accusing the other party.

-Remaining open to possible solutions other than your own.

Step 4: Address the underlying issue of perceived threat.

In most cases, when anger is present, one (or both) party perceives a threat. Examples include:

(i) Threat to Autonomy

Strategy: Reaffirm the maturity and independence of the other person.

(ii) Threat to a sense of Fairness

Strategy: Reaffirm that any decision made will only be reached after all sides have been heard and an agreement reached that is agreeable to both.

Note: If the issue is between a parent and a child, a different approach may be needed

(iii) Threat of Loss

Strategy: Acknowledge their sense of loss and reaffirm that each loss also may involve a gain.

An example is when you give up some autonomy to do your own thing and gain cooperation and harmony in an office setting.

Step 5: Address the presenting issue.

Once the threat is addressed, the conflict becomes a difference of opinion and the presenting issue can be addressed.

Step 6: Resolve the conflict

Once the issue is addressed, a win/win solution or a compromise can be agreed upon. Or, you can agree to disagree. Always seek a win/win solution first.

Step 7: Finalize the agreement

State the agreement or write it down with information about who will do what by when and any consequences that will happen if “WHAT” and “WHEN” are not done by “WHO”.

As establishing that you understand the other person (empathy) can be very important in resolving conflict, I encourage you to scroll down this site and revisit my earlier posts on empathy.

I welcome your comments.



You Cannot NOT Communicate

The title of this blog post may look like I added an extra word.

I assure you, (no pun intended) that I did not..

The point I am making, and that most people miss when they interact with others, is that we are always communicating something whether we intend to or not.

Most people believe that communication is a fairly simple process. This is an unfortunate myth.

The process of communication, while I admittedly am simplifying the process, can be illustrated with two examples.

Example #1: Think back to the days of the telegraph.  If you wanted to send a message, you had to write out the message, the telegraph operator had to convert it to Morse Code, the wires had to be in place between you and the place to which you were sending the message, the receiving  operator had to get the signal, decode the message, and write it down so that your target person could receive your message.

The first example illustrates the verbal communication process.  Most of us can easily encode an idea into words, deliver the words, and expect the receiver to accurately decode the message and understand what we mean and intended to say.  And, in most cases, when it is factual information we are communicating, this process works.

There are some underlying assumptions here.

  • Both of the participants speak the same language and can understand the words being used.  Words can be thought of as one “filter” through which ideas are processed. (One way to understand the idea of a filter is to think about what happens when you take a black and white picture with your camera or smart phone. The filter takes out the color.) Words can have a multitude of meanings and, therefore, can be thought of as a filter in that you choose the words you eventually use based on what you want to convey.
  • The message is clear, does not involve emotional issues in either party, and is not easily misinterpreted. (Emotions are another “filter” through which ideas are processed.)
  • Both participants are paying attention to each other, are not distracted by “noise” in the environment (think about having a conversation in a loud lounge), and are “actively” listening with the goal of receiving and understanding the message.  They are not  “passively” listening while engaged in some other activity such as texting or planning tomorrow’s schedule.

If we are dealing with issues involving emotions (or complex issues), the process becomes more complicated.

Example #2: Think about the last time you sent a text or an email thinking that you were being very clear only to have the person to whom you sent this electronic message get upset because they misinterpreted the message they received.

The second example illustrates a situation in which the message has several different “layers” but the only layer of information that is “available” is what is “written” down.

There are several possible complications here:

  • The message may contain implied emotional overtones. For example, you are upset with the person and have not directly expressed your feeling.
  • You may have directly expressed your feelings but the meaning of the emotional words you have used were misinterpreted when “decoded” by the recipient of the text.
  • You tried to use humor in your text or an emoji.
  • And so forth.

By the way, the above process is why we are frequently advised, and warn our kids, to be very careful about what they send in an email or a text.

There is a quote from the Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) literature that says: “The meaning of a communication (to the receiver) is the response that you (the sender) get regardless of what you intended to say.”

The receiver’s (upset) response clearly suggests that he (or she) viewed the message as “threatening”. This is the “real” meaning of the message to him.

If the communication process is to be successful, you will need to determine where the “disconnect” is. Perhaps, the misunderstanding occurred because the message contained implied emotional overtones that were included in the message (either intentionally or unintentionally) or the receiver read emotional overtones into the message that were not there.

When you are involved in a face to face conversation, there are additional complications that can take place because of the nature of non-verbal signals.

  • Non-verbal signals comprise a significant (perhaps, major) portion of the communication process and involve your tone of voice, the expression on your face, the way you are standing and so forth.
  • An important part of the emotional process is the constant scanning of our surroundings that our senses engage in, our Amygdala monitors, and our bodies unconsciously react to if there is a threat.
  • Our primitive brain is programmed to “read” non-verbal signals because they are often a more accurate (though not always so) indicator of possible threat. This is because humans are not very good at modifying their non-verbal signals (unless they are trained to do so).

Consequently, you are always communicating non-verbally and your listener is always tuned into your non-verbals.  Hence, the title of this blog: You cannot NOT communicate.

An example of this potential conflict is  the saying “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

Communication problems can arise for at least two reasons:

  1. The meaning of non-verbal signals is not always clear and can easily be misunderstood.
  2. The non-verbal signals you are communicating with your tone of voice or body language are not consistent with the verbal message.

You master your emotions (and the emotions of others) when you are aware of and utilize the nature of non-verbal (and verbal) signals.

  • In your own communications, take extra care to insure that the message you are conveying non-verbally is consistent with the words you are using.
  • Be aware of the non-verbal signals your receiver sends to you, the emotions indicated by those signals, and the message those emotions tell you about how he or she has interpreted your communication. Using this information, you can seek clarification if what you see in their response is different from what you expected and you can clear up any misunderstanding.

I hope this information is helpful and I welcome your comments.