Building Relationships by Establishing Effective Empathy (A Definition and Step 1 of 3)

SPECIAL HEAD’S-UP

I want to alert you to a podcast which just dropped.  The Just-in Words podcast entitled–Just Emotional Healing with Ed is 47 minutes long and is one of the most far reaching, informative episodes I have ever done.

Justin and I cover a wide range of issues from my origin story through the emotions cycle, emotions in the context of drugs and alcohol, emotion display rules, having adaptive arguments, dealing with grudges, mind-reading, sincere apologies and recovering from trauma.

I highly recommend that you click on the episode and invest the 47 minutes.

In my last post, I offered 4 rules to guide you in dealing with another person who is directing their emotions at you.

In the next two posts, I will approach the subject of dealing with another person from a different perspective.  I will address the issue of empathy.

At some point in time, you have probably been advised that you should learn to emphasize with someone else in order to facilitate your understanding that individual?

Typically, this is expressed as…

Put yourself or walk a mile in their shoes.

This is certainly good (and correct) advice.

However, I’ll bet that you were never sure what it meant to “empathize” with another.

So, this is where I will start.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Empathy as: “the feeling that you understand and share (emphasis added) another person’s experiences and emotions.”

I call this true empathy as opposed to effective empathy.

That said, when it comes to another person’s feelings, there are at least two reasons  why true empathy is impossible and both focus on the share aspect of the definition of empathy.

First of all, we cannot actually share another’s experience and emotions.

Each individual’s interactions with the world are often complex, multifaceted and interpreted through that person’s unique set of filters which we do not share. Plus, we may have our own set of filters through which we view the world and of which we may or may not be aware.

Secondly, the nature of language is such that even a very good communicator, which most of us are not, often lacks the words to completely describe their experiences.

The good news, however, is that, while true empathy is not possible, effective empathy (my words) is very possible.

Effective empathy focuses on the understand part of the definition of empathy.

Working therapeutically with the young women in the California Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division was challenging for me because there were many barriers between  me and the young women which had to be overcome before I could establish some empathy and effectively offer them therapy.

Here is a partial list of these potential barriers to empathy:

  • History + Gender: Most of these women had histories of multiple abuse by men. I was a white, middle-class, male and I did not have a history of either abuse or incarceration.
  • Race: Many of my female clients were women of color.
  • Language: Not only was there an educational gap between us but these young women had very little experience dealing with feelings or using emotional words. in other words, asking “How do you feel?” often elicited single word, not very informative, answers.

Establishing effective empathy, as I see it, involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.  

Note that I said their point of view.  Not mine.

I was tasked with treating these young women as I will discuss in more detail below.

But, the same principles apply to you if you are trying to communicate with a spouse, a co-worker, your teenager, or any person with whom you have significant issues which it is important to both of you to resolve.

This involves three major steps.

First, you have to establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how they view their world. If you are only using key phrases and are not sincerely interested in connecting with the other person, your words will be perceived as hollow, you will not connect, and effective empathy will elude you.

Secondly, you need to know what emotions are and the messages each emotion conveys.  This information will aid you in gaining the understanding and empathy you seek and is what emotional mastery is all about.

Thirdly, you need to take the time and make the effort to both let them and, if necessary, help them tell you how they see their world. This is where you use your empathic language as well as other communication skills and emotional words to help the other person paint a verbal picture of their world and their concerns.

With my young female clients, my first step was to establish that I could not know how these young women experienced their world because I was clearly not one of them.

My approach to these young women from the start of therapy was to state, upfront, that I could not totally understand or be able to relate to the experiences they had which led to their being incarcerated (and in my office). This, by the way, eliminated any attempt on their part to marginalize me by pointing out that I  couldn’t work with them because I was (white, male, a staff member, etc.) .

Maybe, you have been accused of not being able to understand because you are… a male, an adult, a boss, or perhaps, an idiot (just kidding!).

With my clients, I then pointed out to them that I was very interested in helping them but that in order for me to do this..

I needed them to help me understand them and the experiences they went through (emphasis added).

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. My clients 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.

For you, when you are trying to relate to another person who is different from you in some way, to say that you understand them before you have any basis for this statement, may be very off-putting and build up additional barriers between you and the other person.  Think here about a man talking to a woman, a parent talking to a child, or a superior talking to a subordinate.

When you engage with another person, you can acknowledge your differences and your common goals and establish that you want to understand their point of view.

I will cover steps 2 and 3 in the next post.

 

It’s an emotional world: 4 rules for living in it with others.

This is a follow-up from the Podcast I alerted you to in my last post.

As I discussed in the Podcast, understanding emotions can be pivotal in maintaining a healthy relationship or in exacerbating a problem in relationships that are not progressing as you would like.

In any case, if you interact with or relate in some manner to others, you come into contact with emotions on a regular (even daily) basis.

In the course of living your daily life, you may get angry, anxious, sad, doubtful, jealous or envious. And, let’s not rule out happy, satisfied, excited about or content. But, as these latter emotions are often easier to deal with than the others I mentioned, I will stick with the emotions that are often more problematic for people to handle. Especially when they are directed at us by someone with whom we are trying to interact.

In your interactions with others such as your boss, your spouse, a customer, or your kid, you may experience someone who gets mad at or impatient with you or who is sad or anxious. Or, expresses some other emotion that might be seen as problematic.

When this happens, how well  you deal with emotions (and the behavior that goes along with emotions) in yourself and others can have a major impact on that relationship going forward.

As a reader of this blog, you are problably well aware of  what emotions are and how to master them as strategic tools.  If not, take a moment (or two) to hit the Index Button above and click on any of the numerous posts which will provide you with easily understood information about all aspects of emotions.

With that being said, let’s look at 4 general rules which will help you deal with another person who is emotional with you.

Rule #1: Assume that everyone (including you) does the best they can in any specific situation (including their current interaction with you) given…

a) what they know about what is going on in their interaction with you

b) the assumptions they make about you, themselves and the situation and

c) the skills they have to deal with what is going on.

Right out of the box, my guess is that this rule doesn’t sit well with you as you know that much of the behavior you have seen in others (and in yourself) doesn’t qualify as either good or “best”.

True. In fact, what they are doing may be destructive, wrong for the situation, or just unacceptable.

But, this is not the point I am trying to make!

Indeed, I am not saying that what they are doing is the best that can be done or even what they should be doing.

In many cases, this is usually obvious.

Avoid judging, and keep your options open...

What I am saying is that, when you do not immediately judge the behavior and assume that this is the best they can do, in the moment, with the information they have, the assumptions they make and the skills they have, you have many different options from which you can choose to deal with this individual.

The other alternative is to judge the behavior and react by doing something that worsens the interaction and that you may later regret.

This, by the way, is what usually happens when one’s feelings get hurt, misunderstandings occur, and the situation gets out of hand.

When you assume that what they are doing is the best they can, your next step can be to understand what underlies and has led to the actions they are taking with you.

Steven Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People notes that, in your interactions with others, you should seek first to understand and then to be understood.

When we react to others out of our own emotional state, we do the exact opposite.  We want to stand up for and defend ourselves to a perceived attack.

If you are interacting with a boss, a spouse, a customer, or even your kid, this usually is not an effective way to move the relationship forward.

In dealing with another person whose emotionally driven behavior clearly seems over the top or not fitting the situation and making the above assumption about what they are doing, you now have the opportunity to look into the information they have and the assumptions they are making.

Once you know what they know (or don’t know) and the assumptions they are making, you can begin to change the interaction by giving additional information and clearing up any misunderstandings they (or you) may have.

With new information, the behavior they are displaying toward you can change.

Please note that you have not given up any of your options either in the emotions you feel or the responses you may choose to make. But, when they change what they are doing, you, most likely will also change what you choose to do.

And, this leads us to Rule #2.

Rule#2: Know what you want to accomplish in your interactions with this person.

In any interpersonal interaction, it is important for you to know what you want to accomplish because this will determine what you choose to do.

Interpersonal interactions cover a wide range of situations including..

  • wanting good service from your server in a restaurant,
  • building a healthy (however you define this) relationship with your spouse, “significant” or kid,
  • keeping a customer happy on a service call, through
  • getting respect from your supervisor or co-workers.

So, you can see that it is important to understand the nature of your relatioship with this other person, what you and they expect in the relationship and where you want the relationship to go (what you want to accomplish in the relationship).

Once you know this, you are in a better position to decide what actions you will take to get you where you want to go.

And, this takes us to rule #3.

Rule#3: Seek to get a win/win with the other person but settle for a compromise if you have to.

Most people think that compromise is the best you can hope for when there is a disagreement.

And, sometimes, this is true.

When you compromise, both you and the other person give up something in order to get something else.  There is nothing wrong with this but, in one sense, it is a lose/lose proposition in that you both have given up something you would just as soon have if you could.

Someone once said that if you shoot for the stars and you miss you end up on the moon.  If you shoot for the moon and miss, you end up back on earth.

The moon is a compromise and, at least, moves you forward.

I am suggesting that you shoot for a win/win in which both of you get all that you want, whenever this is possible. If this is your goal in a relationship, you will work to find ways that meet all of both your needs.

This is often possible if you look for it.

If not, you can always compromise.

And, this takes us to Rule #4.

Rule #4  Agree to Disagree and Move On

Sometimes, in the moment, even if there is understanding and a desire to move forward, for whatever reason, you and the other person are stuck.  The emotional upset may have subsided and you and the other person are at least talking to each other.  When this happens, you may have to take a pause, agree to remain in contact and agree to disagree.

There will always be another day!

Upcoming Podcast on Emotions in Relationships

This is a heads-up to let you know about a Podcast in which I was the featured guest.

The title of the episode is Let’s Think About “Emotions in Relationships and it drops tomorrow at 11AM PST.

Here is the link — https://youtu.be/TOUTu9zvhk0

Emotions play an important role both, on the healthy side,  in supporting a healthy relationship and, in a maladaptive way, in contributing to unwanted discord.

In this podcast, the host, Mitzi, and I cover a wide range of issues and I believe you will find it both informative, entertaining, and worth tuning into.

Enjoy.

Forgiving Your “Abusers”- (From a Christian Perspective)

I recently bought a book entitled: FAME: Forgiving All of Mine Enemies by Stephanie Lashley because I was curious about how she approached the subject of forgiveness. (I bought it used.)

The Author Bio on the back of the book notes (among a whole list of other accomplishments)  that “Pastor Steph has served in the Ministry since 1989 in various  positions and gifts….Pastor Steph holds the office of Prophet and has preached and ministered nationally.”

As she discusses in her book, Stephanie experienced numerous events in her life including the death of her son by a drug overdose, betrayal by her husband, negative interactions with members of her church family and other experiences which challenged and consumed her until she learned to forgive.

She discusses her own process of learning to forgive, discusses this process in the context of being a Christian, and offers numerous quotes from Scriptures which support and reinforce what she is saying about the importance of and value of forgiving from a largely (but not exclusively) Christian perspective.

I have written about the value and importance of forgiveness in this blog and noted, from the perspective of mastering your emotions, that forgiving those who have “abused” you allows you to move past emotions such as maladaptive anger, hate, and resentment so that you can get on with your life and experience a full range of other, more adaptive, emotions.

While I am not a Chistian, many of you, my readers, may be.  And many of you might be struggling with the issue of holding on to maladaptive feelings connected to your “abuse” which hold you back and burden you.

If you are that person, I am telling you IN THE STRONGEST WAY possible that you need to buy, read, and live Pastor Steph’s book! I have to tell you that the price of $20 for a 79 page book is high. But, if you can free yourself from your past, it will be money well spent.

My goal in writing this blog is to help people learn to master their emotions so that they can lead a more adaptive life. This post is consistent with that goal.

By the way, if you are not a Christian, the message of Pastor Steph will be just as relevant to you. But, you may have to work your way past the bibilical references, without judgment, to absorb that message.

How to effectively understand and deal with other people in their relationships with you.–A Quick Guide

Does this apply to you?

You are interacting with another person and their reaction to you leaves you “scratching your head” and wondering what is going on with them or elicits an emotional reaction in you such as anger which isn’t consistent with the situation or your history with this person.

In this post, I will address how to begin to understand others who direct their emotions at you.

There are several issues which you should take into account when you are dealing with an emotional  reaction of another person.

They are (in order of importance):

I. The specific emotion the other person is expressing and the message of that emotion as well as your emotional reaction (if relevant).

II. The situation including the nature of the relationship between you and the other person.

III. The BRR: Giving meaning to their behavior.

IV. How you want to respond or “intervene”

I. The specific emotion and the message of that emotion.

As soon as you become aware that someone is directing a specific emotion at you, your first actions should be to take a deep breath to calm yourself down and take a step back from the situation to initially create some physical space between you and the other person.

You can then become aware of and begin to assess the specific emotion the other person is expressing and the message of that emotion.

The emotion that you observe in the other person is a direct reflection of how they perceive their interaction with you.

The message of the emotion will inform you about how the other person is perceiving you and your situation and their interactions with you..

By attending to the message of the emotion, you gain important insight into how the other person perceives, conceptualizes and understands what is going on between the two of you.

Their perception may or may not conform to what you intend to happen between you.

This information will be critical when you decide how to interact with this person and address the emotion which stems from their perception.

Some examples:

Anger: they perceive a threat in the situation that they want to eliminate.  Anger prepares one for war.

Anxiety: a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a future threat that might be “dangerous”. They are facing a possible threat in their relationship with you.

Shame: the message of shame is that the person believes they are inherently a bad or damaged person. There is something going on between you that is eliciting self-consuming thoughts in them.

Fear: this is a here and now emotion which communicates that they see you as an eminent threat which must be immediately avoided.

The message of your emotional reaction communicates to you how you are perceiving them.  You may need to pay attention to your initial reaction so that you do not overreact, escalate the interaction, and make it more difficult to master what is going on between you and the other person.

II. The situation including the nature of the relationship between you and the other person

Awareness of the emotion is the beginning of the process of responding to that emotion.

The next issue for you is to be aware of the situation as your options may be limited by elements of the situation in which your interactions with this person are occurring.

At least 3 situations come to mind…

1.Are you at risk?

If you need to escape or hide, what are your options.

2. Are you in a position to comfort, advise, or offer assistance to  this person?

If the person is opening up to you about an emotion such as anxiety or sadness, are you in a position to offer assistance?

3.Are there power differentials which impact how you can respond?

  •   Is the other person a superior or boss?
  •   Is the other person someone you want or need to respond to as opposed to “dismissing” them in an appropriate manner?
  • Does your “status” as a woman, a manager, an hourly employee, impact your response options?

III. BRR: What is motivating their behavior

You are aware of the emotion which informs you of how the other person perceives you and their interactions with you and of your situation which gives you additional information regarding your options.

You can now look at the individual and what how they are interacting with you. You do this using the Basic Relationship Rule (BRR).

The BRR tells you that every person in every situation does the best they can (not the best possible) given their Model of the World (how they perceive what is going on) and their Skill Sets (The behavioral tools they can call upon to help them deal with their interaction with you.)

Changing their Model

If you know how they are perceiving their current interaction with you (the message of the emotion) and you know that their perception is elicited by their Model or how they make sense of, understand, or interpret of what is happening, and you can change this Model by asking questions, offering some suggestions, then intervening to change the Model is a good choice.

Dealing with a skill set deficit (They don’t have the right tools for the situation.)

If their inappropriate actions are stemming from a skill set deficit, then they are in a situation in which they don’t really know how to interact with you and are struggling.  In this case, you may have to resort to reassuring them that it will work out, give them some space, avoid confrontations, or use distraction if possible and so forth.

IV. Choose an adaptive response.

Based on all of the above, choose how you want to respond and take action.

Anger as an example…

This is the scenario I used..

You are at _____ (work, home, walking the dog) and someone interacts with you in such a way that it seems clear to you that this person is angry with you.  He (or she) might be yelling at you, talking fast, accusing you of having done something and so forth.  It is not immediately clear why they are angry.

I discussed 7 general issues and 6 steps.

Here are the 7 general issues that I originally addressed in my book Beyond Anger Mastery: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

  1. What is the nature of the threat the other person perceives?
  2. Are they telling you that you have done something wrong? If so, what is it? Is is something you did recently, are currently doing, or something you did in the past?
  3. Are they just venting and you just happened to be in the way?
  4. Is the threat, or the implied threat, that they perceive in the present and something you may be able to resolve?
  5. Is the threat they perceive, or the implied threat, in the present but totally unrelated to you?
  6. Are they using their anger to “manipulate” you in some way or get you to do something specific like back-off (anger as a communicator) or give in (instrumental anger)?
  7. If there is no obvious threat, what else might be going on? Could they be using their anger to cover over some other feeling (secondary anger)? Or, if they are attacking you or demeaning your character, could they be attempting to divert attention away from issues you have raised and onto you as an individual?

Here are the 6 Steps…

Step 1:  Prepare to engage.

Sub-steps:  a. Calm yourself by taking a deep breath   b. Take a physical step back if your physical safety is an issue.

Step 2: Insure your safety.

Sub-steps: a. assess personal threat level   b.Assess need for immediate action.

Step 3: Validate their anger.

Sub-steps: a. Assume their anger is valid.  b. Calm them down.

Step 4: Forgiveness.  

Sub-steps: a. understand what forgiveness is. b. Don’t take their anger personally.

Step 5: Empathize with and attempt to understand the other person’s anger.    

Sub-steps: a. Seek first to understand.  b. Address 7 general issues.

Step 6: Decide how to respond.  

Sub-steps: a. If you did something.  b. The issue is in their head.

Here are the links to a series of 3 posts I published in Febuary and March of 2017 which address how to intervene when another person is angry with you. These three posts and the suggestions I made in them are as relevant and valid today as they were in 2017.

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 1

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 2

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 3

 

Let’s take a look at “hate” and why you might want to avoid it.

I recently listened to an episode of the “Divorce Devil” podcast in which the host noted that while you might want to get past the emotion of hate after divorce as quickly as you can, a little bit of self-hate for a little while (I’m paraphrasing here.) was acceptable.

I disagree as I’ll discuss below.

I also recently watched the news in which the latest shooting was labelled a “hate” crime.

There is, indeed, too much hate in America today.

So, let’s look at the emotion of hate.

The Emotions as Tools Model notes that each emotion informs you about how you perceive your surroundings.  This is the message of the emotion.  I have discussed the Emotions as Tools Model in numerous past posts and in my book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings.

The message of hate is that you perceive a situation or person as extremely negative or even demonic.  Your perception of another person or situation doesn’t get much worse than that which elicits hate.

So, your emotion motivates you to eliminate the object of your hate.

Hate is a very strong emotion that is usually reserved for people whose actions you view as unacceptable, evil, despicable or reprehensible.  Presumably, you would want nothing to do with this person because he, she, or it is extremely toxic, negative or hurtful.

Logically, you’d think that your emotional reaction to hate would be to cut ties with or avoid the person you view with such animosity and disdain.

This is not, however, what frequently happens.

Let me digress here for just a moment.

In this post, I am addressing the emotion of hate.  This is so strong an emotion that its presence and the actions it elicits are cletarly recognizable, if not always correctly labelled.

So, I am not talking about how the word “hate” is often used in every day conversation.

Indeed, when we say “I hate Brussels Sprouts.” the word hate is the same word as that used for the  emotion and “hate” crimes.

The meaning and intent, however, of the word in the latter instances are very different.

To be accurate, while you may say that you “hate” Brussels Sprouts, in reality you just dislike them. Indeed, you may even dislike them a whole lot. (By the way, I did not like Brussels Sprouts as a kid because of the way my mom cooked them. Now, when they are served in butter with bacon, I have to make sure I leave some for every body else.) So, while you may dislike Brussels Sprouts, I really doubt that you are emotionally attached to them.

With the emotion of hate, however, your actions are the exact opposite of what you’d expect.  Instead of being repelled from the object of your hate, you bind yourself to the  person or situation just as powerfully as if you were in love with them.

Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

Let’s look at love.

Imagine that you are facing a person and you are firmly holding both of their hands in yours. Everywhere they go, you go.  And, vice versa.

Think of this as love.

You are emotionally connected to the the person you love and they are with you all the time.

Now, let’s look at hate.

Imagine that you are now standing back to back with this person with both of their hands firmly in yours. As you can see, you are now opposite to them.

This is the basis for people believing that love is the opposite of hate.

But, let’s take a deeper look.

Indeed, with hate, you are just as securely attached emotionally to the object of your hate.  Wherever you go, they go with you.  And, they are with you all the time.

If you truly hate someone, you need to understand that you can be consumed by your hate. Just as you can be consumed by your love.

This may or may not be okay with love.  It definitely isn’t okay with hate.

Anger and Hate

To the extent that you are dealing with a person or group through the emotion of hate and you see this person as evil and a threat, you also are most likely experiencing anger.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat to your values or sense of right and wrong and you believe you can eliminate the threat by throwing enough force at it.  Anger prepares y0u for war.

To mix anger and hate together can be very dangerous.  The hate tells you that this person is evil and reprehensible and it emotionally binds you to that person. Your anger motivates y0u to take destructive anger to eliminate this perceived reprehensible threat. Under these circumstances, logic and thinking about consequences often are overwhelmed or eliminated.

Think about hate groups, hate crimes, extreme discrimination and prejudices etc.

Avoiding Hate (Not easy, but doable)

This is why you might want to avoid hating another person.

“Huh”, you say, “What do you mean?”

Well, as I said above, hate is a very strong emotion which when you are under its influence can hijack your critical thinking and result in your not taking the important step in mastering your emotions as tools of assessing your situation and the validity of the message your emotion is communicating to you.

Thus, with hate (and anger), you should assess both whether the object of your hate is, indeed, demonic AND whether the actions you are about to engage in (such as shooting someone) will improve the situation in which you find yourself.

So, what are your options?

First of all, when you experience the emotion of hate, force yourself to step back from the situation and take a very deep breath.

This is part of the Emotions as Tools Model.

Once you have calmed down, remind yourself that hate is not an emotion you want to stay engaged with because it can be consuming and elicit actions you may later regret.

With some distance between you, your hate, and the “hated” object, assess the degree to which this object is, indeed, terrible, reprehensible or demonic.  If they are also dangerous, use the energy of your anger to take evasive action.

If you are not in danger, then choose to see them as disgusting and disdainful.

The message of disgust is that you should act to avoid to dispel the disgusting object from your life. Think of Brussels Sprouts as disgusting.

The message of disdain is that someone or something is unworthyof one’s consideration or respect; contempt.

The point here is that, as you are not emotionally intertwined with the previously hated object, you are now in a position to choose how you want to interact with that object.

Getting back to the divorce podcast….

From the above perspective, would you, as a  counselor, really want to green-light self-hate (or other-hate) after divorce in your client?

My answer is “No”.

While the individual who has just gone through a divorce might engage in self-blame (They do need to assess their role in the divorce.) seeing themselves  as demonic or reprehensible, probably won’t help them to get past the divorce.

Hence, no self-hate.

Hating the spouse (tho they might be reprehensible) is not healthy as they need to become emotionally independent of, not emotionally bound to, the now legally separated spouse.

Hence, other-hate is not appropriate either.

Criticism as gotten a bad rap. Learn to strategically deploy it using Emotions as Tools Model and the Basic Relationship Rule.

Note:

We live in a world today when words such as criticism, understanding, accommodation, and compromise are “dirty” words.

Because we are so siloed in our own belief systems, the world becomes very binary.  I am right and you are wrong. Criticism is seen as an attack.

While I can’t address all of the above issues, I will attempt to shed some light on the topic of criticism. 

When you think about the idea of criticism, you probably think of a situation in which..

  • you were told you had messed up
  • you were presented with negative issues about yourself
  • you were demeaned or marginalized or felt attacked
  • the person delivering the critical comments to you wasn’t very nice

All of the above examples imply an undesirable situation in which you are the target of hurtful comments directed at you by someone who may, or may not, have your best interests in mind.

This is the typical way we tend to view criticism and it is the reason that criticism has gotten a bad rap and is viewed as something we want to avoid.

In this post, I will suggest that you change your approach to criticism, utilize the concepts from the Emotions as Tools Model and strategically deploy criticism by view it as a potential source of useful information and not getting emotionally trapped by the way in which the criticism was delivered.

I am assuming that there is a relationship between you and the other person and that you are not being irrationally (or unsafely) attacked.

Let me give you an example.

I am a college professor. My students tell me that I am good at what I do and I enjoy the teaching experience.

But, it didn’t start out this way.  In fact, I started teaching because I was very anxious about speaking in public.

When I first started teaching, I was terrible.  I read my notes, probably bored my students half to death and avoided any feedback (or criticism) because I was not confident enough to receive it.

At one point, however, I made a crucial decision.

I decided to seek out comments from my students and viewed it as a source of information that might make me a better teacher.

From the comments of my students (favorable and unfavorable), I was able to grow as a professor.

Now, I need to say that it didn’t matter whether the student liked me or not.  The reason for this is that even if a student was just being critical out of a desire to be hurtful, there might be something of value in what he, or she, said.

Put another way, wrong motivation… right information.

I also had to learn to master my own emotional response to the criticism.

Anxiety to anticipation

I received.  I had to change my approach to the information I received from viewing it as a possible threat (anxiety) to viewing it as a possible source of useful information (anticipation).

Anger to acceptance

I had to change my view of the information and the source of that inforrmation not as an attack (anger) but as an opinion to be considered on its face value (acceptance).

These are some of the emotions you might need to master as you lead to deal with criticism…

Anger so that you do not get offended and Attack

Anxiety so that you do not get nervous and Avoid

Guilt so that you do not go into self-blame

Anticipation so that you remain open and receptive

Resentment is that someone has wronged or hurt you by taking advantage of you.  They have an asset (power, gender, position) that you do not and they have exploited that asset to gain an advantage over you.

The Emotions as Tools Model

The Emotions as Tools Model notes that all emotions are just tools that we need to learn to master.

Each emotion conveys a message about how we perceive our surroundings. Emotional mastery happens when we accept our perception, assess the validity of the message for us in that situation, and choose an adaptive response

This approach to emotions is adaptive whether we are seeking to master our own emotions or the emotions directed at us by another person.

The Emotions as Tools Model applied to Criticism

Criticism is just a tool which conveys a message about how the individual delivering the criticism perceives the situation.

Our job in mastering criticism  is two-fold.

  1. We need to master our own emotional response so that we avoid unnecessarily escalating the interaction and cut off communication
  2. We need to master our own emotional response so that we remain open to the possible message of the criticism.

The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR) and Criticism

The BRR states that “Everyone in every situation does the best they can (not the best possible) given their Model of the World (the information they have about the situaiton) and their Skill Sets (the tools they have to engage in the situation they are facing).

Remembering the BRR will help you remain open to the message by attempting, when needed, to understand and avoid judging the individual delivering the criticism (the message).

Understanding the Process of Criticism

There are two aspects of criticism:

How the criticism is delivered (Giving) and how it is received (Taking)

In our discussion so far, I have only addressed the taking aspect of criticism and I would like to explore the important characteristics involved in taking (or receiving criticism).

Regardless of how criticism is delivered (We’ll get to this below.), you always have a choice regarding what you do with the information directed at you.

In the above example of my teaching, I started out with a maladaptive approach to criticism. I avoided it.

Other maladaptive approaches to taking criticism include:

  • demeaning the message and defending oneself before assessing the message for any useful content,
  • demeaning or attacking the messenger,
  • stonewalling,
  • superficial acceptance (yes-but)

Approaching criticism from an Emotions as Tools perspective represents as adaptive receiving of criticism and involves:

  • maintaining a neutral or inquisitive emotional attitude toward the message
  • accepting the message as representative of the perspective of the giver and involves both his Model (how he sees you and the actions you have taken) and his skill sets (the communication tools he can use to get his message across).  This is the BRR.
  • assessing the message (regardless of how it is communicated) for any useful content which might help you grow
  • choosing how you want to respond to the criticism including taking the person for sharing their thoughts or implementing their suggestions.

Note: You can always come back later, if necessary, and revisit the way the criticism was delivered to you, the impact of the delivery on your relationship with the person criticizing you and other interpersonal issues.

In doing the above, you have mastered the criticism and strategically deployed it as a tool to help you grow.

In case you are interested, there are adaptive and malaptive ways of giving criticism as well.

Adaptive giving of criticism involves:

  • being clear that your criticism will be helpful
  • using a non-judgmental communication style to deliver the criticism
  • avoid blaming or assuming you know their reasons for their actions
  • remaining sensitive to both their emotions and your own as you deliver your message
  • clearly stating the behavior you are criticizing and what new behavior you wish to see and that they are capable of doing what you are suggesting
  • making sure that your message is understood
  • successfully “closing” the interaction

Maladaptive giving is

  • judgmental,
  • accusatory,
  • often  non-specific and
  • insensitive.

So, the next time someone criticizes you…

  • Take a deep breath (or two)
  • Take a physical step back from the situation.
  • Assess what is going on.

As a long-time reader of this blog, this should sound very familiar to you.

 

What are your “emotional” prejudices?

In my last post, I discussed the connection between being emotionally authentic and the emotions cycle.

I also mentioned the concept of “display rules” (cultural/work) which impact which emotions are “appropriate” for women or men to express in a given situation.

In this post, I am digging a bit deeper into this topic albeit from a slightly different perspective— predjudice.

To be prejudiced is to pre-judge a person or situation based on a bias, world view, or preconceived set of assumptions which act as filters through which you view, judge, draw conclusions about, and modify your actions regarding the person or situation you are facing.

While you might not be, and probably are not, aware of your prejudices or may not view what you do as based on a prejudice, these beliefs still powerfully impact how you interact with others.

In a recent episode of “911”, a female firefighter valiantly saves a young victim who was underwater from a traffic accident.  The female firefighter puts herself at risk, stays totally focused, does what she was trained to do and administers CPR.  The “emotions” she expresses while doing her job involve focus, concern, courage and commitment. It is a highly stressful situation in which the survival of the victim is very uncertain.

Once the victim begins to breathe and is out of danger, the firefighter expresses her relief by crying.  She is happy, relieved and decompressing.

While the tears are obvious, the EMT is always in control of herself, is situationally appropriate and it is clear that the tears are an emotional tension release.

Her male partner responds to her by saying ” Is this going to be a regular thing?”

She responds, “Probably”.

From an Emotions as Tools and emotional prejudice  perspective, let’s dive a little deeper into this (fictional) exchange,

I thought the writers hit the nail on the head and very dramatically illustrated several cultural biases against emotional displays.

The male’s comments, while not necessarily demeaning, are clearly derogatory and judgmental and imply that his colleague’s actions might not be “appropriate”. It is clear that he respects his colleague and knows that she did an exceptional job saving the victim. But, he is saying that it isn’t professional (or perhaps too feminine  or “like a woman”) to express this emotion on the job as a first responder.

Interestingly, he responds to the release of tension by also tearing up and says, “Now, you got me doing it. Please don’t tell the guys.”

Or, to put it another way, he did not want to be labelled as weak, overly emotional, unmanly, or out of control by his male peers.

The male labelled his female partner’s emotional display (tears) as “inappropriate”.

Or, to put it another way, women should not cry on the job.

He failed to see that her tears were in the service of relieving tension.  They were not an emotional display of, for example, sadness or frustration which, one could argue, might, or might not be “appropriate”.  He only saw a woman crying and made a snap judgement.

He also, by implication, labelled his own emotional display as “inappropriate”. In his mind, men should not cry.

Again, he failed to see that his tears were both a response to the reduction in stress and an empathic connection with his partner.

Males emotionally judging of females and males emotionally judging themselves or feeling judged by other males are  examples of emotional prejudices and can be problematic.

Emotional Validation

The clear implication in the “scene”  was that the male firefighter was reacting to both the ending of a tense situation and to his female colleague’s tears with his own tears.  This was both a release and an expression of empathy.

And, yet, because of his own prejudices, he chose to invalidate his emotions.

Was his emotional display valid? Yes.

Was it appropriate?

Well, the situation was over and the tension had passed. Both he and his female co-worker were recovering from the emergency. So, psychologically, yes, it was appropriate. And, maybe even according to work display rules (outside of the public’s view), the display may very we’ll have been appropriate.

From the perspective of cultural display rules, however, … no it wasn’t (according to his prejudices) appropriate.

There is a bit of a disconnect here in that typical cultural display rules deem it okay for woman to express tearful emotions as long as the display doesn’t get extreme. Sadness and emotional release are considered a feminine characteristics.

But, he questioned her actions in a professional context which is interesting because it was after the incident, in the firehouse, and did not interfere with anything.

She validated her own emotions when she noted that in the future, under similar circumstances, she would respond in a similar manner.

What are your emotional prejudices”?

  • How do you view female emotions?
  • Can a woman be sad, anxious, hurt, or vulnerable? When and under what circumstances (home, work)?
  • Can a women be angry? When and under what circumstances (home, work)?
  • Can a man be sad, anxious, hurt, or vulnerable? When and under what circumstances (home, work)?
  • Can a man be angry? When and under what circumstances (home, work)?
  • Do you have an emotional double standard in which the display rules for men are different from those that apply to men?

Society does seem to have an emotional double standard.

The best way to determine if you have emotional prejudices is to examine your own thoughts/actions when you implicitly or explicitly judge or criticize the emotional actions of yourself or another person.

If you seem to be judging another person based on an emotion, take a breath, take a step back from the situation, and attempt to make an objective assessment of the situation before you choose an adaptive response to that situation.

If you are a follower of this blog, you will immediately recognize that the recommendations to take a deep breath and a step back and then objectively assess the situation before you decide on a response are the steps involved in mastering emotions as strategic tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emotional Empowerment: Focus on “reclaiming” your emotions.

In my last post, I discussed the concept that our emotions are always valid but might not be appropriate.  If they are not appropriate, we should choose not to express them.

Another reason why someone might choose not to express an emotion is that they feel estranged from that emotion based on…

  • a set of “rules”,
  • their upbringing,
  • issues surrounding how they might be perceived should they directly express the emotion,
  • inadequate skill sets for dealing with that emotion, or
  • situational risk.

When a person believes they can’t express the emotion they are e I am suggesting that when you do this, you include some emotions in your “tool kit” and eliminate others.

The cost is that you cut yourself off from many emotions that you could strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.

It’s like saying you will only include one type of screwdriver in your tool drawer. That’s great if every screw required a flat head driver. But, if you come across a Phillips head screw, you are “screwed”.   Sorry for the pun!

You reclaim your emotions when you validate all the emotions you experience and learn to “express” those emotions to improve your life and your relationships.

Let’s dive in.

A secondary emotion is one that is expressed instead of the primary emotion which is what the individual man or woman is actually feeling but chooses not to express.

A secondary emotion is expressed because it is more “comfortable” or “acceptable” than the primary which is more accurately matched to the situation.

For men, the secondary emotion is often anger which is expressed to avoid emotions such as hurt, sadness, embarrassment, anxiety and guilt.

For women, the secondary emotion is often sadness which is expressed because women get “punished” by being marginalized, demeaned or negatively labelled when expressing anger.

More on this below.

As we grow up, both sexes may learn that there are rules which dictate that we might need to “distance” themselves from certain emotions. This is true in many cultures across the world.

There are at least 3 types of rules:

  1. There are cultural display rules which dictate which emotions are acceptable in that culture.  These rules could be  based on gender, custom, religion, etc.
  2. There might be family rules that you learned growing up.
  3. Finally, these rules could be self-generated as in “The last time I expressed that feeling, I (You fill in the unwanted consequence.) so I’ll avoid that feeling going forward.”

The bottom line is that while you may become estranged from one or more emotions in terms of whether you express them or not, these emotions still exist “within you”.  They have, however,  been sent to the proverbial attic and archived.

In addition to various sets of rules which may cut you off from some of your emotions, you may label some emotions as good (or positive) and others as bad (or negative) based on the kinds of experiences we have with emotions,

I should point out that in the scientific literature the terms “positive” and “negative” have a specific meaning when applied to emotions.

A positive emotion is one that is experienced as pleasurable.  It feels good.

A negative emotion is one that is experienced as uncomfortable.  It feels bad.

In both cases, it is the hedonic quality of the emotion that is being labelled.

For years, now, I have advocated that the terms “positive” and “negative”(as applied to emotions) be eliminated or, at least minimized, because I believe these terms take on a different meaning than just the pleasurable nature of that feeling.  Indeed, the terms positive and negative  are taken to imply that some emotions should be “kept” (the positive ones) and others (the negative one) should be eliminated.

The basis for my concern is the meaning that we associate with the terms positive and negative.

We tend to label those emotions we feel competent to express as positive and those we do not feel competent with as negative.

Think about it for a moment.  Do you want a negative review at work or a negative balance in your checkbook?  Of course not.

An emotion may be negative because..

  • we do not feel very competent in expressing
  • we don’t like how it makes us appear to others  (weak)
  • it leads to actions that we would like to avoid.

The end result is that you keep the emotions you label as positive in your behavioral repertoire and and archive those emotions you label as negative.

Avoiding primary emotions…

Here is how it works in real life.

You find yourself in a situation which elicits an emotional reaction.  The situation represents some kind of threat and the primary emotion you experience automatically alerts you to the nature of that threat and prepares you to deal with it.

This alert is the “message” of the emotion and is unique to the emotion…

  • Anger: You are prepared to go to war to deal with a threat.
  • Sadness: You are prepared to withdraw to deal with a loss.
  • Guilt: You are prepared to address, atone for, and make right something you have done.
  • Anxiety: You are facing a possible threat and must choose what actions you want to take.
  • Hate: You are prepared to eliminate an evil threat.
  • Shame: You become self-critical and view yourself as damaged, dumb or worthless.

In responding to the situation, you acknowledge the emotion and consider how you want to respond.

As a man, you might view the emotions of anxiety, sadness, and guilt as messy and uncomfortable. As you are not really “prepared” to deal with this discomfort or you do not want to appear weak based on the actions these emotions are pushing you to take, you might label these emotions as undesirable or negative and decide to avoid them by expressing anger instead because anger “feels” good, powerful and in control.

But, in avoiding those emotions, you create additional “problems” for yourself.

Here’s how it might work.

You do something dumb and feel guilty.  This is an appropriate emotion. Instead of mastering your guilt and righting the wrong, you “get on your own case” and experience shame which  feels even worse. To avoid the “pain” of shame, you decide to express anger as a secondary emotion  and direct your anger at someone else.  Since the anger probably is not appropriate for the situation, it might elicit an unwanted reaction and you are back to guilt.  This could create an emotional chain reaction.

As a woman, you might view the emotion of anger as dangerous because it elicits aggression from those to whom it is directed. You get negatively labeled, demeaned, or marginalized.  The same behavior that in a man is viewed as demonstrating power, leadership and initiative is viewed as “hormonal” or “bitchy” in you. As you might not want to take the risk involved in expressing your anger when you have been wronged or taken advantage of, you might decide to do nothing and default to sadness as a secondary emotion. As sadness is not appropriate to dealing with a real threat, you feel inadequate, unappreciated, and weak. You might also continue to feel angry which, if unvalidated, might lead to rage and uncontrolled lashing out.

The 5 steps to reclaim your emotions.

You reclaim your emotions when you acknowledge and accept your emotions as an authentic part of you and utilize the energy of your emotion, when appropriate to adaptively master the situation in which you find yourself.

Step 1: Acknowledge, or validate the emotion.

Step 2: Assess your situation and determine, as objectively as you can, whether the emotion accurately reflects your situation and is. therefore, appropriate.

Step 3: Decide what needs to be done (under the best of circumstances).

Step 4: Determine whether it is “safe” to outwardly express the emotion.

Step 5: Make a plan to express the emotion and deal with the situation.

A note on expressing an emotion

Keep in mind that expressing the emotion can be direct in which case you assertively inform the other person about what you feel and what you believe needs to be done in your situation.  Examples include: “I believe you published my report under your name.  I wrote it and this needs to be corrected.”  Or, “I appreciate what you are doing but I am feeling really sad and just need some alone time to sort things out.?”

Expressing your emotion can also be indirect in which case you might choose to keep the emotion such as anger, anxiety, or sadness to yourself and utilize the energy of the emotion to facilitate a change in your surroundings which validates the emotion but does include informing others about what you are feeling.

The bottom line is that you empower yourself when you reclaim all of your emotions.

  • You become more honest with yourself and, maybe, others.
  • You are more in touch with your surroundings.
  • You have additional choices about how you want to interact with your surroundings and improve your life and your relationships.

Again, let me say that you may need to educate yourself about your emotions and I have written numerous, easy to understand, posts in this blog to help you do that.  You can access all of these posts directly through the Index tab above.

 

 

Two Fundamental Principles Which Underlie a successful Marriage Part 2

In this post, I discuss the second fundamental principle of a successful marriage.

II. What is the Basic Relationship Rule and how do you apply it to strengthen your marriage?

The Basic Relationship Rule states:

Everyone always does the best they can (in their relationships) given their Psychological State, their Model of the world and their Skill Sets.

The Basic Relationship Rule serves two purposes:

On the one hand, it  provides you with a guide to understand your partner (the focus of the first principle).

Secondly, it highlights the three  elements which underly and give rise to your partner’s (and your own) actions. Understanding and shedding light on your partner’s Psychological State, their Model of the World and their Skill sets provide you with an opportunity to better relate to them and, if the situation presents itself, help them make some changes that will benefit them, you and your marriage.

Let’s dive a bit deeper.

There are six elements to the “rule”…

  1. It applies to everyone.
  2. It is always operative.
  3. It states that our “best” is situational and based on three factors.
  4. The first factor is  our Psychological State.
  5. The second factor is our Model of the World
  6. The third factor is our Skill Sets.

Elements #1 and #2

Elements #1 and #2 emphasize that, whenever we engage in an interaction that is important us, the Basic Relationship Rule can be used to understand the actions we (and our partners) are taking.

Hence, it applies to everyone in all “critical”situations.

Element #3

Element #3 is, perhaps, the most difficult to accept.

The issue here is that it doesn’t seem reasonable that one’s inappropriate behavior is the best possible action in the situation.

WELL, IN FACT, IT ISN’T THE BEST POSSIBLE!

It is the best we can do in the situation.

Think about it for a minute.

In any important interaction, why would you do anything less than the optimum you can do to deal with the situation that you are facing.

If you are fully engaged in doing what you believe you need to do to impact  the situation in which you find yourself, then this is your best, in that situation.

The same is true for the other person in your interaction.

While, clearly what they’ve doneit is not the best possible, it is the best action available to them (or the best they can do) in that situation.

Which, then, begs the question……

If it is not the best possible, and you (or they) are motivated to do whatever is needed to deal with the situation, then something must be impacting or impeding what you are doing that makes it less than optimum.

Yes!

And this takes us to Elements #4, #5 and #6 each of which sets limits on and give rise to the actions you are taking.

Element #4

Your Psychological State refers to any strong emotions such as sadness, anxiety, or anger which might impact how you (or they) interact with others.

Your emotional state is determined by how you are interpreting the situation in which you find yourself.  The message of the emotion informs you of your interpretations. Or it informs you of how they are viewing their interaction with you.

If you are angry, you are viewing the situation as involving a threat you need to go to war to resolve.

If you are anxious, you are viewing the situation as involving a possible future threat which needs to be resolved or avoided.

If you are sad, your are viewing the situation as involving a loss from which you need to remove yourself so that you can heal.

Think of your Psychological State as a filter through which you are viewing your situation.

The issue with your Psychological State is that you may not realize that you are viewing  the World through this filter.

Element #5

Your “Model of the World” is the lens through which you are viewing, interpreting, making sense of, and deciding what to do in your current situation.

Your Model develops over time and includes (among other things):

  • your self-image
  • your past experiences with similar interactions
  • how you view your partner and interpret what they do/say
  • what you assume (or expect) to be true about the situation
  • your goals

The “rightness” or “wrongness” of your Model is not an issue here.

The extent to which your Model helps, or hinders, you in your interactions with your partner to resolve the conflict is the critical point.

If you put on a pair of reading glasses, everything you look at beyond your book is blurred. The glasses are blurring your vision. Your Model of the World can also blur (or distort) what you are looking at and the interpretations you make.

This is a link to a previous post in which I discuss the concept of one’s “Model” in more detail.

Understanding Others and Ourselves to Build (or improve) our relationships. A 4-part series. Part 3: Their Model

Element #6

One’s skill sets are the abilities each individual in the relationship brings to the situation that they can access when they need to decide what they will do to “move the relationship forward”.

These skill sets include..

  • how they handle emotions (emotional intelligence skills)
  • their level of self-control (intrapersonal skills),
  • how they interact with others (interpersonal skills)
  • how they analyze a given situation (critical thinking skills)
  • how they approach solving problems (problem solving skills)
  • how they communicate with others (communication skills)
  • how they deal with perceived risk (risk management skills)

Your skill sets are the behaviors you have learned over your life span to deal with different types of situations.  Skill sets are influenced by different environments including family, work, school, the military and so forth and become habitual over time through practice.

Understanding Others and Ourselves to Build (or improve) our relationships. A 4-part series. Part 4: Skill Sets

If your skill sets are not adequate to handle what is going on, you will do things that may be inappropriate, ineffective, or even damaging to your efforts to resolve the conflict.

Think about North Korea for a moment.  This country believes it has very few “skill sets” which allow it to interact with the rest of the world.  It does have nuclear weapons.  Consequently, everything it does is filtered through the lens of threatening nuclear annihilation.

The bottom line is this..

In working to understand, maintain, or strengthen your marriage,  start by implementing the two fundamental principles that underlie all relationships.

Once you have done this, the specific “techniques” advocated in the lists various sites offer on the internet will make more sense and become more relevant.

Oh, and by the way, these same principles apply at work, as a volunteer or dealing with “support people”.