By Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
When Charmaine was passed over for a promotion, she went to George and accused him of homophobia. At the start of the conversation, she was very emotional, not just because of the loss of this one promotion, but also because she had recently been the victim of two layoffs. She felt vulnerable, abused, and even a little frightened.
George, he had to admit looking back, was uncomfortable with Charmaine’s emotion and, as a consequence of this discomfort, found himself fidgeting – looking at his watch, interrupting her, trying to change the subject. All he could do was pray that his phone would ring or someone come in the office just to break the atmosphere.
At one point, he was relieved when his phone did indeed ring and he was able to take a break from the emotion. He knew he wasn’t handling it very well so tried to show some compassion by reaching across the desk, patting her hand, and saying, “Now, calm down, everything will be all right, just take a deep breath.”
What struck me about this conversation was the major role that emotion played in creating challenges for George and Charmaine. Of course, we can’t be inside the heads of either George or Charmaine, but, from the outside, it sure seems that Charmaine came to the meeting riddled with feelings of sadness, vulnerability and anger. Those emotions, in turn, triggered in George a discomfort at the emotional intimacy that Charmaine’s pain seemed to demand. Emotions seem difficult to deal with – especially in the workplace. Vague, personal – we almost don’t want to address them for fear of intruding on our colleague’s psychological territory. Because emotions can’t be measured, recorded, or digitized, we are left with the impression that they are unmanageable – beyond our control or manipulation – when, in fact, there are several strategies we can employ to manage the impact of emotion on our ability to communicate. First, both Charmaine and George might have asked themselves, ‘What am I really feeling?’ The ability to identify and observe an emotion is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence and greatly increases our ability to function effectively. It isn’t, of course, necessary to exorcise our emotion altogether, just the act of giving it a name has a magical way of bringing the feeling under our control. Second, it would have helped had Charmaine and George consciously accepted what they were feeling (Charmaine was vulnerable and angry; George was uncomfortable). This adage may sound like psycho-babble, but, in reality, it is a very important skill. When we fight our emotions, when we pretend they aren’t there or feel bad about them, they can actually become more intense. It is as if our resistance creates an energy off of which the emotion feeds. On the other hand, when we accept what we are feeling – be it anger or hurt or fear – the odds go up that, paradoxically, that emotion will have less power to influence our decisions and our actions. Finally, both might have benefited from taking a break from the situation to give themselves a chance to settle down. Even just a walk around the block might have helped. Of course, it would have been rude if George just abruptly stood up and walked out of the room, but he could have said something like. “I really honor how you are feeling and want to focus on your point-of-view. I do need a few minutes, though, to digest the situation; would you mind if we took a break and met back here in about 15 minutes?’ Rude? Hardly. This simple act would have sent to Charmaine the message that he really cared. That beats the heck out of all the fidgeting, changing the subject, and taking phone calls just to get out of the conversation – that’s what I call rude! Click here to read more about how to improve dialogue skills especially as they pertain to workplace diversity issues.