Do you want to know how to understand people better? Then you need to get better at understanding emotions. A starting point is to examine a wide-spread lie we tell others — and ourselves.
A misleading exchange takes place a billion times a day: “Hey, how’s it going?” “Great, thanks. You?” “I’m fine!” Has communication occurred, or been blocked?
In this barrage of “checking in,” there’s no real exchange of information, but there is a mutual deception. In asking the question, we pretend that we’ve actually seen and heard the other. In answering, we’ve followed convention but hidden our experience. Why? Safety. It’s “normal,” which means it’s comfortable. Speed. It’s fast, which means we don’t need to get caught up. Script. We all know we’re “supposed to” stay on the surface, so we do.
No Blood, No Foul?
So what? We’re following a social convention — and isn’t it better than simply ignoring the other person? The risk of this surface non-communication is the illusion of inquiry. If we walk out from this “discussion” pretending we’ve actually understood, we block the real data that’s available. I suspect that as this surface transaction has become the cultural norm, simultaneously we’ve found it increasingly difficult to have more substantive dialogue. “Norms,” by definition, are what’s comfortable. What’s proper. What’s prudent. So we’ve become used to a shallow exchange, and this leads us to miss invaluable data. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle with how to understand people. As George Bernard Shaw famously said,
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Don’t fall in that trap. Remember this secret: There is always more to the story. And if you really want to know how to understand people better, you have to dig deeper. You have to really ask how they are feeling, and invest in understanding emotions.
How To Ask About Feelings
Nearly 20 years ago, I was teaching about the Vietnam war, and talked to one of the veterans who counseled other vets. I explained that my dad was a veteran, but he’d never told me about his experience in the war. The counselor asked, “When are you asking him? On the way to the airport? In a busy restaurant? You just can’t give a real answer to that question unless you’re sitting by a lake with a case of beer and a whole weekend ahead of you.” The more complex and challenging a topic, the more time and space will be needed for a real answer. If I’m going to be vulnerable enough to reveal something ugly, scary, painful, serious — or even just complicated — I’m not going to do it in a casual, hurried, public setting. I’m not going to talk if I can tell you don’t have time. And, if you want me to be honest about my experience, let’s go real. It’s back to those 3 Ss:
Safety: Start by building a trusting relationship; ask questions that are appropriate to the level of trust… or trust plus one, by which I mean pushing the boundary and asking a slightly more serious question than yesterday’s question. Also, make sure there’s sufficient privacy and time for the seriousness of the question. Pull someone aside, go for a walk, sit side-by-side, make a space.
Speed: More serious conversations take longer. Find five minutes for a five-minute-level check-in. Make an hour for a much more serious one. If you’re in a rush, people feel that, and they’ll conform to the “I’m in a rush” signal you’re sending (or, if they don’t they might need to learn that norm…)
Script: While “surface” is the starting norm, the way you respond tells the other person what to expect next. If they perceive that you’re following a script, you send a message that this isn’t real. If you invalidate their ideas and feelings at the outset, they “know” not to be honest. If you push or pull, they “know” this isn’t a real dialogue. On the other hand, if you take turns, sharing, asking, listening, recognizing, reflecting… as the dialogue flows back and forth, it also flows beyond the surface.
In any moment, consider there’s the “outside story,” or what we’re comfortable sharing… and the “inside story,” what we’re really thinking and feeling. Here is one of Six Seconds’ training exercises that you can use to explore this for yourself — with a partner — or even in a group. All you need is a paper and something to write with, but it’s more fun with colored pencils or pens:
Think of a situation, perhaps a recent conversation that was somewhat complex. Or maybe a party you attended, or a meeting, or even just walking into school or the office.
On one half of your paper, make a sketch or symbol of what you were showing on the outside. On the other half, represent what you were feeling on the inside.
Discuss – and this is “where the magic happens.” Of course, the skill of your facilitator or partner is what makes this either interesting or amazing. Depending on the situation, questions could include:
- Are the two sides different?
- What are some differences?
- Why do you suppose that is?
- What would happen if you were to show more of the inside (if you didn’t)? What are the costs and benefits of doing that?
- How would it affect you — and others — and your relationships?
This can go quite a bit further — about self-awareness, about patterns, about choices and consequences, and even about purpose. What kind of relationships do you want to build? Why does that matter? What choices will you need to make for that to happen?
What happened when you did the exercise? Please share in the comments!
For more tips, suggestions, and exercises like you have found here, come check us out. We are a non-profit organization helping people to live happier, more meaningful lives with emotional intelligence.
The Point: Look Deeper
If you want to understand others, you need to get beneath the surface and start understanding emotions. If you fool yourself into believing the surface story, you’re missing invaluable data.