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It’s usually healthier to express your emotions than to keep these bottled up inside. In fact, expressing emotions can have a number of health and well-being benefits, such as improving your mood, reducing anxiety, and even helping you to heal faster from wounds.
But it’s not always easy to be on the receiving end of someone else’s emotional outpourings, especially if these are negative or have the potential to trigger you in some way: for example, if you are a manager and one of your employees comes into your office to express their displeasure about a work-related situation, or if your partner comes to you for emotional support following an argument with a close friend. You may need to draw on your emotional intelligence in order not to aggravate the situation.
Emotional conversations can be difficult to manage, but there are a few practical things that we can do to improve how we behave in these situations.
Listen to understand
We often think that we are listening to others when they share with us, but research shows that actively listening during a conversation is a complex skill to master and that many of us don’t fully listen to another person’s story, acknowledge their emotions, or validate their concerns. Attempting to see things from the other person’s viewpoint is key to better manage an emotional conversation, but this can be difficult to achieve. We tend to want our story to dominate, and we want others to accept it.
But when you insist that your story is the only correct one, your conversation partner will become frustrated and feel disrespected, and lacking in control. This will most likely lead to both of you becoming invested in justifying and defending your own views – and the outcome is unlikely to be productive.
When someone comes to you with a story that is emotional or distressing for them, listen attentively and try to acknowledge and validate their feelings. The truth of whether the situation is actually as they express it should be less important to you than the fact that they perceive it to be so. Try not to ignore or dismiss strong emotions, but acknowledge them and express understanding: ‘This must be upsetting for you – I’m sorry’.
Mind your body language
One important aspect of managing emotional conversations is undoubtedly body language, and it is important to be aware of what you are projecting or signalling with your expressions and gestures. We know that, in some contexts, crossing your arms can be a sign of not engaging positively in a conversation. A 2017 study suggests that ‘mirroring’ can be helpful in establishing a sense of trust, connection, and empathy. Mirroring involves imitating someone’s facial expressions or conversational style, for example.
Of course, you don’t want to overdo this, but it is possible to adjust to your conversation partner, perhaps by adapting your tone or the speed at which you speak. You can also follow the rhythm of their movements. Sometimes it may be necessary for you to project calm and slow down your conversation in order to help someone feel heard. They are likely to pick up on this subconsciously and start to mirror you as well.
Use ‘I messages’
Another way you can manage emotional conversations is to use non-accusing ‘I messages’ such as, ‘I’m feeling uncertain about this situation’. This is helpful because when we are talking about our own feelings, we come across as less accusing: we simply describe our subjective perspective without involving the other person.
You still need to be aware that some ‘I messages’ can contain implicit accusations: if someone says to you, ‘I feel disappointed’, you may understandably start to think it could be your fault. It, therefore, helps to be specific about your feelings when using ‘I messages’: ‘I feel disappointed that I didn’t communicate myself more clearly’; ‘I feel disappointed that we won’t be spending Thanksgiving with our friend this year’.
Try distancing techniques
You may have noticed that instead of using ‘I am disappointed’ above, I used ‘I feel disappointed instead. Similarly, it is more helpful to say ‘I feel sad’ or ‘I feel angry’ than ‘I am sad’ or ‘I am angry’. This is because emotions are something we feel in the moment, but they do not need to define us. Using this kind of distancing language can help you to realise that an emotion is temporary and that you may not always feel this way.
Temporal distancing is also a useful strategy that can help to lower the intensity of your feelings. You can ask yourself questions such as: ‘Will this still matter in a year’s time?’, ‘Have I been through something similar before? How did I cope, and how has it prepared me for this conversation?’ When we think of the past or the future in this way, this brings us back to an analytical mode of thinking, rather than one purely based on emotions.
Think in the long-term
If a conversation is getting heated, try to pause for a few seconds before you start to speak again. This will provide you with a moment to refocus on your goals and to think in the long term. Reacting in the short term might feel temporarily satisfying as it provides a release, but it may cause damage to your long-term goals in life or at work.
In emotional conversations, some things are very difficult to take back. Shame and humiliation are good examples of emotions that, once felt or expressed, can do irreparable harm to a relationship. If you wish to successfully manage your relationships for the benefit of your long-term goals, it makes sense to pause and think before you say something you’ll regret.
Practise having emotional conversations
They say that practice makes perfect, and this also holds true for emotional conversations. You could start practising with a trusted colleague or friend with a conversation on a topic that holds a low level of intensity.
Another option is to take a video of yourself expressing emotions and observing your body language. How are your voice, facial expressions, and gestures? Being aware of how you come across, and actively self-monitoring, will help you to manage and express emotions more successfully.
There is no hiding the fact that emotional conversations are sometimes uncomfortable to deal with. Attempting to evade or suppress these conversations however won’t stop others from having their feelings. It may even lead to unintended conflict and deterioration of relationships down the line. Also, remember that if someone opens up to you, they’re taking a risk and showing vulnerability. So be prepared to receive and share feelings. Create an environment where emotional conversations are encouraged, and help others to feel safe enough to open up and be honest with you. You won’t regret it, at least in the long term.
Séverine Hubscher-Davidson, PhD is an academic and freelance writer based in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.