A few years ago I was in a contentious meeting with a group of church leaders., though it had not started that way. At one point, I metaphorically threw up my hands and queried, “Can you at least understand why I feel as I do about this?” One brother intoned, “No, because your emotions do not fit the facts.”
Hmm…emotions…facts…emotions should fit the facts…hmm. No one in the room doubted the accuracy of that declaration. No one that is except for my shell-shocked wife and me. We looked at each other, then wordlessly began handing over keys and other incidentals that tied us to that group. Alice and I didn’t have to talk about it; we were in complete union. People who ignore, belittle, or refuse to accept what another is feeling are people with whom we do not know how to communicate. Facts are important, no doubt. It’s even better if all involved agree as to what the facts are, though in my experience even agreeing on those is a rarity. But to tell another that his emotions are incorrect – or, as some do, telling another person “that’s not what you feel” or “you shouldn’t feel that way” – is to stop communication coldly and harshly. It is, in essence, telling another person that she hasn’t the sense to know what to feel but that the critic obviously does.
In working with marriages, parents and kids, or any other kind of relationship – personal or business – I do my best to get people to understand that what another feels is valid, regardless of whether we want them to feel it, or think that they should feel something altogether different. Usually I illustrate with this story. Suppose a police officer came to your door and told you a dearly loved one had been killed in an auto accident. You likely would immediately go into grief and mourning. Then suppose another officer came to you an hour later to explain that it wasn’t your loved one that died…it was a case of mistaken identity. The question I ask is “would that mean that what you felt for that hour was NOT real?” Audiences always reply that the emotion, even if based on untrue information, would be genuine to its core.
Sometimes I witness the lack of understanding another’s emotions as I watch parents and children interact. The kid tries his best to communicate his desires, or frustrations, or confusion. The parent doesn’t hear the emotion, or, if so, discards it as irrelevant. She reacts instead to the situation as she perceives it. “I said no and that’s it!” or “Be quiet; I’ve heard enough out of you!” often ends the interaction. Sure, there are times when kids can drive an adult batty by their persistence. However, often when I see this, the child is desperately wanting someone, especially Mom or Dad, to understand how he feels. For example, one lad acted out in public, embarrassing his mother. I had a chance to intervene and asked him what he was feeling. It took only a couple minutes to discover that he had just been embarrassed by one of his friends and was lashing out at the safest target, his mom. When I listened to what he was feeling, validated his emotions, and affirmed him as an okay guy, he calmed down immediately and morphed into the sweet kid he normally is.
When it comes to adults, I have watched so many times the same “magic” occur if one simply takes the time to understand what the other is feeling at the moment. Rather than arguing from what one might assume is a logical viewpoint, “Oh, get over it. Grow up. You shouldn’t feel that way,” when one honestly can say to the other, “I see why you feel your anger (or hurt, or embarrassment, or whatever). I’m sorry that I was so wrapped up in myself that I didn’t see it before,” things change almost instantly.
The next time you interact with your spouse, your children, your parent, or wind up in a hostile meeting (surely not at church!), stop arguing and tune into the other person’s emotions. Get her to talk about what she feels. Validate those emotions. Affirm the person. You will be amazed at how quickly problems can then be solved.