When someone says, “I hate this job!” or “I can’t work with Sarah” or “Nobody values my work around here!” most people are inclined to think that those feelings are rather permanent and unchangeable. And, usually, the stronger the feeling, the more it sounds final or irreversible. For example, if my wife should greet me at the door with, “I’m so mad at you!” my immediate reaction would be that I’ve fouled my nest somehow and she’ll never feel the same about me again. Parents, too, have a similar reaction when one of their kids blurts out, “I’m never going anywhere with you again.”
Fortunately, negative feelings can be quite transitory. One of the reasons for this is that people purposely select strong negative feelings as codes to communicate “I want to make sure I get your full attention” or “I want you to know how bad you’ve made me feel.” If the receiver is able to decode the negative feeling and respond with acceptance and empathic understanding, almost like magic the strong feeling disappears and gets replaced by a much less intense feeling—even by a positive feeling. I have often heard a child tell a parent, “I hate you” or “You’re a stupid mom,” but in less than a minute, provided the parent accepts the first feeling, the child ends up hugging and kissing the parent.
The same thing happens with adult relationships in groups and organizations. When leaders recognize that strong feelings are not carved in granite, they become much less frightened by them and more able to deal with them constructively. Again, Active Listening is the best tool, for it usually has the effect of defusing the feeling. This is illustrated in the following excerpt from an interview we conducted with the industrial relations director of a midwestern chemical company:
“I want to tell you about an instance where the president of the union had come into my office extremely upset. He was so wrapped up in his feelings I wasn’t having any influence at all. I gave him answers to the questions he asked and that upset him even more—to the point he got up and started walking out of my office. With his back about two steps out of my office, I raised my voice slightly and said, ‘You really are upset about this thing.’ And he stopped, hesitated, turned around, and his face was beet red at that point. But he came back, sat down, and said, ‘You’re darned right I am!’ And he laid it out—he was in my office for five more minutes. When he left, although we still had some significant problems, the shade of red was about half of what it had been before. And I didn’t have the feeling he was going to charge out of there and start stirring up a lot of trouble for us. The thing had been defused slightly. I think he was hoping something would happen that would avoid his having to take the actions he was threatening.”
The following experience was reported by the OD Manager of a clothing manufacturer on the East Coast:
“One of our supervisors of work teams, upon completing the L.E.T. course and consciously using the Active Listening skills for the first time in a team meeting, told me ‘these L.E.T. skills work—we’ve never had a more productive meeting. Just Active Listening to their concerns allowed us to move forward and work on solutions rather than complain during the whole meeting.’ ”
Here is an L.E.T.-trained police sergeant Active Listening to a person who called to complain about a police officer who gave him a ticket.
(Note that the sergeant’s first listening responses are actually “parroting,” i.e., mirroring back facts but not feelings. Then notice that he begins to Active Listen.)
Sergeant: Good afternoon, I’m returning your call regarding a concern you have about an officer assigned to my squad. Can you tell me about your concern please?
Complainant: Thank you for calling Sergeant. Officer Williams was rude and discourteous.
S: Charlie was rude and discourteous.
C: Yes. He pulled me over and only asked for my driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. That’s all he said.
S: Charlie requested your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
C: Yes. And then went back to his police car and wrote me a ticket. He never once asked me if there was a good reason why I did not stop for the red light.
S: So you did not stop for the red light.
C: No, I didn’t. But there was a car so close behind me that I didn’t want to brake and cause a collision.
S: You didn’t want to cause an accident.
C: Right! And I know I should have stopped for the light but I was concerned about this car behind me. The officer could have asked me about why I went through the light.
S: You would have appreciated Charlie asking you about extenuating circumstances that may have influenced you not abiding by the rules of the road.
C: Yeah. Charlie could have at least asked. All he did was go about his business. He did not seem to care much about me.
S: So Charlie was all business and didn’t show much concern for your safety and well-being.
C: Exactly. He could have at least talked to me for a few minutes. He just wrote the ticket and left.
S: You would have liked it if Charlie would have spent some time hearing your side of the story and asking you if you had questions about the ticket or the “notice to appear” process.
C: Yeah. I mean, he wasn’t really rude or discourteous, he just did not seem to have much time for me. After I signed the ticket he just said: “Have a nice day.” How am I supposed to have a nice day after getting a ticket?
S: Well, I have all the time in the world for you right now. Are there any questions you have that I can answer?
C: No thank you. Thank you for listening to me though . . . I appreciate it.
The next time someone sends you an emotion-packed message, sit back and Active Listen to demonstrate your understanding and acceptance of that person’s feeling. It might just go away as suddenly as it erupted.
*Excerpted from the L.E.T. book by Dr. Thomas Gordon