Effective Communication is about Understanding Emotion

Imagine a world in which you wouldn't experience any emotion whatsoever. What would your life look like? Drab? No, it wouldn't be drab, as that's an emotion. Nor boring, peaceful or any other state of mind which implies an emotion is being experienced. This means, therefore, that emotions are necessary for you to be able to experience anything at all. It goes a step further: Emotions are adaptive, they increase your chances for survival. Take fear, for example. If you didn't ever get scared, you wouldn't be aware of danger and would do silly things, like not jumping out the way when a car comes barreling down the road towards you. Emotions tell you what is important, what needs your attention and what action is required. Only when something is important enough does it capture your attention, this all thanks to the emotion that brings it to the forefront for you. And you only learn something when it is important enough to be able to react appropriately to such a given situation. In other words, emotion not only tells you what is important, it also is the motor for your learning. Emotions are primary. Emotions motivate.

Leaders motivate to better performance

So what does emotion have to do with communication and why should you as a leader need to know anything about its link to communication? First and foremost because emotions motivate, meaning that understanding what emotions others are experiencing may help you motivate them better, thereby getting them to perform better. And especially if you are a transformational leader, one who focuses on the development of an employee's potential, you will need to know how emotions steer learning processes, how emotions stimulate the growth of problem-solving abilities, and so forth. Reason enough to get to know more about emotions!

Transformational leadership stimulates autonomy

Focusing on emotions has another implication: When you tell others what they should do, how they should feel about things or how they should think, in short limiting their feeling of autonomy, you are ignoring their emotions. You thereby stilt their personal development, as only when their emotions are activated will they actually (be motivated to) learn anything. The implication is therefore that instead of telling, you rather go the route of asking and start taking an active interest in them as person. Only when you understand what moves the other are you fully able to bring transformational leadership to fruition.

Current emotions motivate

So how do you get to know what motivates the other? A mistake leaders often make is to focus on what their conversational partner tells them about the emotions they have experienced in the past. Their past emotions do not motivate them now, their current emotions do! This means you will somehow need to pick up on the emotions someone is experiencing in the here-and-now. And this is a major clue to what I have named Observational Listening, a term which means using all your senses to observe what is happening emotionally in your conversational partner.

Understanding reactions helps to understand emotions

Observational Listening means an entirely different way of communicating. Instead of focusing on what you meant by what you said or asked, you now try to focus on what this all meant to your conversational partner. In other words, you use all your senses to focus on the (emotional) reaction the other has in response to what you said. You see their facial expression, what their eyes are saying. You hear the pitch, tone and timbre with which they converse, next to the content of their reaction. Yes, sometimes you can even smell their emotion; think for example of profuse sweating in response to fear, though hopefully this isn't an emotion you should be eliciting from your subordinates! You can sometimes feel how a handshake is firm or weak, clammy or dry, or even a knot in your own stomach when empathizing with another. Yet the clue remains: Observe their response! Use what you see in terms of current emotional reaction as basis for your next question. This way you will discover the things which will motivate the other.

Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.