Effective Communication Skills: Acknowledge Emotions Before Solving Problems

Recently, I was working through an issue with another person. They were distressed over the results of a process that affects both of us. I helped to create the process. I have authority to change the process if necessary. And I have knowledge of the system to troubleshoot and fix a fair number of problems.

As we were discussing the issue, they kept talking about their concern without giving me the details I needed to fix it for them. Since I was trying to fix the problem, I started to get a bit frustrated.

They talked.

I grew frustrated.

They talked some more.

I grew more frustrated.

The cycle continued until I said: “I get that you are concerned. I totally understand that you have a concern. Is it okay if we discuss how to solve the problem so that your concern can get resolved?”

They immediately said, “Yes, that would be great.” Their emotional level decreased. They focused on giving me the information I needed to fix the problem for them. And we had the situation resolved in less than 5 minutes from that point forward.

The other person is not a bad, difficult person. They are committed to their work. They want to do a good job, and they had a genuine concern. Because they had a concern, they became emotionally invested in the situation, and their emotional investment became a barrier to our communication. They needed me to understand that they had a concern.

Until I acknowledged their concern, they could not see past it to help me solve the problem. Their need to be heard and understood outweighed their ability to focus on the details of the problem.

The learning lesson in this is pretty simple:

When you engage in a tense or emotionally charged conversation with another person, hearing, understanding, and acknowledging their emotion about the situation often creates the right environment for moving on to joint problem solving.

The converse is also often true. Failure to hear, understand, and acknowledge their emotion can create an insurmountable barrier to effective communication and joint problem solving.

This post was originally presented on Guy's blog.  You can read more of his work on his blog, Recovering Engineer or his author page.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik.