Effective Communication Skills: Acknowledge Emotions Before Solving Problems

by  Guy Harris  |  Best of Blogs

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.

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What People Are Saying

sethupathy  |  01 Jul 2011  |  Reply

I agree understand the opponent emotion or step in their shoes when situation in very tense,
you will achieve 100 % success.

You rightly said here.

Fergus Gibson  |  02 Jul 2011  |  Reply

I would tweak your conclusion slightly. In my opinion, the simplest way to understand it is that people who are emotional want their feelings validated. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I think there is a slight improvement in clarity to say that what you’re describing is the process, the goal is validation.

The other person wants to know that their communication has been received, understood, and the emotional content validated. I believe the goal was achieved in your story by your focus on solving the problem — thereby validating the emotion of the other party because your response indicated there was in fact a problem thus the concern was valid.

The process will never be as effective if the receiving party only reflects that they understand the emotion exists. “I hear you’re concerned,” by itself has some value, but far less than, “i understand your concern. There’s a problem here. Let’s work together to resolve it so that you needn’t be concern anymore.” The latter is far more effective because it acknowledges the essentially rightness of the feeling.

In his seminal book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie has a novel approach to the problem. He recommends that in every case we can sincerely say, “If I were in your position, I’d feel exactly the same.” He rather cunningly points to be in the other person’s position, we’d have to BE the other person; thus we would experience precisely the same feelings.

Guy Harris  |  03 Jul 2011  |  Reply

Fergus – Thanks for your additional thoughts. You’ve added something to the conversation to encourage a slightly different way to look at the situation.


Christina Haxton  |  03 Jul 2011  |  Reply


Thank you for a spot-on post about how emotions are contagious. Remember the sage advice we all heard at some point … “Leave your feelings at the door when you come to work.” The latest brain science research tells us this is not only bad advice, it’s impossible. We cannot leave our “human at the door” when we come to work.

If we understand the strengths and limitations of our human brain, we can choose to either react (and fuel dissonance) or respond (and build resonance).

Using the power of acknowledgment, as you described in your conversation, you simply simply acknowledged his emotion which resulted in his feeling trust. Effectively, you pushed in the clutch and took the gearshift out of high gear (conflict, dissonance) and wiggled it a bit to be sure you were in neutral, then thoughtfully selected the gear he needed you to be in. It was only then you could go in a solution-finding direction. Simple, not always easy.

How many opportunities do we have each day to choose to respond and acknowledge an emotion (your own or another person’s) or to react and fuel the fire?

Guy Harris  |  03 Jul 2011  |  Reply

Christina – Thanks for both your comment and encouragement. Great question to consider at the end of your comment – “How many opportunities do we have each day to choose to respond and acknowledge an emotion (your own or another person’s) or to react and fuel the fire?” That’s definitely something to consider as we interact with others every day.


Jeff Pitts  |  05 Jul 2011  |  Reply


I can’t agree more with you in this. Acknowledging a person’s current emotional state is effective in diffusing the “charged” situation. Although it might be just arguing semantics, and I’m not a trained counselor/psychologist, etc., I would disagree with Fergus that we don’t necessarily want to validate a person’s emotional state. There are times where the anger may be misplaced and inappropriate, and to validate it says that you’re right to be angry, which could give license to stay angry. I have found that if you acknowledge a person’s emotional state and seek to understand why, they are more likely to move to the solution phase much quicker. Especially in these times of virtual relationships and feeling like we have no control, just knowing we have been heard can diffuse most situations.


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