Engaging For Results Part II – Tuning into the Feelings in the Room

business meeting

This article is the second in a series of three focused on leveraging techniques that enable us to engage and better work with others to drive results.

The power of feelings

They say people may not always remember exactly what you said, but they will most certainly remember how you made them feel. Ultimately, we are visceral beings. Wherever there is a thought, there is a feeling that fast follows and vice versa. And just as our thoughts wax and wane, move here and there at the speed of light, so do our emotions rise and fall, ebb and flow endlessly through the course of the day.

While old-school thinking will tell you that emotions have no place at work, many modern psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists will simply tell you otherwise. We are emotional beings, and feelings are ever-present through the course of our day. The challenge for us as professionals is to work out how we can better recognise, manage, and harness our emotions, and those of others in positive, constructive, and engaging ways to work better together towards our goals. This is typically called Emotional Intelligence. We all have some of it. Building even more of it, however, can have a material impact on our own performance as well as the performance of those around us.

To learn more about managing yourself as you navigate projects, stakeholders, and your career, please refer to the chapter “Professional Impact in the Construction Industry” by the author as part of a Springer book Industry 4.0 for the Built Environment, edited by Marzia Bolpagni, Rui Gavina, and Diogo Rodrigo Ribeiro.

Emotional Intelligence in managing others

When it comes to team dynamics and collective effectiveness, harnessing our Emotional Intelligence can materially help strengthen working relationships, especially when navigating difficult situations or resolving differences of opinions. The pioneering work of John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso was fundamental to surfacing the importance of Emotional Intelligence and Daniel Goleman has been instrumental in demonstrating just how important it is to our effectiveness and performance at work.

When under stress or pressure, our feelings and reactions can be heightened or intensified. Moreover, when interacting with others, we are not the only person in the equation. If there is a situation unfolding to which we are reacting, the other people will be reacting too. They might not however, react in the same way. Each individual comes to work from backgrounds, educations and work and life experiences which inform their different ways of behaving and reacting in different situations. One person may have worked in an extremely tough environment, be accustomed to being grilled about their work and had to find ways to survive in a ruthless working culture. Another may have studied overseas and worked in an organization renowned for their innovative approaches and highly collaborative culture, which places great value on continued learning, knowledge networks and team players.

Image: Photo by Roland Samuel on Unsplash

The broad brushstrokes of these experiences alone, may predispose each of these individuals to react in entirely different ways when faced with pressure, conflict, competing priorities or unexpected demands. Put them together for example in a situation where the team has been grossly off mark with some key deliverables on a major project and the client is demanding a significant change of tac within what seems to be an impossibly tight timeframe. One person might go immediately into survival mode, withdrawing and putting their head down so as not to draw attention to oneself in a volatile and unpredictable environment. The other may feel flustered, taken off guard, but determined to ask questions, work together and flesh things out. One has effectively pulled away and fled the scene, wary of the possibility that heads may roll, while the other is trying to engage, talk things through and find a solution. Both are having a reaction, triggered by different things, that leads to materially different responses and a deterioration in communication, collaboration and effectiveness.

Building our Social Awareness

Any such situation calls for a person to draw on that part of their Emotional Intelligence which better equips them to recognise, manage, and respond to the emotions and reactions of others. Daniel Goleman calls this as social awareness. An important part of building the skills of social awareness involves fostering the ability to more keenly observe the behaviours, actions, reactions, expressions, and body language of other people. These observations are a starting point that cue someone to pay careful attention to their colleagues and consider how they might best engage them.

Observations, however, do not mean someone is a mind reader, nor clairvoyant and it is important to be careful to avoid falling into the trap of “reading” someone’s body language or facial expressions. An erroneous interpretation of another person’s behaviour based on assumptions can lead to false and unhelpful inferences and conclusions. Someone sitting in the meeting pushed back from the table, with their arms crossed and a furrowed brow may signal that they are disengaged and dissatisfied with the initiative being proposed or discussed. On the other hand, they may simply have the unfortunate seat that is directly underneath the air conditioning and feeling chilly they push back from the table in an attempt to avoid the icy blast.

Imagine it was Jonah who got stuck in this seat and the person presenting incorrectly assumed that he was disengaged. This might lead them to think he is not supportive of their initiative and as a result they decide not to invite him to be more involved. Excluding him from the process may mean the team misses out on some excellent contributions, and it is also distinctly possible that Jonah himself feels excluded, confused and passed over for reasons unbeknownst to him.

This does not make the initial observation of Jonah’s behaviour invalid, rather, it invites us to treat the observation as a piece of data that may warrant further exploration. This provides an invaluable springboard for engagement. When one sees or perceives some behaviour or expression in a colleague which calls attention, it offers an opportunity to ask a question. It could be as simple as “how are you” or “what are your thoughts” or “Jonah, how’s all of this landing for you?” When one makes the choice to directly engage, it opens up the possibility of finding out more.

When we pause to ask a question, it opens up a dialogue in which people more clearly understand how others are feeling and what might be going on for them. This provides invaluable information that enables us to adjust and calibrate our approach to the interaction, whether that be a change in tone, a shift in pace, a pause to unpack preoccupations or an adjustment to the agenda. When we create space to recognise and give voice to the feelings in the room, we also enable everyone else to come to the interaction more mindfully and adjust their energy, attention, tone and engagement accordingly. When a colleague admits to feeling low on energy after weeks of demanding deadlines, it helps us to interpret their actions and behaviour more comprehensively, cues us to empathise and then adjust our own response. It might simply be to bring a more calm, patient, and caring tone into the communication, ease off a little in the intensity of questions or thinking twice before flinging another task their way, knowing that they are already struggling under the pressure.

Honing our Social Skills

With this bridge in place, we are now in a position to leverage our social skills to manage the interaction and the relationship in a way that keeps things on track or gets them back on track if things have gone awry. Social skills include the ability to sensitively and constructively engage with others, meet them where they are, to communicate, collaborate and resolve conflict, and engage the person in a way that helps them move through their reactions and into more effective place from which to respond and take action. A simple and widely used technique, which first emerged in a client relationship context, is known as feel, felt, found. When engaging with others in conversations, especially when things become complex or challenging, we can use this technique to navigate the conversation and work towards a more positive outcome.

The Feel Felt Found model for engaging others:

FeelIdentify and acknowledge how the person may be feeling right nowI recognize that what has transpired must be extremely frustrating for you”
FeltDemonstrate empathy by letting them know you may have experienced something similar or seen a similar situation with other colleagues, stakeholders or clientsI understand where you’re coming from. We’ve seen other client’s grapple with this challenge too”  
FoundShare possible solutions or examples of what you have found has worked for you or others in a similar situationWhat we have found to work in this situation is …

Marc Brackett has also led an enormous amount of work in this space, pioneering the RULER technique for managing emotions. This is a useful alternative to the Feel Felt Found model backed by extensive research. Here we look to Recognise that us or the other person is reacting in some way, then Understand what has caused us or them to react. From there we are in a better position to more accurately Label the emotion which triggers an automatic response in the brain that helps us to start to calm down. From there we can more effectively express what we are feeling to be able to then Recalibrate and Redirect the interaction to a more constructive space.

Depending on the situation, and especially in group settings, it can also be useful to leverage tools and techniques to reset the situation. A particularly effective one is humour. Bringing some light-heartedness or levity to a conversation can help to diffuse tensions or help people to see things in a different light. We can use such tactics when meetings start to get tense or terse. For example, we can throw a complete non-sequitur or nonsense comment into the mix like asking an unexpected question such as “have you seen the new theatre downtown?” The absurdity of the comment may be enough to momentarily halt everyone in the room, make people sit back, pause and redirect their thinking for a second. This in itself, can be sufficient to short circuit the conversation and re-set the focus, dialogue and ensuing interaction.

The perspective we bring into our interactions and the way we engage and help others to shift or adjust their perspectives is key. Richard J Davidson sees outlook as a fundamental tenant of Emotional Intelligence. We can all benefit from refining our ability to re-frame the way we look at something – whether that be during or after an interaction. This involves taking charge of our own mindset and critically examining whether we are fueling fires or constructively collaborating. 

  • How are we looking at the situation and is there a way we can view things from another perspective?
  • If we were giving advice to a colleague in the same situation, what might we suggest as the outsider?
  • Is there merit in fostering a level of detachment and recognise that the other person is having their own reaction, independently of us, and we don’t need to take their feelings on board or personally?
  • Can we look for the opportunity and solution rather than dwelling on past grievances?

A level of self-awareness is an essential ingredient which enables us to recognize our part in an interaction and our impact on others, and then empowers us to calibrate and engage our colleagues more mindfully and more effectively.

Where might you have an opportunity to look at things from another point of view? What strategies might you deploy to better recognise and manage your emotions as they ebb and flow from moment to moment, interaction to interaction? How can you more effectively recognise, respect, and respond to the emotions of your colleagues? How might this materially shift the quality of your interactions and drive improved outcomes?

If you’ve enjoyed the second installment of this blog on engaging others to drive results, why not check out part 3 of this article. There we look at the dynamics of working remotely and techniques to have a more effective reach from afar.

Further Resources and Reading

  1. Caruso, D. R., Salovey, P.: The Emotionally Intelligent Manager – How to Develop and use the Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, (2004).
  2. Goleman, D.: Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloomsbury, Great Britain (1996).
  3. Goleman, D.: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. More Than Sound, Northampton (2011).
  4. Brackett, M.: Permission to Feel. Celadon Books, New York (2019).
  5. Davidson, R. J.: The Emotional Life of your Brain. Hodder & Stoughton, London (2012).

About the author

Katherine Mair

Katherine Mair is Director and Creator at M.A.D. Mindworks Pty Limited, Sydney Australia, katherine.mair(at)madmindworks.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/katherinemair/

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