How To Bring People Together When Emotions Are High

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I don’t know what it will take to reconcile our country. I do have tips for how to bring people together at work and at home when emotions disrupt conversations.

On November 10th, I taught a class in Emotional Engagement. One of the exercises has participants listening to each other based on the steps outlined by Julien Treasure in his TED talk, 5 Ways to Listen Better:

  1. Receive what is said with no judgment.
  2. Appreciate (allow and acknowledge) the experience the person is having.
  3. Summarize what they offered.
  4. Ask questions to make sure you understand and they feel heard.

During the practice session, a woman called me to her table. She said, “I know everyone at this table is angry, scared, and grieving about the election. I’m not. This exercise made me feel okay to say that.”

Alan Alda said, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” If you allow people a safe space to share their views and feelings, you both might evolve in the process.

The first time I saw the power of “accepting people where they are” was on my first job. I worked in the training department for a group of psychiatric hospitals.

During my summer on the job, we had a big layoff. Every department head, from maintenance, to aides, to the nursing staff, brought the people that worked for them together to sit in a circle in an empty room.

Each person in the circle declared how they felt. “I’m angry they didn’t find a better way to fix the problem.” “I’m scared when the next shoe will drop.” “I’m sad because my best friend lost her job.”

The leaders didn’t try to fix the people or promise things would get better. Each leader accepted what was shared, and then said things like, “I understand why you feel that way,” or “It makes sense that you think the actions were untimely or wrong.” After every person expressed his or herself, the leader said, “Thank you. I hope we can continue to support each other through this time. Do you think we can have a conversation about moving forward now or would you prefer we wait a day or two?” The group then decided what they would do next.

I worked for three companies after that one. Then I started my own business and have worked with leaders in 35 countries since then. I have never seen or heard of leaders taking similar actions. I have never seen or heard of any organization bouncing back from change as quickly as did these hospitals.

Within days, the hospital employees moved through their anger and grief and were holding productive conversations about a hoped-for future.

To counteract the effects of fear, anger or resignation, people need to feel safe enough to fully express themselves without being judged. This doesn’t fuel negativity; it creates the opportunity to find a way forward together.

That afternoon, I shared the story about Derek Black, godson of David Duke and heir apparent to his father’s white nationalism movement, until he went to college. After being invited to dinner by an Orthodox Jew where they ended up talking into the night, Black published a letter saying, “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.” The dinner conversations weren’t full of hate and finger-pointing. The intent was to know each other better. The results were deepening friendships with people who once saw each other as enemies.

Oprah said, “The smallest change in perspective can change a life.” We change when we feel safe and accepted.

At the end of my training, everyone shared highlights about what they learned which included:

  1. Don’t judge or try to stop people from feeling their emotions.
  2. Recognize what triggers your emotions so you can shift to feeling something inviting and productive.
  3. Create a sense of safety for people by acknowledging their experience as true for them. Then take a pause before you offer your own thoughts and feelings without trying to persuade or make yourself right.
  4. Tune in to what people need. Do they need assurance? Do they need to talk about their fears and frustrations without being made wrong? What can you offer to help them feel you understand and appreciate their needs?
  5. When you sense people are ready, ask what good can you now create together.

Before leaving, I reminded the participants that it’s not easy to stay calm and accept people’s emotions in the moment. Some people will always trigger your reactions. Yet step by step, conversation by conversation, change can happen.

I am grateful for the people in this class, for their courage to have the deep, meaningful conversations we all craved. We came together when emotions were high.

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