Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 21, 2021
by Neil Senturia
“How you doing?” The verb “are” is missing because this is how the meat butcher in Brooklyn talks to his customers when they come in the door. Linguistic accuracy is irrelevant here. What is critical and significant is that he cares enough to ask. It is the importance of “emotional acknowledgment.”
Alisa Yu, Stanford Ph.D. candidate, has written a paper exploring this issue and her conclusion is that “it is a powerful technique which leaders can use to build trust with their employees.” Seems obvious to me, but when Stanford checks the box, I feel validated.
The power comes from the simple act of listening to the emotions of your employees, and listening includes looking. When Nicole, my assistant of 29 years, is unhappy, I can see it. Then I say to her, “You seem unhappy, is there anything I can do?” She will deny feeling unhappy (she does not want to ever appear weak), but just the act of my acknowledgment is a soothing behavior. It is an unspoken dance we have. Twenty-nine years, let’s just call it compatible neuroses.
It is important here to note that even though you may notice someone’s feelings, that does not mean that they are in the mood to deal with them. You can’t turn responses on and off like a faucet, but often it is enough to simply indicate your awareness.
Nota bene: Your awareness must be presented in an authentic manner. It cannot be delivered on your way to lunch. When a leader is genuine in expressing concern for the employee, good and powerful things can result.
Yu says, “The worst thing leaders can do when employees are feeling bad is to do nothing.” I have a client on the management team of a big company, and he feels dismissed and unappreciated by the CEO. I suggest that he confront the CEO and share his “feelings.” My client rejects that idea, saying it would get him fired. I do not share that point of view, but if telling the CEO about feelings is cause for termination, then he should quit anyway.
I have another client who was promised “an ownership interest” after four years. It seems the CEO has terminal memory loss, and my client is at a crossroads. He decides to go out on his own, and he quits. The CEO is astounded and angry, “How could you leave me like this?” But the key to the puzzle is simple. The CEO has been tone-deaf emotionally for the past two years, so what does he expect?
Yu says, “When you acknowledge emotions, you humanize and validate the person being acknowledged.”
The key for the leader is to learn how to recognize emotions correctly. They are often subtle and nuanced, and you need to work at seeing the body language as well as the words that signal discomfort. The fact that you are aware and share that awareness does not obligate you to personally solve the problem. But it is meaningful to simply tell the other person that you are involved and engaged in their larger human world, beyond just the work they do.
On a personal note, I was recently “treated shabbily” financially by an old friend. My nature is to not let things fester, and I called him on it. He did not change his point of view, but I felt terrific that I had at least expressed my feelings. You need to remember that there are always two sides to emotional acknowledgment, and you can only be responsible for one of the sides.
One of my techniques for the exploration of feelings is to “act out” both sides of the dialogue. Like a tennis game between you and the other person, I try out some of the dreaded words — “I would like to discuss my role in this project” — and then pretend to be the other person and then what they might say, back and forth, with different sentences and points of view. I literally stand up and perform the entire interaction, each time with a different set of “if-then” possible answers. The result of this improvisation is that it makes the demons less fearsome and the possible paths to an understanding or at least detente, more likely.
Rule No. 671
How you feelin’?