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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

How to connect with emotion conversations

Connecting Conversations 2 of 3
April 24, 2024

I was uncomfortable about this next part of Charles Duhigg’s book, Supercommunicators, which moves on from “what’s this about” (problem-solving) conversations to “how do I feel?” (emotion) conversations. Beats me if it’s a me-thing, or an old guy-thing, or a WASP-thing, but when a conversation turns to “how do I feel,” there’s an urge to run for the hills. But as it turns out, connecting through emotion conversations is easier than I realized.

Duhigg reminds us that:

Emotions shape every conversation. They guide what we say and how we hear, often in ways we don’t realize. Every conversation is, in some respect, a discussion about How Do We Feel?

Ask Deep Questions

For years, social science taught us to connect with others through perspective-taking, by imagining the other person’s perspective and speaking to it, to demonstrate empathy. Problem is, this doesn’t work – just ask any parent who has tried to connect with a teenager by telling them “When I was your age….” Cue the eye roll. Perspective taking can land as off-putting and presumptuous. Instead, we should focus on perspective-getting, by asking people about their values, beliefs, and feelings, what they care about most.

We do so by asking what Duhigg calls deep questions, questions that invite others to share their beliefs/feelings/vulnerabilities, and then reciprocating with our own. It is this genuine sharing of feelings and vulnerabilities that triggers connection in the moment.

I remember a time when my wife and I invited a few folks over to our home for dinner. One fellow, whom I’d not met before, walked into our house, looked around, and then asked me a question. It wasn’t “How long have you lived here?” or “How old is your house?” Those would have been factual questions about our house, unsurprising, superficial, and easily answered. Instead, he asked “What’s your very favorite room?” This was unexpected, and it was really a question about me, my feelings, how I live in our home. So simple, yet it opened up a totally different conversation and connection.

This is so easy to do. And one can get to a deep question quickly. Duhigg gives examples of several common, shallow questions that easily can be flipped to deep questions:

  • “Where do you live?” becomes “what do you like about your neighborhood?”
  • “Where do you work?” becomes “What was your favorite job?”
  • “Are you married?” becomes “Tell me about your family.”
  • “How long have you lived here?” becomes “What’s the best place you’ve ever lived?”
  • “Where did you go to high school?” becomes “What advice would you give to a high schooler?”
  • “Where are you from?” becomes “What’s the best thing about where you grew up?”

Then, follow up, with responses and questions that share how you feel (“Really? I went to a big high school too! There were times when high school was rough for me. How was it for you?”). As Yale psychologist Margaret Clark put it:

The best listeners aren’t just listening …. They’re triggering emotions by asking questions, expressing their own emotions, doing things that prompt the other person to say something real.

Duhigg cautions that such reciprocity is nuanced. By reciprocity, Duhigg means reciprocal vulnerability – not simply taking our turn in describing how we feel, but instead sharing our vulnerability in a way that provides empathetic support to the other person. Reciprocity is sharing, not imposing – the point is to share, not compare, vulnerabilities.

If someone reveals they’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, we [obviously] shouldn’t reciprocate by talking about our own aches and pains. That’s not support – it’s an attempt to turn the spotlight on ourselves. But if we say “I know how scary that is. Tell me what you’re feeling,” we show we empathize and are trying to understand.

The reciprocity should sync with what the other person wants and needs, be that empathy or advice. If empathy is needed, we can give something in return without centering ourselves, simply by describing how we feel (“It makes me sad to hear you’re in pain,” or “”I’m so happy for you!”). And in the rare circumstance that what the other person truly wants is advice, it’s respectful to ask permission (“Would you mind if I share something from my own life?” or “May I share how I’ve seen others handle this?”).

Match Mood & Energy

We also express emotions nonverbally, but it’s hard to accurately decipher from non-verbal cues what the other person in a conversation is specifically feeling. In the moment, they may not fully understand either. Duhigg reports not to worry – instead, pay attention to what you can see – their mood (positive or negative) and energy (high or low). Then, focus on matching their mood and energy, which conveys our empathy. And if matching will only exacerbate tension, such as when in conversation with an angry, agitated person, we can show that we hear their unspoken emotions by asking and acknowledging how they feel (“You seem upset. What’s wrong?”).

Duhigg goes on to tackle thornier emotion conversations, such as conversations involving political or ideological conflicts and emotional conflicts with loved ones, and his book is helpful for those settings as well.

But on the general topic of emotion conversations, this anecdote shared by Duhigg has stuck with me the most:

When my father died a few years ago and I told people I had recently attended his funeral, some of them offered their condolences. But almost no one asked me any questions. Instead, they quickly moved on to other subjects. The truth was, I was desperate to talk about what I had been through, about my dad, about the eulogies that had made me so proud and sad, about how it feels to know I won’t be able to call him with good news. His death was one of the most important – most emotional and profound – events in my life…. But outside of my closest friends and family, no one asked anything, either because they didn’t know how, or because it felt impolite, or they didn’t know I wanted to talk, or because they worried that, if I answered, they wouldn’t know what to say next…. I would have treasured someone asking “What was your dad like?”

Practicing Belonging:

Belonging in this blog turns upon whether the lawyer senses that, at their law firm, they are part of something greater than themselves that they value and need and that values and needs them back. Emotion is at play in our sense of Belonging, and so the ability to connect through emotion conversations is crucial.

The perspective-getting versus perspective-taking point especially resonates, particularly for conversations with someone of different lived experiences. Focusing on perspective-getting can avoid a host of well-meaning but offensive and patronizing missteps that result from perspective-taking – as the adage goes, the best thing about hitting yourself over the head with a hammer is how good it feels when you stop.

Traditional gender roles can complicate all of this in the workplace too, such as the old stereotypes of women being more emotional and men being more stoic. Deep questions, which invite the sharing of vulnerabilities without requiring the sharing, level the playing field and help push past such gender tropes and double standards.

And the nuance involved in reciprocating is essential. My White male privilege has endowed me with uniformed opinions on everything under the sun … but maybe more frequent solar eclipses are in order. I need to turn off my opinions, listen to what is shared by the other person, pay attention to their mood and energy, and reciprocate vulnerability with grace. Emotion conversations are not a vulnerability competition, and sharing is not self-centering.

And as for the reluctance of folks like me to be open to emotion conversations, can’t say it better than Duhigg:

Ask others about their beliefs and values. Ask them about their experiences and those moments that caused them to change. Ask about how they feel, rather than about facts. Reframe your questions so they are deeper. Ask follow-ups. And as people expose their vulnerabilities, reveal something about yourself. It will be less uncomfortable than you imagine. It will be more fascinating than you think. And it might lead to a moment of true connection.

Next time – how to connect in identity conversations.