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How To Figure Out What's REALLY Bothering Someone

July 11, 2014

The other day, as I was reading the user manual for our motorcycle, it struck me how great it would be if people had user manuals, too.

But people aren't like that. Your partner can come home and rant about how the hallway closet is too packed and is driving him crazy! And you spend 30 minutes talking about that darned closet before you realize that it really isn’t about the closet, it’s about how his boss is putting too much pressure on him at work.

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Can you relate?

Where was that page in the “husband” manual?

The good news is that we have hearts, minds and intuition that can help us understand the people around us. It can take some honing, however, so I want to share with you a system that I use to better hear and respond to what people around me are really saying.

1. Ask yourself what the other person is really feeling.

I ask myself which of these basic feelings the person in front of me is likely feeling:

  • Sadness
  • Guilt or shame
  • Fear
  • Happiness

It may not always be obvious.

For example, a client of mine was recently driving along the road when another driver, who clearly hadn’t seen him, pulled in front of him and my client had to slam on his breaks. My client became livid, and honked his horn. The other driver flicked him off and honked back, which made my client even more angry. Have you ever been in a situation like this?

Now, at first glance, you would say that each person in this situation felt angry. But that emotion isn’t on my list … deliberately! This is because anger is oftentimes a masking emotion that covers up one of the basic emotions on my list. So, then, what did each person feel underneath their anger? I would bet that:

The other driver felt guilty for having made such a stupid mistake, and probably a bit afraid that he was almost in an accident.

My client felt afraid that his wife and child, who were in the car, almost got hurt. Probably also a bit sad at the thought of possibly losing them.

My client admitted that yes, now that I mentioned it, that's how he actually felt about it.

2. Think about how you would talk to someone feeling that way.

It’s tempting to respond to a situation based on our own emotions. My client was angry to have been cut off, so he yelled at the other driver. But that's just like speaking Spanish to someone from Thailand! You need to speak to the other person based on what they can hear, not based on what you want to speak.

If my client had had a chance to talk to that other driver, what should he have said? He could have seen the guilt and fear in the other driver, and spoken to that. He could have said something like, "Hey man, that happens to the best of us,” to take care of the other driver’s guilt, and “Is everyone OK in your car?” to take care of his fear.

Note that I'm not saying that the other driver didn’t do anything wrong. He did. But given that the deed was already done, everyone would have been better off addressing the real feelings so that they could walk away from the situation at peace.

3. Don’t worry. Your turn is coming.

Many of my clients resist this system because they feel like their needs don’t get met. Sure, Samantha, I will speak Thai to them, but when will they speak Spanish to me? What about my feelings?

I have two responses to that concern:

First, if you take care of the other person, it's often the case that the other person will take care of you.

Second, once you know your own feelings, you can better ask for what you need. If my client were to say, “I am mad at you,” to the other driver, then he likely wouldn’t get good results compared with if he had said, “Wow, that really scared the heck out of me.” Naming how you really feel gives you a chance to actually deal with it.

It is a simple three-step system, and yet the devil is in the details of practicing it every day.

That is my challenge to you this week: pick one sticky situation, and try it out. Which will it be? Write me a note and share!

And, as always, I am happy to help with any questions or guidance you need to become an ace at handling these sticky situations.

People may not come with manuals, but with a bit of practice, we can learn to read them just fine.

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Samantha Sutton, PhD
Samantha Sutton, PhD
Biological Engineer

Samantha Sutton has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from MIT as a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellow. She combines her knowledge of engineering design principles with coaching insights to help clients articulate what they truly want and then overcome obstacles in their way. She has presented her life design philosophy to companies such as Google and the National Cancer Institute as well as universities like Duke, Stanford, and Yale.