This is a transcript of episode 293 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

There are over 100 words for feelings, from affectionate to yearning, but it’s likely you only use a few at work, if at all.

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What Questions to How Questions

Listen to this section at 00:13

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So last week we talked a lot about empathy and we were talking a lot about how you could be empathic with the people you’re talking to and how maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea to convince them. Maybe you could actually find a way to agree with them. But then, Jeffrey, you said at the end and we didn’t have time for it, that you had a story that both involved a good empathic motivational interviewing type story situation, a place where someone used it, but also involved empathy for oneself. So not only empathy for the person you’re talking to, but understanding and having compassion for yourself. I’d love to hear that story.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Okay. And this is actually going to talk about elements of many different techniques and toolkits that we’ve talked about in the past. So this is someone who I’m working with and we talk about different scenarios all the time and coaching. And one thing that they’ve been working on recently is the ‘how’ question, and that, you might remember comes from the book Never Split the Difference where the person has the insight that like a ‘why’ question is an attack in every language. So rather than say like, “why isn’t this done?” You ask you try to find ‘how’ questions because those put you on the same side. You know, “how can we try to get this done, you know, by the time we need it for these clients,” you know, you try to convert your instinctive ‘why’ into a ‘how’ so that was something he’s been working on. And he came to me and he said, you know, I had this exchange and I was really angry. And I tried using a ‘how’ question, but I did it sarcastically. And I knew I did. And it you know, it didn’t work. And that was like the first insight. And that I think is worth sharing because when we talk about these things, about empathy and LEAP and motivational interviewing, it only works if you’re in the right frame of mind. You have to really, genuinely be curious. You have to really be trying to connect. If you try to use it as like a magic spell, you know, with without being in the right place. If you think this is a technique, if I just ask a ‘how’ question, people will like me and things will work out, it doesn’t work.

Squirrel: And I bet, you know, if you were Benedict Cumberbatch or if you were some world class actor, you could probably pull it off that you could act as if you genuinely had these feelings and you genuinely, genuinely were empathetic with the other person. But none of us are that good at acting and I doubt even they are. So it really will show through. If, for example, you say, “Oh yes, I really understand why you need this to be done on Friday, and I agree with you that we should have the team work 24 hours a day until it’s finished.” If you don’t believe that, it will be no more convincing than what I just said.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And you know, and maybe one thing you said there is that the actor would have to connect with those feelings. You have to generate those feelings inside them. Yes.

Squirrel: That’s what they do, is they kind of create a persona that has the feeling, even if the actor does not.

Above the Line or Below the Line and the Feelings Inventory

Listen to this section at 03:28

Jeffrey: Exactly. And so part of it in my conversation with this person is there’s another thing we talked about in a tool we’ve talked about on here, which I think you said was the greatest consulting tool ever, because it’s just a line. It’s just a horizontal line on a page. And this comes from the Conscious Leadership group. And they talk about having this line and and basically you need to check in with yourself and say, am I above the line or below the line?

Squirrel: And I always struggle with this one. We had an episode on this, didn’t we?

Jeffrey: Yeah, we did. We did.

Squirrel: We’ll have to link to that one because I still struggle with it. Maybe you can explain it to me better this time, you know, And I’ll be more successful this time.

Jeffrey: Well, you’re just. You’re checking in kind of, say, like, am I in? If I’m below the line, then I’m angry, I’m defensive, I’m closed to learning. That’s really what it is. It’s like I’m upset and I’m not I’m not open to other people’s ideas and thoughts. And, you know, everyone is wrong and horrible. And I have a sort of us versus them unilateral control, negative mindset. If I’m above the line, then I’m curious. I’m open to learning. And I’ll say, it’s not that you, you know, it’s that everything is sunshine and roses. You can be angry and above the line, but you’re consciously angry. You’re aware of what you’re upset about. And that ties in very much to the story. So we had this conversation about being above the line and I said, “you know, it can be very helpful to have more insight into how you’re actually feeling, that being clear on how you’re feeling will help you with clear communication.” And we brought up the example of nonviolent communication. Now that’s one of the techniques we mentioned last week in terms of empathy. But the key thing here is nonviolent communication also talks about being empathetic with yourself, and they have this wonderful resources of feelings, inventory. And it says, you know, here’s feelings you have when your needs are being met and feelings you have when your needs are not being met.

Squirrel: And the most amazing thing about this inventory, which we’ll link to in the show notes, but the most amazing thing about this inventory is how long it is. It takes multiple pages. This thing is is huge. And I’m not sure whether, maybe some of our listeners who speak other languages fluently can tell us, I’m not sure if it’s English or if it’s just humans, but in English at least we have an awful lot of words for for different kinds of feelings. So we have sadness and depression and annoyance and anger. And we have, you know, they’re all colors of maybe the same underlying cause, or they all come from similar sources. But man, we have an awful lot of different feelings. So, the inventory is very helpful for expanding your feeling vocabulary.

Jeffrey: Yes, and that’s the person I talked about this exactly. That, you know, it’s not just that it’s so long. There’s 80 or so words on it, maybe more, but that the two things I said is I told him, I said, my first experience came across his list was, “Wow, I know every single word on this list.” And as you say, they’re all kind of fine gradations and they’re subtle nuances about the difference between different types of feelings that, oh, yeah, these two words, they’re in the same kind of grouping, but man, they mean different things. So, one was, I knew all these words and second, I never spoke them. Like I wanted to have in my life, like, how many times did you use this word to describe in the phrase of like, ‘I feel X?’ And I realized, yeah, I probably never use most of these words.

Squirrel: And especially at work. I mean, how many times have you heard somebody talking about feeling joyful or depressed or frustrated? Frustrated, maybe, but joyful, never.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And this, this whole range and this is exactly what we’re going is sort of to say to, to help get yourself above the line in your, in the negative scenario, you know, try to find the words that really describe what it is that you’re feeling. And he had the realization, oh, the reason that he had been upset was because he’d been expecting some data to be there that everyone had agreed about usage data, but it wasn’t there. It hadn’t been captured. And he was trying to gather this data for a presentation and he’s like, “I just felt hopeless.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” I mean, yeah, I mean, and, and so that act of kind of realizing what exactly, getting in touch really with what his feelings were like that could bring him above the line. And now the next thing to do was to share it, to tell people that that’s how he was feeling. And so he put together a little note back to people. And this was an exchange that happened in teams. His original sarcastic response was there.

Squirrel: Teams, the application. So he’s in a chat application here.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly, yeah. So he went back into the message and said, “Hey, I’m sorry I did that. I was upset. So here’s what happened was when I couldn’t find that, I was really left feeling hopeless.” And, and he said like two things happened. One is, first of all, he had been feeling very bad about this exchange. He’d been kind of weighing on him. And second is then when he could share it, not only did he feel better for kind of getting it off his chest about what had really happened and apologizing, but also, I think other people then had a better understanding for what he was going through at the time and where his, you know, upsetness came from. And they could have empathy for him. And that’s the insight that nonviolent communication brings, which is when you speak in terms of, “hey, I had this feeling because I had this need not being met, you know, I want to trust you. And when I couldn’t find the stuff that was there, you know, I was I felt hopeless. And it damaged my trust,” then people will have empathy for you. And that was his experience. And I just thought it was a really nice vignette about how we talked about empathetic listening and these different skills. But part of it is to actually understand your own feelings. The last time you talked about having empathy for someone else, even, you know, not necessarily agreeing with their view of the world, but being able to say, “wow, I can see how, you know, you would be upset for these reasons.” But the inverse of that is being in touch with your own feelings and what’s causing you to be upset and be able to share them. And then with the idea that other people will have empathy in response. So I thought that was a nice symmetry to those two discussions.

Long Term and Short Term Benefits of Empathy

Listen to this section at 09:51

Squirrel: And the value of this, I have to believe, tell me if this isn’t the case, would also include that the conversation with the other person who had left out the data would now be a more trusting conversation, one that could involve that person’s feelings. And that person might feel frustrated that the data doesn’t exist. And boy, it would sure be helpful to find out that the data doesn’t exist. And then you wouldn’t have to feel hopeless that it isn’t there and the person wouldn’t have to feel frustrated. But that kind of thing often gets hidden, especially when you show up wanting to convince the other person, which is where we started this last week. So when your mindset is I’m trying to convince this person to give me the data, you’re kind of closed to the idea the data might not exist, or there might be a regulation preventing you sharing it, or something like that. And the processes we’ve been talking about where you’re motivationally interviewing the other person to try to understand and help them to generate arguments for and against the idea, and you’re having empathy for yourself. You’re understanding and sharing the feelings that you have. Those often open you up to lots more information. And that’s why we always say that having this trust conversation, these conversations about feelings and empathy, which often seem like they’re slow, oh gosh, this is going to slow everything down, I’m going to have to play a guitar and sing Kumbaya and talk about my feelings, before I can actually get on and do the thing. The truth is actually the opposite. You get to the result much more quickly if you have the empathic conversation first.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And I think the end here is that there’s two outcomes here. There’s two work products. One was actually getting the data that he was looking for, but the other output is building a stronger relationship for the future. That when we see each other as three dimensional people, when we have a better understanding of people’s thoughts and feelings and the emotions that move them, that we work better together as humans. We just work better when we have empathy for each other, when we have a better understanding of each other. So the investment isn’t just that we get the immediate work product, but in the future we’ve built trust and respect among people in the team. Oh, I understand why they were behaving that way. I have a better mental model of who they are and one that I can then respond to better in the future. So there’s the the long term benefits as well as the short term ones. And so even this case here where he went back after essentially the work had been done to add the explanation that there is huge value in that, there’s huge future dividends to come from that investment.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.