Listening Through Emotion from the “Other Side”
Last August, at a family gathering, my cousin ranted for more than a half hour about politics. His intense anger blew me away and obscured any logical reasons for his political stance, which was the polar opposite of mine (which I had not expressed in this gathering). I had to squelch my urge to react, and just listen. In this case, we did not have to reach consensus, but it was good practice in learning how to listen through someone else’s emotion.
A huge block to consensus can be unexpressed or unconscious or even repressed reactions to a situation. When buried, these can undermine any decision a group makes. And without the wisdom in sharing experiences and exploring different reactions to a situation, the consensus is likely to be fake, fragile, or just plain unworkable. We make assumptions that others have the same reactions we do, and don’t often test those assumptions or dig beneath them to understand where they are coming from and what wisdom there is in them.
To listen through emotion to the “other side” or people who don’t agree with you is both a difficult task for a facilitator and a critical one to be able to guide a group to a wise consensus.
There is immense wisdom to be gained from people’s previous experiences that can be used to understand the implications of a decision.
Emotional reactions are usually a clue to something underneath, such as a previous experience or an association. These experiences or associations can be really important information for understanding a topic. For example, a participant may vehemently oppose a proposal to open a bike lane in the community. That reaction may be sparked by a previous collision between a car and a bike where there was a bike lane and the car unexpectedly swerved into the lane where the cyclist had previously felt safe. This experience, when shared with the group, becomes useful information in how to design roads that are safe for cyclists.
Sometimes strongly expressed emotion is just the volcano that blows when someone perceives that they have not been heard, or that their contribution has been blocked for some time and the pressure has built up — in this case attentive listening in itself can be the necessary response.
The facilitator role is to evoke deeper thinking in participants, not to react back to them or have responses or answers. Consciously putting on the role of the facilitator allows you to step back from your own reactions and opinions and listen.
A big part of the discipline is observing your own reactions, being aware of them, and letting them go so you can hear others.
When you are aware but detached from your own reactions, you can guide people in a group to be aware of their own reactions and others’ reactions, and to have a safe place to express them in such a way that they enrich everyone.
Some practical tips:
I rehearse to myself before I start any meeting with a reminder to myself that “I am curious.” I remind myself that I will learn something from the group, usually something that I never would have thought of on my own.
It is often helpful to simply acknowledge the person’s reaction and bring it to awareness, such as responding with “I can see that really upsets you.”
I have learned to make a decision to just say “mmm” and listen when someone is reacting strongly in a group – and then perhaps ask specific questions of clarification, such as “What happened that caused that reaction in you?” in order to understand.
If two people catalyze each other’s reactions and begin arguing in the group, I will often move to stand between them and say something like, “These are both important perspectives. Let’s get both out on the table so the group can use them. “ I encourage each to summarize their perspective, as unique ideas rather than opposing ones. Then I ask the group if there are other perspectives that need to be shared. If done respectfully, this can diffuse the tension and make sure the diversity of perspectives informs the group.
As you’ve probably already noted, this article is about guiding the reflective level of participants in order to enable wise consensus.
Here are some notes on four levels of the reflective level from Getting to the Bottom of ToP by Wayne and Jo Nelson, to be published later this year.
Level 2, the REFLECTIVE level. is about associations, connections, feelings and initial reactions. It is about drawing out and articulating the internal responses to what has been observed at the objective level. Here intentional focus is directed toward being conscious of our internal responses, and radical openness is observing our own responses and those of others without judgement. The method of inquiry is observation, now directed inward.
The reflective level can draw out a variety of responses.
Reflective questions draw out internal reactions and responses triggered by the objective data. Some of these responses are impressions, such as “it seems like X”, or “this color – this sound – this experience – reminds me of Y”. Or questions may draw out related mental images — “it reminds me of Z” or impressionistic similarities and differences. Questions might also draw out memories (which are more personal and less descriptive than the simple “recalling” of the previous level). These memories can range from experiences, to visual images, to vignettes of their own past experience. Questions may also draw out related Ideas, connections, similarities, or themes at a very personal, immediate, or “gut” level. These are not the carefully considered connections or themes at the next, interpretive, level.
When appropriate, questions can draw out participants’ initial reactions and responses, remembered personal feelings and emotional states, observed feelings and the emotions they saw in others or in literature. Questions can also get people to describe how something affects them or the phenomena under consideration.
Related to associations and emotions, questions might elicit reactions such as surprise, shock, or confusion, and sometimes bewilderment. Some examples of such questions ask about what is easy or difficult to grasp, or what people like or dislike, or high points and low points, or what part causes shame or pride. Other questions can be about immediate personal connections – what part of this one identifies with, or where they are drawn in, caught up, fascinated, repelled, or intrigued.
Approaching the interpretive level, it may be appropriate to draw out worries, concerns, and challenges, intuitions or extrapolations about possibilities or opportunities. Questions may also ask for important or powerful aspects of a phenomenon, or indications of critical elements. As long as these are internal reactions and not yet making definitive statements of value, they are still at the reflective level, and help bridge from reflective to interpretive.