I love watching soccer and religiously follow my favourite club’s exploits – FC Barcelona is “my team”. Their style, skill, finesse on the ball and the brand that they represent seem to lift the game of football to new heights. I am generally proud of them.

Imagine, however, this scene– Lionel Messi scores a magnificent goal. As you well know, immediately the crowd roars with delight, and ten other team mates come running over and hug, “high-five” and celebrate with the goal-scorer. Imagine, too, Xavi coming up to Messi at that moment and saying: “Hey, Lionel, remember when I scored that goal against Real Madrid”? It would be totally inappropriate for Xavi to do this – perhaps he can relate the way he scored at the post match debrief or at the next coaching session, but not while everyone, including Messi, are still celebrating the goal that Messi has just scored.

Wherever I travel, I find that people struggle to identify with emotion that is being expressed by others, either positive or negative emotion. They seem to have a need of introducing “their story”, almost as if their story is more important than the one just expressed, thereby showing disrespect for the “story” of the other person. This puts the other person down, minimising the emotional impact of what is being conveyed and downgrading the importance of the space the emotion occupied at the time when the person told the story.

Identifying with emotion being expressed by others is not just an important communication skill, but also an imperative leadership ability. Leaders need to understand their followers, particularly their emotional context, if these same leaders are to be effective in taking the followers along with them on the leadership journey. Emotional identification is a critical ingredient to form good ties with each follower and paramount if success is to be achieved.

Photo: guardian.co.uk

2 comments on “Identify with the emotion being expressed

  1. John on

    Do you have any good practical advice on how to cultivate this if you didn’t grow up in an environment where this was practiced? While children pick the skill of empathy up subconsciously, it feels as if learning it as an older person is more of an unnatural process similar to learning a new language.

    Secondly, I have also had the experience of dealing with colleagues that make it very difficult to identify with their emotions because they don’t share themselves very well. So couldn’t you flip the coin around and say that we also need to be able to communicate in a way that makes it easy for OTHER people to connect with US. Perhaps that is a different topic (and blog post) entirely, but I think it might also be helpful to get some pointers on that as well. Thanks

  2. Jonathan on

    In a sense, John, you are right – identifying with someone else’s emotion is like learning a new language. What I have found helpful when I identify that someone is expressing emotional content in their communication is to use the phrase “It seems that …” e.g. “it seems that work is really upsetting you at this time” or “it seems that this is a huge opportunity for you”. People then feel secure in the fact that you have approximated their emotion in your response.

    The second comment that you make is worthy of another post, but suffice it to say that we can concentrate on using the correct descriptive words (adjectives and adverbs) when communicating emotion – i.e. not using “I am angry about this” when you are really only “irritated” about the circumstances. Furthermore, a close relationship will probably lead to greater understanding – if you are distant, it will take more effort to convey desired meaning.


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