Photo by Jason Leung

Every communication between people contains at least two layers of information.

Consider the following exercise, which shows the different layers of an emotional message: 

You’re at the dinner table at your niece’s wedding where you plan to give a speech with your cousin. However, just before it’s your turn, your cousin suddenly shows up and tells you he forgot to bring the speech from home.

The first layer is easy to notice: it is the literal, verbal message. These are the actual spoken words, in this case: “Hey…I think we have a problem. You know the speech I was supposed to print for us to read from? I think I left it at home…in my other bag at home.”

Then, there is also a second layer. The extra message, if you will. This is known as the emotional message, which conveys information about the emotional state of the communicator.

The way we deal with emotional messages like the one described above can fall into one of the following five categories.[1]

Category One: Dismissing

One way of dealing with messages is to—for whatever reasons—dismiss the emotional message and perhaps also the verbal message. There are many situations where this can be a helpful approach. For example, think of moments of danger, urgent tasks, or crises when being decisive is all that counts. It is no coincidence that you’ll see a lot of “dismissive” communication happening in hospital emergency rooms or military environments.

Here are some examples of Category One responses to the wedding speech exercise:

  • “It’s okay. No one knew that we were going to do this anyway.”
  • “What?! You idiot. I had emphasized three times to bring a backup. How could you be so neglectful?”
  • “Oh wow. I saw this happen once in a movie. Do you know which one I’m talking about? The one with that comedian…what’s his name?”
  • “Don’t you get how it will make me look if we can’t give the speech?”

What do the above responses have in common? They are dismissive of the emotional (and, to an extent, even the verbal) message that your cousin is conveying. The messages are like balls that your cousin throws toward you, but you dodge them.

Category Two: Problem-Solving

Another way is to take the literal, verbal message, process it, and come up with a host of correct or incorrect, timely or untimely solutions for the issue at hand. It might not be a surprise that many problem-solving answers arise often and automatically: in school and at work, we are trained to become skilled problem solvers. As such, when we hear about someone’s challenge or predicament, it can feel natural to ask: “How can we solve this?” or “What are our options?” or “How can I help?”

Here are some examples of Category Two responses to the wedding speech exercise:

  • “Let’s just improvise without the text.”
  • “Is there a printer in the area?”
  • “Let’s recreate it as best we can tonight and move the speech to tomorrow.”
  • “Shall we just forget about it and enjoy our evening then?”

Category Three: Acknowledging

A very different way of responding is to acknowledge the existence of the emotional message of the other person, even though its content might not be clear to you. By doing this, you open a door to their emotional world. It’s like an invitation: the other person can decide to share a glimpse of that world or not—it’s up to them.

Here are some examples of Category Three responses to the wedding speech exercise:

  • “Oh gosh, how are you doing?”
  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “The speech isn’t the most important thing to me, how are you?”

Category Four: Naming

Another way of responding is to not only acknowledge that there is an emotional message, but also attempt to name what that specific emotion might be.

You could be right, you could be wrong, but you try. The strength of this approach can be that it makes the other person feel psychologically visible, as opposed to only physically visible. When the other party cannot yet articulate their emotion, it can be a huge relief that you do. Even if the feeling you name does not reflect the other person’s experience, you make it more likely for them to begin to articulate their feelings, and thereby, you also open up a space for intimacy to exist between you—if that is what they need from you.

Here are some examples of Category Four responses to the wedding speech exercise:

  • “Oh, you must be sad…”
  • “I can imagine you’re upset.”
  • “Aren’t you relieved that we don’t need to give the speech anymore?”

Category Five: Contextualizing

A final way in which you could respond is to not only acknowledge and name the emotional message, but also put it into the context of the other person’s life. 

Here are some examples of Category Five responses to the wedding speech exercise:

  • “I can imagine you’re feeling sad because you worked so tirelessly on this on your weekends.”
  • “I can imagine you feel relieved, given how much you were dreading this…you often mentioned how you never liked public speaking.”
  • “You must feel angry, especially since you had asked me to print a backup version as well, rather than putting it all on you, as usual.”

As you might notice, by adding context, you acknowledge this particular person, with his or her history, wishes, hopes, values, and dreams. You show them that you see how this moment fits into all of that.

Can you recall either giving or receiving a Category Five answer? What kind of effect did it have on you or on the other person?

It goes without saying that Category Five is not always per definition the best response. There is a time and place for each category. The main question is: are you responding out of choice or out of habit?

Think about your particular situation and the person you’re with to decide on the most appropriate response. 

This article was adapted from the book What is Water?: How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World.

[1] Adapted from J. Gottman and J. DeClaire, The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997); and R. Kegan, “The Colors of Emotions,” Counseling Master Class Handbook, internal training material (New York: McKinsey & Company, 2013).