How to Respond to Others’ Emotional Situations

People Tap Into Their Support Systems to Gain Perspective on a Challenging Situation

When people get unhappy, they need a shoulder.

When they get vulnerable, they need a hand.

When they get upset, they need an ear.

People approach their loved ones when they get emotional and want to convey the pain they feel.

Above all, under the direct influence of their anguishes, people like to rant and rave. Once they come to terms with whatever caused their aggravations, they’re ready move on.

Contrary to normal assumption, human nature is such that people are not always looking for others’ advice. Even when patients go to a shrink, they tend to already know the answer to the question they are posing. They just want their shrink (or any interlocutor) to agree with their decision and support them whether the shrink shares their judgments or not.

How to Respond to Others' Emotional Situations

To Respond to Emotions, Stop Trying to Fix Problems and Just Listen

When a friend, coworker, or employee approaches you when he is upset, use empathic listening to understand his emotions.

The University of Florida’s Dr. Richard Rathe recommends a technique he calls BATHE (Background-Affects-Troubles-Handling-Empathy) that he says has been effective in handling conflicts with staff, family, and friends:

  • Background: Ask questions about the situation. Don’t ask for details at this time. Try to understand the different expectations and feelings at play. Steer clear of trivializing the situation.
  • Affects: Ask about how the situation affects your friend and how it makes him feel. Remember that people are often not entirely aware of their own emotions. Strong emotions often set off knee-jerk reactions that people come to regret later.
  • Troubles: Ask what agitates your friend most about the present situation. Try to explore the symptoms and causes of those emotions even as you withhold your judgment. Suppress your instinctive emotional reaction, stay open-minded and sensitive, and hear out the full message before you respond. Bear your friend’s foibles by reminding yourself that perhaps he has entirely valid reasons for feeling, acting, and speaking as he does.
  • Handling: Ask how your friend is handling the conflict or the crisis. Broach similar circumstances in the past. Skillfully ask questions that encourage him to focus on actions. Mention options he may have not yet considered. Even baby steps can strengthen your friend’s sense of self-worth and turn out positive emotions.
  • Empathy: Express sympathy, understanding, and support for your friend’s position and sentiments. Tell him you understand what happened to him from his perspective, even if you differ with his response. Identify specific sentiments (e.g. anger, embarrassment, or regret) to communicate to him that you understand how he feels. Tell him that his feelings are completely reasonable—which they are, given his point of view. Reinforce your friend’s plan to deal with the problem.

Idea for Impact: Empathy makes you easy to confide in. The feeling of being listened to without judgment compels your friend to respond with patience. Only then can he open up his mind to being influenced by you.

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