So I’m leaving the YMCA after my swim yesterday morning, and I overhear an older couple having an argument. I don’t know what preceded this statement, but the man snapped at his wife, “We can’t talk if you’re going to be emotional about it!”
“Hah!” I said in my head as I walked past them, “Hah! And you think you’re not being emotional, old man? I see anger, frustration, shame, anxiety, and even a little bit of envy, because your wife is able to display sadness in public, though you can’t. You’re not fooling me!”
Of course, I didn’t say that out loud, because no one asked for my opinion! But how many times have you heard some version of that ridiculous statement? “We can’t talk if you’re going to be all emotional about it!”
It’s funny that we give nonsense like that a pass, because if you aren’t emotional — if you don’t have access to your emotions — you’re not going to be able to communicate at all. I love pure rationality as much as the next science geek, but to truly connect with other human beings (or animals), you’ve got to use your emotional and empathic abilities.
That means listening to the words people are saying, sure, but it also means watching their body language, listening to their pitch and cadence, observing their breathing and their eye movements, understanding their unspoken references, and knowing enough about your own emotions to be able to identify theirs.
If you aren’t emotional, you’re not going to be able to communicate effectively, because you won’t have the skills you need to listen, to empathize, and to be heard. Communication requires emotion; it can’t occur without it. In fact, the updated statement should be:
“We can only talk if you can be emotional!”
But here’s the caveat: You’ve got to be able to work with emotions skillfully.
We’ve all seen people who throw their emotions all over the place (think abusive people, politicians, activists, and commentators with their fear-mongering or fist-shaking), but that’s not communication as much as it is verbal battery! Yes, these emotionally volatile people get their point across, and they often get their way, but they do it at you rather than for you or with you. They use their emotions to frighten or anger or manipulate you, and as a result (if you fall for it), you become less conscious and less aware; you become a puppet or a follower rather than an upright person. Emotional manipulation is bad news!
So it’s understandable that people try stop each other from being emotional, because they’re trying to protect themselves from being manipulated. They don’t want anger or shame or tears used against them. They want the clear facts of the situation laid out, and they don’t want to get tangled up in back stories or complexities. They don’t want to see you cry. They don’t want you to raise your voice. They don’t want to be reminded of the many times they’ve let you down. They don’t want to talk about how they can make amends for trouble in your relationship. They want things to be clear and simple!
Well bless their hearts, because human relationships aren’t clear or simple, and we can’t talk to people as if they are computers, or expect that nothing we say could be misconstrued. We also can’t expect people in conflict to be emotionless or to be able to instantly recall the whole story, step by step. We’re always going to need the extra intelligence that emotions and empathy give us.
When you’re dealing with a conflict, you’re always going to need to listen carefully, decipher nuance and tone, identify emotions, and feel alongside other people as you try to figure out what happened, what broke down, and what can be done. Sometimes, knowing what not to say is more important than speaking!
Emotions are absolutely necessary for everything you do, and you can’t think clearly, make competent decisions, or communicate without your emotions. Learning their language will help you emote without manipulation, understand the emotions of the people around you, and communicate with empathy.
And here’s something interesting: Connecting to your emotions and your empathy will actually protect you from being manipulated by other people’s emotions!
Learning the language of the emotions will actually make you smarter and more capable in the social world, and you’ll be protected from politicians, activists, salespeople, the media, and any manipulative or abusive people you know. You’ll be able to watch them, identify the emotions they’re abusing, and use your own healthy emotions to keep yourself safe from manipulation.
Additionally, if you get into trouble in a conflict, and things get too heated, you won’t need to create a pathology around the fact of emotions. You won’t need to spit out the word “emotional” as if emotions themselves are a character flaw. When you understand the language of emotions, you can simply name your own emotions and ask for a break. You could say, “I’m angry (or sad, or ashamed, or afraid) right now, and I can’t focus on what you’re saying. Can we break off for a few seconds so I can take a breath and focus on you again?”
We can only talk, and we can only communicate if you can be emotional with me — not at me, not in spite of me, but with me. Sure, there’s work to do to learn the language of emotions, but it’s good work if you can get it!