As leaders who play key roles in establishing the climate for their schools, administrators are often challenged to demonstrate skills in the delicate art of showing support for people’s feelings. Strength in this area can have a great deal to do with maintaining a strong team spirit while preventing misunderstandings and the compounding of problems. While it may be very easy to agree on this point in principle, it is not always easy to demonstrate it in practice. How exactly can we best show support for a person with bad feelings, whether a parent who is upset, a staff member who feels stressed, a student who is angry, or anyone harboring unpleasant feelings?
Two Categories of Feelings
Negative feelings always reflect negative thoughts (assumptions, beliefs, interpretations, projections, expectations, and so on). These thoughts may or may not be true or complete (or even conscious), but as most will readily agree, it is our perceptions that drive us – far more so than the facts. Negative feelings also differ from the positives in that they are unpleasant to experience, press for resolution, and stress the physical body. These three differences warrant a closer look and become clear in comparing, say, fear, as an example of a negative feeling, with joy, as an example of a positive.
When we feel joy, we are in no distress about it and in no hurry to change it; there is no harm done by hanging on to our joy for as long as possible. The same can be said for any positive emotion – love, enthusiasm, peace, comfort, confidence, and so on. In contrast, whenever we feel fear, it is unpleasant for us and we feel an immediate motivation to change it. In addition, there is a long list of internal responses that will stress and even damage the physical body if not resolved (increased breathing and heart rate, elevated blood pressure, intensified endocrine secretions, increased muscular tension, and so on).
Whenever someone feels bad, they are going to express it somehow – that is, in some form of behavior (even suppression and avoidance are behaviors, though less visible than many of the more obvious forms). Effective communication is usually the best of the many options available for resolution because, unlike other possibilities, it stands alone in three key regards: it helps us feel better (we get things off our chests), others will usually be comfortable with our expression (if we communicate effectively), and we have a good chance of changing the situation we feel troubled about. If we don’t communicate, how is anything likely to change? And even when things cannot be changed (death, TAKS, and taxes), talking about our feelings productively offers our best chance of feeling better. Of course, much more could be said about the process of resolving feelings and about what constitutes “effective” communication, but for now let’s just consider how important it is to talk – to communicate. This simple insight is usually easy for teachers and parents to accept because they know how important it is for children to “use their words” when they feel bad – not their fists, not their tantrums, not their pouts or silent treatment. The same universal truth applies to people of all ages.
For this important reason, administrators can be most helpful to those who have strong feelings when they encourage open communication while offering their support and understanding. The best way to do this, of course, is to begin with good listening skills.
Lead with Good Intention
As mentioned before, by encouraging those who feel bad to talk about their feelings, we help them “get it off their chests.” This old and familiar phrase has real meaning: once people acknowledge their feelings, the intensity of those emotions usually begins to dissipate, as if the feelings have served their fundamental purpose – to bring into focus the thoughts and issues they reflect. At the same time, the process of really hearing and understanding when others share their feelings can pay huge dividends in developing trust and positive relationships for the future.
How exactly can we do this? What words express the intention to be supportive in ways that offer the best chance of resolving bad feelings while promoting harmony, collaboration, trust, and the other goals we may be striving for?
What follows is a list of statements and questions that show support of feelings. In reviewing them, it is important to remember that sincerity is essential. If we have the right words but the wrong spirit, it is unlikely that our good intentions will be heard. This can backfire terribly and go a long way toward undermining the very trust, understanding, and harmony we may be hoping to maintain or restore. Once again, however, it all begins with willingness. When we lead with that sincere desire, our good intentions will usually be heard, above and beyond whatever words we may choose.
Words That Show Support of Feelings
“The more fully we can accept someone just to be where they are,
Words to Avoid
There are also a number of statements and questions people often say that may reflect good intentions and yet generally do not show support of feelings. It may be worth looking at some of these now and considering why they may backfire, or at least why they may not be the best choices compared with those on the previous list.
Avoid: I know how you feel
Very often, this well-intentioned phrase will lead to an immediate response of “No you don’t!” This is especially likely when the person saying it is not standing, and perhaps never has stood, in the other person’s shoes. As an example, it might be well received by a parent of a child with a disability if it is said with sincere caring by another parent of a similarly diagnosed child. But if it is said by a person who has no such child of his or her own, it is not likely to go over as well.
Sometimes the motivation behind “I know how you feel” is really more one of “Can we please move on to other things?” If so, there may be more authentic and effective ways to express that good intention to watch the time or hold a focus. However, if the goal is to communicate support of feelings, the speaker is much safer in saying, “Tell us how you feel” or “How do you feel about that?” or by providing similar opportunities for further expression. In other words, the idea is to open the door to further sharing, as opposed to doing or saying anything that might be seen as an effort to close it.
Avoid: I don’t understand why you feel that way
Even if no criticism is intended, how easy it might be to read into this statement, “I don’t understand it because you shouldn’t feel that way.” The perception of judgments, whether really there or not, usually leads people to keep their feelings to themselves and to pull back and perhaps even withdraw behind a wall of bad feelings. Perhaps there is a better way to express the same good intention (to better understand the person’s feelings). Asking questions can be very affirming, and thus another way of pursuing the same end might be, “Can you tell us more about that? What was it about that situation or statement that seemed inappropriate? How would you rather we had handled it?” If a person is honestly having trouble understanding, they can say so, perhaps by simply expressing the good intention: “I really want to understand your thoughts and feelings about that. I am having a little trouble. Can you help me?”
Imagine if I said, “I see what you mean, but –” or “You have a point there, but –” Whenever someone qualifies a positive statement with a “but,” it is almost like drawing a line through it and discounting whatever was said before. Most of the time, the “but” isn’t really necessary and the same statement can be made without any conjunction – as two independent thoughts – or by using “and” instead. As examples, compare and contrast the following:
I think testing might be a good idea, but I’m just not sure it will help.
I think testing might be a good idea, and I’m just not sure it will help.
I think testing might be a good idea. I’m just not sure it will help.
Avoid: What did that mean to you?
What something meant to the other person is often a very good question to ask, and yet note that it points toward what they perceived, interpreted, believed, or assumed – all of which are mental responses. While it may be a very good question in its right time, it should not be a first choice if the purpose is to show support of feelings. Furthermore, it may appear to contain a hidden judgment and imply that the person shouldn’t be seeing it that way. Instead, the same good intention can usually be accomplished more effectively by saying such things as, “Help me understand what that was like for you. Can you say some more about that? Can you help me see this from your point of view?”
Avoid: Why do you feel that way?
Once again there is a risk of appearing to be judgmental even if the speaker is not because “Why do you feel that way?” can easily be construed as “You shouldn’t be feeling that way.” As mentioned before, such perceived judgments are only likely to promote distance and additional bad feelings (such as shame, insecurity, or mistrust). Another risk is that “why” usually points away from feelings and into thoughts: why is a mentally-oriented question, as opposed to how and what, which tend to hold an encouraging focus on feelings.
It is important to emphasize that not all people are equally eager to explore or share their feelings. Many of us are very reserved and even uncomfortable about getting close to our emotional sides, and so a large measure of sensitivity and diplomacy is required in this area. For this reason, such questions as “How did you feel emotionally?” or “Were you feeling sad?” may seem very threatening to some people. We may therefore want to provide cushions that allow people to share their feelings only to the extent that they feel comfortable to do so. Certain statements or questions will, therefore, be safer than others in that they are less likely to put anyone in an awkward or vulnerable position. As an example, I am less likely to arouse defenses by asking “Can you tell me more about your side of this?” than by saying “Sounds like you really felt insecure and threatened by her remark.” I may be safer asking “What was it like for you when that happened?” as opposed to “I bet you really felt hurt when she said that.”
The way we say things is so very important, not just in showing support of feelings but in all of our communications with others. Isn’t it true that when people talk with each other and it doesn’t work out well, most of the time it was not so much a matter of what was said as how it was said?