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Are You Emotionally Tone-Deaf?

Are You Emotionally Tone-Deaf?

There's a reason women get such good press for their abilities to manage complex relationships at work, and hence for their skills as managers. Women tend to tune in to what people around them are feeling and experiencing, thus making communications and collaborations go more smoothly. This is not to suggest that meetings ought to be therapy sessions, but rather that unless the emotional issues in interactions are understood, they'll surely derail your best efforts.

Obviously, not all women are adept at reading emotions. And of course not all men are deficient in this area. But regardless of your gender, it's important to know whether you're getting the emotional signals around you or whether you're manifesting a degree of tone deafness in this regard. This will be impossible to figure out on your own, so you'll need to enlist the cooperation of one or more people at home or work to help you gauge your ability to perceive the emotional tenor of various interactions. Once you know what's going on, you can make moves to acknowledge and/or work around the land mines.

Practice is a key part of this. After every meeting or social interaction, write down the names of the people in the room, and try to attach an adjective or phrase to that person's demeanor. For example, "Jack was angry today; Myron was sad about something; Gail was anxious." Then check your perception with someone else who was in the room. Perhaps you and your consultant will disagree. ("No, I don't think Jack was angry. I think he was feeling out of his depth and needed more information. He came across as frustrated and angry, though.") What a difference that awareness would make in designing an effective intervention. Does Jack need you to find out what he's mad at, or does Jack need reassurance that this material is hard to get at first and that you'll be happy to work with him on it?

This task of learning to incorporate emotional acuity into your workplace tool kit will take some time, so don't get impatient with yourself. Working in an emotionally aware way is actually a three-step process:

  • Read the emotional signals correctly.
  • Make a gesture that shows you understand what someone's feeling. For example, say, "I know you've been working hard on this project, but there are still some problems we need to address."
  • Frame solutions that the individual or individuals will be able to take in and work with.

For example, if your assistant is someone who values relationships more than results and you're a results-oriented person, you could give a lecture on the fact that work is work in this deadline-driven environment and relationships have to come later. Or you could join with him and say something like, "I know it's important for you to feel a sense of camaraderie as you work, but it will be better for all of us if we try to be really focused on the project at hand now to meet this deadline by 4 p.m., and then take time at the end of the day to relax a little together."

But the very first step to all of this is becoming aware of the emotional agendas we all have. That's your homework. Be brave enough to ask some people who know you and will be honest with you about how well you seem to read emotional signals. Ask them for some examples they might remember of times when you missed something. Then hook up with some folks you think are good at reading the signals and ask them to help you learn to do it, too. You won't be sorry, and neither will your boss and direct reports.

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