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4 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Communication

When you've got a handle on your feelings, you'll come through loud and clear.

Using nonverbal communication to your advantage involves controlling the many cues you provide to others through your facial expression and bodily movement. At the same time, being able to interpret the meaning that other people are trying to communicate is a social skill that can help you relate more effectively as well.

Understanding what someone is trying to tell you, whether verbally or nonverbally, can provide you with cues that guide the way that you respond. Whether it’s helping an anxious friend cope with stress or convincing an employer to give you a raise, you need to be able to gauge the situation, adapt as needed over the course of the interaction, and then be ready to come to some type of satisfactory resolution. If your friend seems to be feeling better as a result of your calming words, then you’ll need to know when it’s okay to stop providing reassurance. If your employer doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk about that raise, you’ll need to back off so you can get your timing just right for the big “ask.”

These are just two examples of cases when you need to be able to read other people’s feelings and communicate in a way that takes those feelings into account. There are countless occasions, on a daily basis, in which you and those you interact with communicate and read each other’s feelings. The better you are at doing so, the more satisfactory those interactions will be. Emotional intelligence, your ability to read your own and other people’s emotions, will certainly help, but it’s not enough to guarantee successful interpersonal communication.

Ohio State University’s marketing professor Blair Kidwell teamed up with University of Nevada Reno’s professor Jonathan Hasford to put these ideas to the test. They developed and then applied a framework involving the emotional intelligence of salespersons and consumers during the course of a commercial interaction. In their model, when customers and salespersons are both high in emotional ability, both will trust the other and feel good about their interaction. The customer will buy and the salesperson will feel good not only about the sale, but about the quality of the interaction that preceded it. Customers low in emotional ability will have a difficult time trusting a salesperson, particularly one whose own emotional ability is itself on the low side of the spectrum. When a customer is high in emotional ability but the salesperson is not, the customer will feel that all the salesperson cares about is making a sale and will resist that salesperson’s persuasive attempts.

Interestingly, Kidwell and Hasford propose, as well, that customers who are high in emotional ability are better able to resist the temptation that crafty advertisers and retailers throw their way. When they walk into a typical mall store with its characteristic fragrances, colors, and music, they will be less likely to be swayed by these sensory cues and more likely to listen to their own inner needs. If it’s candles they came for, it’s candles they’ll buy, not all the other little accessories thrown in between the products and the checkout line. They won't be tempted by the "deals" that promise huge discounts, either, because these appeal to people's tendencies to buy on impulse rather than heed their inner voice of reason.

This framework could work very well for understanding social or romantic interactions as well as those in the commercial realm. When you and your partner are good at sending and receiving emotional signals, you should operate pretty well in sync. However, if you’re highly skilled emotionally and your partner is not (or vice versa), there will be times that both of you become frustrated. If neither of you are particularly strong in emotional intelligence, there will be many rough times ahead and it’s likely that your relationship won’t stand the test of time.

Given the importance of being high in emotional ability, it would seem worth your while to work on developing your own affective sensitivity. Using the metrics provided in the Kidwell and Hasford article, these seem to be the four areas that can benefit the most:

1. Perceiving Emotion

This first skill involves, as the term implies, being able to read emotions accurately. If you’re emotionally aware, you know whether an emotion comes from you or whether it’s coming from something or someone else. Perhaps you’re having a bad day; rather than attribute negative emotions to everyone else you run into, if you’re good at perceiving emotion you’ll recognize that those feelings are yours and no one else’s. If your emotional ability is high, you’ll be more resistant to the bad moods of others and be able to maintain your equanimity despite the turmoil going on around you.

2. Facilitating Emotion

This emotional ability puts your emotional acuity to use in getting you ready to make decisions. According to Kidwell and Hasford, in order to facilitate emotion, you must be able to evaluate different emotions in a situation and be able to put them together in a useful way. The example they provide from consumer psychology is extremely illustrative. If you’re faced with an aggressive salesperson, it’s very likely that you could become angry because you don't like being treated that way. However, if you’re using your emotional ability, you’ll find another way to let the salesperson know that you resent this aggressive approach, perhaps by sending out some subtle nonverbal signals that this behavior is making you tense. Identifying your emotion, figuring out where it’s coming from, and then deciding how to act in a way to resolve the situation is likely to produce the best possible outcome. Such a strategy can work not only when you’re a shopper in a store, but in your close relationships as well. It will keep you from flying off the handle when something goes wrong, and instead try to come to a common understanding with your partner.

3. Understanding Emotion

Emotions rarely remain static over time. As Kidwell and Hasford point out, they tend to evolve in an ever-changing manner. The best way to understand emotion, then, is to see it as having this transitory quality. From there, you can benefit from engaging in correct “affective forecasting.” This term refers to the ability to predict what your emotions will be in the future. Unfortunately, many people are inaccurate in their affective forecast. Just as weather forecasters provide percentage estimates, people too can provide predictions of whether an event in the future will make them feel better or worse. The better you are at predicting your emotions in a future situation, the wiser the decisions will be that you make. For example, you may inaccurately believe that your happiness will be guaranteed if only you find that “perfect” partner. Such forecasting invariably sets you up for disappointment because no one will ever meet that standard.

4. Managing Emotion

Self-regulation of emotions is perhaps one of the most difficult feats that you can achieve, especially when you’re experiencing a strong emotion. In a consumer situation, Kidwell and Hasford suggest that emotion regulation can keep you from impulsively over-spending. In addition, regulating your emotions means that you don’t lose your cool when an item is out of stock or when you’re forced to wait in line. Similarly, in your personal life, emotional self-regulation can help you handle the frustration of having your partner show up late for dinner, or the disappointment of your child getting poor grades in school. With that boss who’s not giving you a raise, being able to manage your emotional reactions means that you won’t throw the equivalent of a temper tantrum.

In summary: Having insight into your emotions, being able to regulate them, and then being able to share appropriately with others what’s going on inside of you are all elements of successful emotional communication. The better it is, the better you will feel, and the more smoothly your interactions will go with those who ultimately matter most to your sense of happiness.

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Kidwell, B., & Hasford, J. (2014). Emotional ability and nonverbal communication. Psychology & Marketing, 31(7), 526-538. doi:10.1002/mar.20714