kindness-at-workEmotional intelligence encompasses the ideas of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. When you feel cornered by an employee who is venting their frustration or overly explaining dilemmas and decisions, it sometimes feels like you want to throw self-regulation out the window and use the unsocial skills of eye rolling, looking at a watch and letting your eyes glaze over as you search for some distracting image such as, the ticking second hand on the wall clock, until the hijack of the conversation is over.  This is a time to rely on the emotional intelligence skill of self-awareness. Are you an explainer or venter? Knowing which side of the fence you sit on and which side the other person sits on will help you hear each other.

Dr. Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist who served in notable positions like professor of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, has used his skills as a psychiatric doctor to shed light into the psychological underpinnings of communication interactions in the workplace. He presented an overview of his theory of listening with the eyes in his October 9, 2013 posting in Harvard Business Review.  He contends that you need to recognize your communication style, venter or explainer, and recognize the conversation style of the other.  Then you can use physiological communication techniques to make the conversation productive, not just bearable.

He breaks conversation styles into two major categories, venters and explainers.  Venters are conversationalists who use, just like it sounds, the overly emotional style of loudness and sometimes very figurative language to explain their points. Explainers, on the other hand, tend to explain and explain and explain so that you know each element of the process that has brought them to an action.  When opposite styles interact, usually one person walks away feeling unlistened to, while the other walks away feeling like a trapped animal.  Goulston describes the interaction as “This is why so many of us see our conversational counterparts as lecturing, belaboring, talking down to us, or even shaming us (if we are venters and they are explainers) or as invasive, out of control, and overly emotional (if we’re an explainer and they’re a venter).

The secret to successful interaction lies not in the words or body language, but in the eye and the amygdala, a part of your middle brain which is wired to hijack your attentive listening and instead react reflexively with whatever your personal, innate reactions.  If your conversation partner is a venter/screamer, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to tell them to calm down (which will only make them more upset), to shut down and get silent (which will only make them yell longer, because they’ll think you’re not listening), or to try to point out how irrational venting is (which, as noted above, they will perceive as patronizing and belaboring).  Contrastingly, if your conversational counterpart is an explainer, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to say to yourself, “Here they go again, make sure you smile politely even if you want to pull your hair out. Try not to let your impatience and annoyance show. Your task in creating a productive interaction is to override the other person’s amygdala, which overrides his or her hardwired response.

Part of changing the interaction from frustration to fruitful is looking your partner in the left eye while your face wears a look of “Okay.  I am ready to listen to you.”  It is important to concentrate on the left eye because it is connected to the right brain, where the neural responses dictating emotions are.  So, by looking into the left eye, you can access the amygdala and calm it down.

Of course, it is not just taming the amygdala which will move the conversation to a productive end.  It is also the response patterns you use while concentrating on the left eye.  To the explainer say, “Okay, take your time. I am fully listening.”  Follow that up with, “I can see that you really had a lot that you had to say. To make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?” Afterwards, repeat their brief summary word for word finishing by asking, “Did I get that right?  What did I miss?” ”What you just said is way too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I am on the same page with you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat what they said to you.  After you finish, say to them, “Did I get that right, and if not, what did I miss?” For the venter, Goulston suggests practically the statements: “I can see you’re really frustrated. To make sure I don’t add to that, and to make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?” The difference between the two is using “you really had a lot to say” for the explainer and “I can see that you are really frustrated.”

To the ancient Greeks, the eyes are a window to the soul.  For modern people, we can say that the eye is a window to the amygdala and conversations where both people walk away satisfied.