Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reading emotions

In the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there is a character named Mantis who has the power to sense the emotional state of anyone she touches. She can't read their thoughts, but she can read their feelings. The other characters are amazed, and sometimes embarrassed, that Mantis can sense what they are secretly feeling.

The character shows that it is often more important to understand emotions than rational thoughts. The power to read the emotional state of others is important in conflict resolution, maybe more important than understanding what people think the conflict is about. Emotions rule over logic most of the time, and identifying those emotions can help establish connections that enable parties to resolve conflict.

What the movie gets wrong, however, is suggesting that reading the emotional state of others requires some sort of super-power. Usually people are pretty open about telegraphing their feelings. You can tell when they are angry or frustrated or sad or happy. Just look at their facial expression or listen to their tone of voice. The only trick is to pay attention to that, instead of focusing solely on what people are saying. One of the most useful techniques I have learned in mediation and other forms of conflict resolution is to identify the emotional state of someone who has just finished speaking. Simply tell someone who appears to be feeling angry that they are angry. If they sound upset, tell them that they sound upset. Often doing that produces a better response than merely reflecting back or re-framing the content of what they are saying. People will agree with you if you tell them what they are feeling. And if you mis-label their emotional state, they will tell you that also, and give you another chance to get it right.  Once people feel that their emotional state is understood, they will also feel more heard than if you simply repeat back what they said. And once that happens, you have a basis for creating connections and breaking impasse.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


This week Congress appears poised to succeed in passing a budget, a feat many were not sure was possible in these partisan times. Budget negotiations were a subject I took a strange interest in during the Obama years, when all the talk was of whether the president was able to make his promise of post-partisanship work. President Obama was alternately criticized in budget negotiations for being too conciliatory toward the opposition, or too unwilling to work with Congressional Republicans, while Republicans were alternately criticized for being too obstructionist, or too unwilling to stand up for their principles. Whatever the merits of these conflicting criticisms, many political prices were paid during those years, but the government somehow managed to muddle through and continue to function.

Eric Thayer
In the analyses of this week's budget deal, whether from the politicians of both parties or from the pundits, mostly we are hearing about which side scored the most points. Did Congressional Democrats put one over on the Republicans by keeping many of their pet programs away from the budget-cutters' knife, and refusing to fund the border wall,or did the Administration and its Republican allies win by achieving many of their new spending priorities, such as an increase for the Pentagon and for border security?

In the age of Trump, it's not surprising that we are using Trump's own criteria of winning, instead of even paying lip service to the values of finding common ground and serving democracy. But I would suggest that this is entirely the wrong way to look at a budget deal. Nobody is going to be satisfied with an outcome that is scored based on who won and who lost, because both sides in the deal have to recognize that they gave up some ground. Both sides are already talking about gearing up for the next battle. And both are going to try to prevail in future battles by winning more seats at the expense of the other, the only way to win in this zero-sum game.

Instead of so much focus on winning and losing, we should be talking about how well (or perhaps how badly) the new budget serves the competing interests of various constituencies. We should be celebrating Congress's ability to put together a bi-partisan budget that reflects the most important priorities of both sides in these debates. Republicans won the last election; it is entirely legitimate that the new budget reflect their somewhat different priorities. But Democrats remain powerful in Congress, which Republicans do not control by a sufficient margin to hold sway on all issues. So it is also entirely legitimate that the new budget also reflect the most important priorities of Democrats. Leaders on both sides of the aisle should be applauded for recognizing political realities and engaging in the time-honored game of horse-trading. And the American people should be thrilled with an outcome that gives power to voices across the political spectrum. Passing a budget through our system of checks and balances, in the midst of a very partisan political atmosphere, represents a triumph of democracy, as well as a triumph of negotiating.