Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part II: Handling the “What Ifs” (Emotion)

The subject of communication is as vast as an ocean. I’ll try to teach the tools I’ve learned one drink at a time, so we can swallow and enjoy each one.  Let’s begin exploring the “what ifs” that inevitably come up in conversation. As we learn together the tools used to become a better listener, one of the most fearful situations that people are forced to handle is emotion.

“What if they start crying?” “What if I start to cry?” “What do I do?” In the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I have, as you can imagine, encountered tears in many forms and for many reasons. Here are some rules of thumb that I use when emotion comes up. Please realize that my comments are taken with my role at LifeStories Alive in mind, as an interviewer there to record their LifeStories…not as a parent, loving spouse, or best friend.

What if they start to cry?

 

  1. Don’t interrupt the emotion or say anything! This one is tough for me to do. My childhood upbringing taught me that it is proper to comfort a person who gets emotional. What I have found, however, in the setting of a conversation, is that if I let them get the emotion out…completely out…they will feel better when they are finished. Another benefit is that some of the most valuable pearls of wisdom and heart-felt comments have come at the end of uninterrupted emotion. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/6n3cge8. What would I have missed if I interrupted that emotion?
  2. Be compassionate with your body language but never say, “I understand” (because you don’t) or “It’s okay” (because it might not be). It’s better to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t try to make it go away.
  3. Don’t invade their personal space. I’m a hugger. I want to gently touch them when the emotion happens. I have learned that invading their personal space will interrupt the emotion, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.
  4. How will I know when they are finished with the emotion? They will always let you know by making eye contact with you. Even after they make that eye contact, take a good, long pause to be sure that they are finished.

What if I start to cry?

With the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I get emotional during an interview. Here are some helpful tools I keep in mind:

  1. Take a deep breath. I try to do this as quietly as possible. I don’t want the audio of a deep breath on my part to be heard (although my editor can remove it in post-production editing).
  2. Keep a tissue or handkerchief near. The audible sound of sniffles is distracting to the speaker/interviewee.
  3. After their emotion is finished, it might be appropriate to explain why what they said touched you…but do this only after you are sure they are finished.

Emotion is a natural part of life. Handling emotion in a respectful way will help make you better listener and, thus, a better communicator.

How to Handle Emotion While Interviewing a Loved One

When considering interviewing a loved one for their LifeStories, one of the greatest fears people tell me they have is the fear found in the question, “How do I handle the emotion (especially the tears) that will come up during the interview?” I agree that it can be a tense, scary moment for the interviewer. Instead of thinking of it as a scary moment, think of it as an opportunity, and opportunities are something to look forward to. It is an opportunity because some of the most memorable moments and most valuable words of the recording have come during those emotional moments of the LifeStories I have captured.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I conducted an audio LifeStory (no video camera, just professional digital audio recording equipment) with an 87-year-old lady. Her husband of 65 years died just three years ago. So, as you can imagine, tears were shed when we talked about him. She worked at a movie theater at age 17 when they first dated. They had a favorite movie (in 1942) that had “their song” in it. Their song was “You Are Always in my Heart” http://tinyurl.com/3k9uea9. As I put a copy of the words in front of her and asked her to sing the song, she began crying toward the end of her beautiful singing. At the end of her emotion she said, “It’s just been so hard without him.” I could have avoided the question and subject all together, but I would have missed her sharing of how she really felt about her husband.

Here are a few hints about how to handle emotion as it comes up in an interview:

Helpful Hint #1 – Be Silent as it Happens – It is a tendency by many people to want to comfort the interviewee by saying something. Don’t! Any words you say will interrupt their emotion. Some of the most priceless words from their hearts will come at he end of their emotion. If you interrupt their emotion, you will lose and miss those heartfelt words. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/4y7lk6q.

Helpful Hint #2 – Wait Until the Emotion is Finished – This is perhaps the hardest thing for most people to do. How will you know when the emotion is finished? They will show you with their body language. Remember, for you, the length of time during the emotion will seem long. For them, it’s quick. But they will make eye contact with you when they are finished. They will also give you other non-verbal signals that it’s time for the next question.

Helpful Hint #3 – Don’t Touch Them or Invade Their Personal Space – I’m a hugger and a person who likes to comfort another by touching them. In the setting of a LifeStory interview, it’s a definite “no-no” to touch them. Touching them is just as bad as saying something. It will interrupt the emotion.

Helpful Hint #4 – Don’t Stop the Recording – Many interviewees will apologize as the emotion starts and ask to stop recording the interview. Don’t do it! You will miss the priceless words or audible signs of emotion if you stop the recording. Remember that if you are using digital recording technology, it is easy to take out pieces of the emotion if you choose to later on. You cannot add back in the emotion that you missed after the fact!

Helpful Hint #5 – Keep Your Emotion Controlled – I’m not asking you not to cry (or laugh during joyous emotion). It is normal for you to cry, too. I cry during many of the Lifestories I conduct. What is important to do is to control it. Keep you sniffles and sounds from your mouth to a minimum. Any audible sound from you will be picked up by the microphone. Remember, this is their story, not yours!

Emotion is part of life. Your capturing the LifeStories of your loved ones will involve emotion. You can deal with it in a way that will enhance the value of the LifeStory. Enjoy the journey.