Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.


Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

The 3 Scripts of Difficult Co-Workers

comfortDifficult co-workers are running their “programs for comfort” (to paraphrase Thomas Keating) with too much priority. We are all running one of these “daemons,” but in the best case, they share urgency with the classic, cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Keating identifies the daemons as 1) safety and security, 2) power and control, and 3) affection and esteem. They define our comfort zones everywhere, but especially at work where our egos typically have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Each program aims to get a legitimate need met, but when that need has not historically been addressed, a debt can build up and the payments can be steep – hence the increased urgency. Those running safety-and-security want everything to stay the same. New proposals threaten them. The power-and-control people need to keep everything in front of them and moving slow enough so that they can either buy in or make changes. Exercising power reminds them that they exist and they matter. Affection-and-esteem folks frequently need to be reminded that they are worthy and good, and so will go out of their way to engineer or claim a stake in favorable moments.

Yes, all of these people are terribly ego-centric, but only because they do not have a strong, resilient and confident ego in the first place – just the opposite of what you might expect! When seen as maladaptive attempts to self-comfort, these programs can evoke compassion from those whose comfort is more deeply installed.

Compassion for Difficult Co-Workers

Why is that co-worker so … (obstinate, devious, boastful, greedy, aggressive, et cetera)? The question is usually posed at the water cooler and is rhetorical, meant to solicit an affirmation of your judgment (“I must be right in thinking that so and so is bad because my friends agree”). Gossip is not so much about telling secrets as it is about group reassurance. But why, really, is that person behaving in a way that seems dysfunctional for the larger team and/or the business?


Depression, anxiety and stress are obvious possibilities. A legitimate personality disorder is a more difficult burden. Ruling those out, what is up with the normal neurotic (i.e. everybody and anybody)?

All of us are striving to be relevant and effective while staying within our comfort zones. This struggle is played out with the highest stakes in the workplace, the milieu in which we are applying our highest, most valuable skills. At the job is where our self-esteem and our very identities are on the line. I suspect that the more advanced you are in a trade or a profession, the more this is true. The business and teamwork are nice but I’ve got to prove that I matter! Otherwise I don’t have a meaningful narrative for my existence, which everybody needs.

When you observe your co-worker being difficult, get out your compassion heart-lens and see the person in a desperate struggle to matter. Win your victories with humility and never induce shame in your rivals.