Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #12 – Listening for and Feeling into the Emotions that Lead to and Emerge from Your Own and Others’ Words (and Actions)

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at


Information regarding emotional intelligence or competence is abundant. Different definitions and models make it clear that researchers don’t agree on exactly what it is, and the scientific (research-based) definitions are often very different from definitions that are popular in the media. For this essay, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand and manage emotional encounters, an ability that includes noticing, understanding and regulating emotions in oneself, noticing and understanding emotions in others, and directing emotions toward constructive behavior.1

This essay explores the value of understanding emotional encounters in conversation, and does not attempt to “teach” emotional intelligence. Toward that end, one of the simplest and most useful (in the best meaning of that word) models of how our emotions emerge from the stories we tell and our interpretations of events and language appears in Crucial Conversations, where the authors depict a “path to action2 in which something happens, we quickly tell ourselves a story about/interpret it, we feel an emotion based on our story/interpretation, and then we act or speak based on the emotion (that’s based on our story, and not on what actually happened). Learning to recognize and interrupt this “path” is an essential step toward understanding, managing and regulating our emotions.

A more detailed version of this process is the late Chris Argyris’s “Ladder of Inference,”3 which zeroes in on the impact of what we do with our stories/interpretations. Argyris offers us a “reflexive loop,” in which we first select data from what we observe, then add our personal and cultural meaning, followed by assumptions based on the meaning we add, from which we then draw conclusions and adopt beliefs – which will impact what data we select the next time we observe something or something happens.

Both the path to action and the ladder of inference make it clear that our emotions are often, if not always, based on our own responses to, stories about and interpretations of what happens in the world – what someone else does or says, and rarely on the actual, external doing or saying. Here’s a current example. Less than 48 hours before this post went live, Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters tournament (a factual, external event). Thomas Friedman’s column (based on his own observations, selected data, assumptions, conclusions and beliefs) about the win led to over 400 comments from readers who responded according their own reflexive loops.

Our work here is twofold: first, to listen for and feel into the emotions behind Friedman’s piece and his readers’ comments – some of whom respond to the column, some to the win and some to both. What selected data, added meaning, and consequent assumptions, conclusions and beliefs are operating behind these diverse amazed, compassionate, angry, resentful, frustrated, proud, disgusted, inspired, irritated, thrilled, grateful, discouraged, apathetic, etc. responses? Second, we can apply that same listening for and feeling into our own emotional responses to what we read (and how we feel about the win).

While any one of us can begin to answer the above question for a given respondent, our ability to answer with some basic level of accuracy and competence is tied to our awareness of and ability to name, understand and regulate our own emotions. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence4 has developed a research-based RULER program that helps participants Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions. The process includes rating from 1-10 how one feels in a given moment on two scales – from low to high intensity/energy, and from unpleasant to pleasant. The rating leads to one of 100 emotion labels for how we feel – providing an opportunity to build our emotional vocabulary as well. The center has developed an online app as well.

In conclusion, emotions can run high in robust conversation – especially, but not only, when characterized by disagreement. Our ability to recognize, understand, name and regulate our own emotions can help us understand what happens to us in highly charged encounters, and is an essential step if we want to understand others’ emotional responses.

In the next essay, we’ll explore the possibility and process of understanding, feeling, embodying and telling another’s story as if it were our own.


1Paraphrase from Emotional Intelligence: A Coaching Masterclass (online)

2Patterson, Kerry, and Joseph Grenny, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp. 93-118.

3Ladder of Inference / Path to Action PDF:

4Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence/RULER:

The Emotion Meter (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence):

Mood Meter App through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence:

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