The Second Most Important Question in Any Conversation
Because an emotion doesn’t need to give reasons or tell stories
I learned, a little late maybe, the key question anyone should answer in those situations — or any situation for that matter — to others or to ourselves.
How do you feel about it? *
I feel a mix of joy, nurturing and confidence when my three-year-old daughter keeps silent, stays still and then says “I’m angry”, after a situation she didn’t like.
Then, she stays quiet for a while. If I ask her impatiently “are you better, now?” she says “no”. Some minutes later I ask again and she nods her head without saying a word. Usually, a smile comes next.
This doesn't happen all the time, of course. After vacation, putting her to bed at night is an infinite war the first days going back to school.
But, times have changed, no doubt. I became aware of my emotions too late in life.
The first question
We usually forget the emotional aspect of our lives and the people around us even when every change in our environment—or ourselves, always causes a natural and emotional response of our body and mind.
“How do you feel about it?” should be the first question to ask ourselves or to others facing a new event, challenge or trauma.
One function of emotions is the expression of a state in our body and mind. My body and mind express an emotion to me as much as to the ones around me.
When my daughter is aware of her anger, she has learned to stay apart and wait until it fades away. If the anger was caused by playing with another child, she usually can recover herself after that and return to play with the same child.
She is good at recognizing some basic emotions in others. When I am angry, she notices it and asks “are you angry?”. Or, “why are you angry?”. She does it discreetly, like not wanting to make me angrier.
This is very good when we read her a book or she watches TV or a movie. First, because she can recognize when a scene, character or situation makes her feel fear, for example. She expresses it so we can help her (a huge usually does the job).
And second, because she learns to recognize emotions in the characters and how they handle them or interact with others.
The second question
But, what’s the next step after you or others answer the question “how do you feel about it?”.
It’s very common that once we let the emotions talk, we shut them off with a rational comment. Again, to ourselves or to others.
After some sessions of Psychotherapy, a patient is able to express emotions about the problem that brings her—or brings him—to the consulting room. But just after saying “I feel bad” or “I feel sad”, the temptation to rationalize it is big. “Well, that’s because when I was a child…”. Or, “But I think that…”. And we have to start over again: “and how do you feel about that?”.
To the person who asked the question about the feelings of the other, the next step could be just listening, even if there is just silence. Silence has its own language. Silence needs space. We label or name emotions but emotions don’t use words.
The worst thing we can do after someone shares emotions with us is try to analyze or rationalize what is expressed.
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.—Blaise Pascal
Emotions are contagious. Emotions cause new emotions, sometimes the same emotions, sometimes different emotions.
I feel sad when I see my loved ones sad. I get angry when my boss o client gets angry at me. But I can feel fear in response to anger, or anger in response to disgust.
So, after the other answers my question “how do you feel about it?”, I must ask myself, how do I feel about the response of the other.
And it’s important to share our own feelings about the feelings of the other.
“When I see your feelings, I feel…”
We usually transform a conversation into stories we tell ourselves or explanations of why things happen. Our conversations are an interchange of I think this, I believe that, this is what happens…
But a very good dialog can be only about feelings: I feel this, I sense that, I perceive the emotion of…
Being here and now
You may notice that when we analyze, rationalize or tell stories to ourselves, we escape the present.
And, when we ask for our emotions and feelings, we bring our awareness to the present.
There is nothing more present than the perception of a feeling or emotion. Pain is an instant taker to the present, for example.
And yes. That’s why most of the meditation techniques start by noticing our breath: the sensation of the air coming into our nose, getting into our lungs…
So, remember to ask “how do you feel about it?” to yourself or others. And then, don’t forget the second question: “how do I feel about it?”.