That’s the question that starts us off this time.
It is part mindfulness, part emotional intelligence, part je ne sais quoi.
It’s the opposite of emotional reactivity. Indeed, when we are being emotionally reactive, that is exactly what is preventing us from being able to look outside of our own experience and attempt to ask the question: what is this (other) person feeling right now?
Emotional reactivity isn’t the only explanation for why some of us are not that great at asking the question, “How is this person feeling right now?”but it is definitely something we all can learn to do better. Those of us who are introverts or have some form of social anxiety could do well to remember this kind of question. Because it gets us out of our own heads. It forces us to interact with our environment and slowly, hopefully, to the realization that not everything is as terrible as what we think (in our own heads).
It is a very excellent question to begin asking yourself whenever a conversation between you and friend, or partner or family member begins to get heated. And rather than step on the gas and keep to your talking points (your content), slow down and pay attention to your process. What are you feeling right now, and why is everything getting so heated all of a sudden? It’s a skill, more than anything. So that means you are going to need to practice it.
Even during a conversation like the one above and maybe it’s the other person who seems to be getting emotionally worked up. You, the listening person, can ask them directly—hey, what are you feeling right now? This is a great approach. You are slowing down the conversation, you are bringing both sides of the conversation into greater awareness of what feelings are erupting. You are also showing the other person that you see them reacting—this is very important, even if the person is angry as heck at you, you are in a sense validating that they have strong feelings at that moment!
A former client shared the following with me. It was during our last session and they wanted to share with me something about what they had learned during their time in therapy. “We stay with feelings and explore our feelings (even when they suck) to better experience those emotions without judgment. We do all of this in order to be okay with ourselves and (accept) our feelings. To get back to feeling okay, with ourselves, our environment, the entire universe.”
Very well said. The idea of experiencing emotions without judgment is good not just for us, but for when we interact with others too
So what can be said when someone is not very good at asking: what is this person feeling right now? I think I have an example.
I may have told this story before, but it is worth repeating in this context. During my practicum in graduate school I was assigned a client who was housebound due to her diagnosis of agoraphobia.
Weekly therapy consisted of home visits. One piece of advice the former and more experienced counselor of this client gave to me was to encourage a kind of reframing of the client’s perspective. In other words, to challenge what can be an extremely limiting and debilitating disorder. A person with agoraphobia—to greatly simplify matters—doesn’t feel safe except at their own home, or sometimes even their own bedroom. Part of the persistent negative self talk (funny isn’t it how that shows up everywhere?) can be worries and fears that when outside of the house, other people are judging them, critiquing them, or otherwise intrusively watching them.
So, the piece of advice I was given was to try to be irreverent with my client’s debilitating condition. Doesn’t sound easy does it? It isn’t but that didn’t stop me. Part of therapy is to challenge our own erroneous or false beliefs and expectations. The client in question didn’t just have agoraphobia, but she was also diagnosed with PTSD. She had experienced many traumas in her life. The idea that she had to be on guard at all times, vigilant, is a common reaction to a person who has been assaulted. That kind of mindset can lead a person to answering the very real question: am I safe here? With a definitive NO, I AM NOT SAFE. And so being home is the only place where that fear is lessened.
This client eventually did improve. And we progressed to the point where I would go to the grocery store with her and was present to help her process her internal negative self talk. The client’s concern about being safe and people watching her every move at the grocery store came up almost immediately. The irreverent question that I began asking her ended up being something along the lines of: What makes you so special? Do you really think all these people at the store are really staring at you? Are you so special that strangers are going out of their way to watch you?
In a way the irreverent questions were a kind of back door approach for the client to evaluate the question for herself: What am I feeling right now? And what she was feeling was fear, and fright and all kinds of things. But she could stop herself from erroneously thinking that the other grocery shoppers were out to get her, or were serious threats to her. The fear remained for her, but it was something she learned to better manage. And that is something we all need to learn how to do well.
Getting back to the question then: What is this (other) person feeling right now?
The question can also show up in couples therapy often. Despite one’s best intentions, a partner may lose sight of what their partner is indeed feeling (right now). Some partners may be unfortunately poorly equipped to ask this question or even guess at the answer.
Asking yourself the question from time to time is good practice. Taking note of whatever seems interesting or important to you. I am feeling happy and excited at the moment. And why is that? I might ask myself. Because my caseload is expanding again, I am on three different insurance panels now, and I am hours away from a mini vacation. Or I just got off the phone with my father and am feeling both sad and angry about a situation I seem to not be able to change. Fair enough. I just did a self-assessment.
Now you try it.
And keep at it.
Next time! More Trump? Maybe?