Communicating Emotions

Artwork: Hope II by Heather C. Sweeney.

Emotions are important to communication. But where to start? There’s about a million possible directions, mountains of research from many fields, hundreds of books (some of them even good!), and tons of advice out there about communication and emotion both good and bad.

What is certain for sure is that emotions are central and unavoidable when it comes to communicating. In one way, only lived experience and self-reflection can be your guide. Advice from other people about how to handle your emotions is only going to get anyone so far. So instead of offering advice, allow me to reframe a conversation in order to tease out some of the connections between emotion and communication that may steer a path through some territory that can be personal and complex.

Setting the Stage

Let’s start with a few foundational, basic principles about emotions and communication:

  1. Emotions are both a complicated concept and experience. No big surprise.

  2. While complicated, emotions can feel quite matter-of-fact, raw, or even primal when they are being experienced. They are personal and intense to whomever is undergoing the emotional experiencing.

  3. Emotions can be hard to process and they may not be fully understood by the person experiencing them.

  4. Emotions are sort of like whack-a-mole. They may not ever fully go away and if you don’t deal with an emotion, it will just pop up somewhere else.

  5. Emotions can be subdued and subtle and are not just the BIG emotions our attention tends to be drawn to (ex. anger). The subtle and subdued are important as well.

  6. We express, negotiate, and navigate our emotions through our language, our bodies, and our communication behaviors. This is a very personal, unique process in many ways.

Those are some operating assumptions about human emotions as far as I’m concerned. So, how to get deeper?

Self & Other

To understand emotion better, we can contrast along lines of self — that is, the emotions YOU are experiencing and other — what emotions others may be experiencing (knowing full well you cannot fully understand their experience).

Self and other.

Each arena requires a different perspective, set of skills, and contains different challenges. For example, you can turn your own attention to your own emotion behaviors at any time. You can learn too — through reading, practicing, purposeful manipulation — and change or manipulate your emotional displays (this isn’t easy mind you).

But an associated, related set of behaviors would come through observing and interpreting the behaviors of others. We should pay attention to how others are feeling as well. If you want to be more attuned to the emotions of others, yet other skills and behaviors are required: listening, generally being observant and not self-absorbed care, and so on.

Emotions can get unwieldy big fast in real life and conceptually.

To communicate well of course, you have to think about both your own emotions and behaviors and those of others. And I’ll say this, if you’re own emotions are off the rails, you have no chance of helping anyone else with theirs. Emotions are very much, get your own house in order first type of thing.

Primary | Secondary

We can also think of emotions as primary and secondary. We’re basically in psychology at this point (far too close for my liking). Looking at emotion this way, there are Primary Emotions (5 or 6 of them) and Secondary Emotions (too many to list).

Primary emtions appear/feel more innate, appear for shorter periods of time, and tend to burst rapidly in reaction to some sort of outside stimulus. There are 5 (or 6) of them depending on who you ask. The generally accepted primary emotions are: joy, distress, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. AKA the 5 leads from Pixar’s Inside Out minus surprise.

Primary emotions are considered primary because they are experienced in a similar fashion across cultures. Scientists have learned that all people — regardless of culture — are able to recognize these emotions. It appears in some instances of communication may be 100% nonverbal.

Secondary emotions — as some refer to them — seem to be not as innate as primary emotions, may or may not have a corresponding facial expression, get processed differently by our brains, and require more computational brain power (thinking) to work through. Example secondary emotions are: love, guilt, embarrassment, shame, pride, envy. Secondary emotions develop and fade over longer timelines, and are experienced in relation to other people rather than in direct response to a stimulus like primary emotions.

A primary/secondary vibe fails to account for is that no emotion feels secondary when you’re experiencing it and that each emotion will in essence manifest into communication in a certain way. Emotions are in brains and bodies but they come out of our mouths (sometimes) and are expressed via our bodies as well. Straight to the humanness in human communication.

Learning About Emotions

How do we learn about emotions?

We learn about emotions through observation of others, trial and error, and the guidance we receive (good or not) from other people. Emotions can be situational, contextual, or even cultural. We react to the emotions of others. If someone we know and like displays behaviors associated with sadness, we’re likely to provide comfort or supporting behaviors. We learn, through socialization and repeated experiences how to read, display, and address emotions. It’s why it’s important to teach kids to pay attention to how others are feeling. It’s totally a skill.

Plenty of people are emotional poison because they didn’t learn anything healthy about emotions. Some people are unquestionably better at reading or expressing emotions than others. Nearly everyone can learn to be more competent about their own emotions and those of others.

Sharing Emotions

To share or not to share?

Emotion sharing is a big deal. But let’s be clear that when we’re just communicating normally, emotions come along for the ride. We’re always sharing emotions. Other people just see them on us. They are part of the communication process. Boredom, excitement, happiness, indifference — they’re always kind of hanging around.

Science shows us emotion sharing has many benefits both for the self and interpersonally [Source]. Emotional sharing increases closeness and interdependence. Individuals get satisfaction and relief from sharing and social bonds become strengthened via interactions that are laced with emotion.

We share emotion purposefully but also unwittingly.

Emotions can be like contagion and spread like wildfire. Good and bad. Laughter is contagious but so is rage. And hatred.

Ultimately, there are better and worse ways to express emotions but context and those around you judge that, not me.

A Little Closer

There are a few ways you can tune your communication to better focus in on emotions. It is important to have an emotional vocabulary. The more specific we can be about expressing (verbally communicating) our emotions and what we’re feeling, the less ambiguous things may be for the person we’re interacting with. Ambiguity can be your friend, but in the spirit of striving for the purest, most authentic experience possible, being more articulate and clear about your emotions is a good thing.

Learning to talk about your emotions is hard and the only way to do it is to practice at it. Better language about emotions helps us express better how we’re feeling. We can talk about intensity for example. I’m not just “happy”, I might be “ecstatic”. I’m not just scared, I’m “anxious".”

Using “I” language helps you own your emotions and focus on yourself. This can help you feel more in control and can help your interpersonal companion not feel defensive or responsible. For example, instead of saying, “You haven’t cleaned anything! It’s driving me crazy how messy it is in here.” you could say, “I’m starting to feel anxious because things are so cluttered, could you help me clean up a little?” A world of difference, right?

Good language about emotions may help you feel like you can take a bit more control over your emotions and how you feel. You can communicate new ways you want to feel into being but processing and managing emotions is no small task. Emotions have to be lived and what works best for you is anyone’s guess.

Final Points of Order

There’s so much there there with emotions and communication it’s hard to tackle a healthy fraction in a single article. I didn’t mention gender, but emotions are gendered and we learn emotions in gendered ways. I didn’t mention technology. Technology undoubtedly makes emotions more complicated.

What about authenticity? Not every emotion is “authentic.” Nor is every emotion worth your time whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Emotions need not be reciprocated. But keep in mind that you’re likely to co-experience the same emotion with the person sharing it. Laughter is contagious, remember? So are other emotions as well.

We become better communicators through becoming more aware of our experiences and expressions of emotions. Emotions are at the core of our being — central to our existence and experience. Humans wouldn’t be human if it weren’t for our emotions: empathy, care, satisfaction but also rage, hatred, and humiliation.

Emotions are both physiological and psychological — that is, they’re connected to both our thoughts and our physical bodies. Emotions manifest through in increased heart rate, tense or excited muscles, chills or dizzying sensations, and a hundred other possible ways. Our bodies become our emotional expressions, sometimes involuntarily — crying, yelling, rejoicing. And at other times, purposeful — ignoring someone, avoiding eye contact, or hugging.

Emotions are indeed a complicated slice of the human communication pie. Important to communication is an understatement. Central to, is more like it. Start improving where and how works for you.