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Influence often requires skill in emotional literacy. We humans are irrational, emotional beings, which means we do not always act in ways that get us what we want. Emotional literacy is “the ability to behave in ways that move us closer to the outcomes we truly want, especially during moments that feel hard.” Emotional literacy means we are able to experience discomfort without soothing it with an action that gets us less of what we want.

Knowing, intellectually, that rational action is important does not necessarily mean we have the ability to deploy or enact it consistently. A person can learn all about the latest influence and emotional IQ tools in the world and yet, when emotionally triggered by something, that same person will act in ways that mess with their outcomes.

Decades ago, I worked at a collection agency to put myself through college. The colleagues who were so lovely during lunch were, an hour later, berating and bullying people on the phone from the cubicle next door. It was awful.

I decided to start a collection agency that collected debt by being nice. Every day, I spent 30 minutes teaching my team how to stay open, caring, and curious when another person felt upset. I thought we would collect less money by being kind, but felt it was the right thing to do. I believed there were some clients who would prefer their customers be treated well even if we collected less.

We didn’t collect less, though. We collected three times the industry average, and even got invited to debtors’ weddings.

When we awarded bonuses based on thank you cards received, we found that the person with the most thank you cards always had the most money collected. Why did people pay us more and even bring their kids in to meet their bill collector? Because we gave that person a feeling they did not get enough of elsewhere. What is that feeling?

People have a basic need to feel understood. In moments of conflict or emotion, we often do things that make another person feel small or misunderstood. Kindness and empathy can keep a conversation from becoming a confrontation. It is a soft skill with strong results. I sold the company a decade ago, yet the learning around influence remains:

How people feel about themselves around an influencer dictates commitment or compliance. If a person makes another person feel small, they will reduce commitment and influence.

Here are 5 ways to increase emotional literacy and influence in communication:

Stop calming people down. If a person is upset, match or exceed their concern for the problem. With more emotional parity, someone who is upset begins to feel heard.

Be curious rather than corrective. We often try to correct someone else’s discomfort rather than really listen. If my son throws a bottle of water on the floor and says, “I HATE SCHOOL!”, my first instinct is to tell him “school is good for you.” Yet, if I ask him why he hates school I can help him solve the real problem.

Feel empathy, then ask. Remember a time when you felt the exact same way, and FEEL empathy first.

One of the things I said to my son the day he hated school was “I hated school too, in fifth grade. Mr. Radovich said I was stupid. Why do you hate school?”

My son said, “The substitute teacher put her hand over my mouth…”

That creates a very different conversation and outcome than whether or not he likes homework. My son needed my help, and empathy helped me understand what problem we were trying to solve, and the problem wasn’t my son’s opinion of school. Feel first, then ask.

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