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How to talk about negative feelings

It can feel daunting to discuss negative feelings. There is a danger of being vulnerable or making others feel blamed. However, there is a way to bring up negative feelings effectively by taking ownership for your own emotions and needs. Here are some tips to help you discuss negative emotions in a way that will help others understand you better and even increase the trust they have for you.

Identify the unmet needs and values

We often experience negative feelings as being caused directly by what someone did or something that happened. However, the real cause of negative feelings is our brain's interpretation that our needs and values of ours are not being met. For example:

  • Rambling discussions may cause impatience because we value efficiency
  • Conversations we cannot relate to may cause sadness because we have a need to feel included
  • Differential treatment may enrage us because we value fairness
  • Gossip may upset us because we have a need for directness and consideration.

Our feelings and needs log can help you sort through the needs underlying your emotions.

Attribute negative feelings to unmet needs and values

When you discuss negative emotions, attribute them to unmet needs and values. This directs attention away from (either explicitly or implicitly) blaming individuals and instead focuses the conversation on universal needs, values and joint purpose. For example:

Instead of saying: Your cc'ing my boss in that email has made me upset

You could say: When you cc'd my boss in the email, I felt upset because I would like an opportunity to discuss the issues privately and directly first.

Instead of saying: When I have many interruptions throughout the day I get annoyed.

You could say: When I have many interruptions throughout the day I get annoyed because I need periods of uninterrupted focus to get my work done.

Instead of saying: When I was expected to cover work of two people I felt upset.

You could say: When I was expected to cover work of two people I felt upset because I need a realistic workload and clarity over what to prioritize

Beware of communicating judgments instead of feelings

When we have negative feelings, we tend to think terms of judgments and interpretations. It is not helpful to state our judgment of others, it will likely only inflame them further and they are less likely to respond in a way you want. Instead to convey when something upset us, we need to focus on feelings of core emotions. These are experiences that only have to do with ourselves, which no one else can dispute. If you'd like to practice you can try our feelings vs. judgments quiz.

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