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The problem with mistaking thoughts for feelings

In everyday language we often use the phrase, "I feel…" followed by a thought such as, "I feel that we aren't communicating well". In this article we discuss why this is not the best way to get our points across and how to do it better.

Thoughts involve interpretations

Thoughts are interpretations of outside events while feelings are inner experiences The interpretations from our thoughts affect the internal feelings we experience. It's become common to say I feel to express something we think. For example, we might say: I feel you weren't listening to me. However, you weren't listening to me is not a real feeling, i.e., an emotion. Instead it's an interpretation of the external world. This interpretation may or may not be accurate, but it is not a core emotion.

Stating thoughts as feelings may lead to unnecessary argument

Regardless of whether your interpretations are accurate or not, they may be unhelpfully vague and could distract from the core issue at hand, especially if people start disagreeing with your interpretations. Unlike interpretations, emotions cannot reasonably be disputed because emotions are experiences contained entirely within ourselves. For example, someone can argue that they were listening to you. But if you said you felt upset, they could not dispute that. Note, if do choose to express negative feelings, it's best to attribute them to unmet aspirations.

For example,imagine you said to someone, I feel you weren't acknowledging my point. This is an interpretation disguised as a feeling. It is an interpretation that may lead them to insist that they had acknowledged what you said. Instead it would be better to communicate objective observations and talk about feelings and values such as, When you didn't answer my question, I felt frustrated because I wanted a direct response to my question. or simply a clear request such as I'd like a direct response to my question.

Stating thoughts as feelings can sound wishy-washy

Introducing your opinions using feel can sound vague or weak compared to directly stating your opinions as thoughts. For example instead of saying something such as I feel we don't have enough capacity to take on this extra project. it would be better to say something such as We have three projects running already. I don't think we have the capacity to take on this fourth project.

Is sharing interpretations always bad?

Not necessarily. There are times where it's appropriate to share interpretations. In these situations, it's best to use language that makes it clear you recognize there is an interpretation being made, not a hard truth. For example, you might say When you check your phone during a meeting, the client may get the impression you are not listening to them. The clear acknowledgement of an interpretation of not listening by using phrases such as give an impression is key here because you are owning your interpretation and showing that you are open to hearing their perspective on the situation. Take caution when sharing negative interpretations. Interpretations may still be triggering even if you do acknowledge it's only your interpretation. Usually there is a way to convey your message more directly by communicating core emotions and aspirations. For example, it would be more diplomatic to say, When you check your phone during a meeting, I get concerned about the impression we give to the client. I want them to know they have our full attention. Also see our article on how to express negative emotions constructively.

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