Consider Maria, a copywriter who is currently hostage to some
pretty strong emotions. She and her colleague Louis just
reviewed the latest draft of a proposal with their boss. During
the meeting, they were supposed to be jointly presenting their
latest ideas. But when Maria paused to take a breath, Louis took
over the presentation, making almost all the points they had
come up with together. When the boss turned to Maria for input,
there was nothing left for her to say.
Maria has been feeling humiliated and angry throughout this
project. First, Louis took their suggestions to the boss and dis
cussed them behind her back. Second, he completely monopo
lized the presentation. Consequently, Maria believes that Louis is
downplaying her contribution because she’s the only woman on
She’s getting fed up with his “boys’ club” mentality. So what
does she do? She doesn’t want to appear “oversensitive,” so most
of the time she says nothing and just does her job. However, she
does manage to assert herself by occasionally getting in sarcastic
jabs about the way she’s being treated.
“Sure I can get that printout for you. Should I just get your
coffee and whip up a bundt cake while I’m at it?” she mutters,
and rolls her eyes as she exits the room.
Louis, in tum, finds Maria’s cheap shots and sarcasm puz
z l ing. He’s not sure what has Maria upset but is beginning to
despise her smug attitude and hostile reaction to most everything
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he does. As a result, when the two work together, you could cut
the tension with a knife.
What’s Making Maria Mad?
The worst at dialogue fall into the trap Maria has fallen into.
Maria is completely unaware of a dangerous assumption she’s
making. She’s upset at being overlooked and is keeping a pro
fessional silence. She’s assuming that her emotions and behavior
are the only right and reasonable reactions under the circum
stances. She’s convinced that anyone in her place would feel the
Here’s the problem. Maria is treating her emotions as if they are
the only valid response. Since, in her mind, they are both justified
and accurate, she makes no effort to change or even question
them. In fact, in her view, Louis caused them. Ultimately, her
actions (saying nothing and taking cheap shots) are being driven
by these very emotions. Since she’s not acting on her emotions, her
emotions are acting on her-controlling her behavior and driving
her deteriorating relationship with Louis. The worst at dialogue
are hostages to their emotions, and they don’t even know it.
The good at dialogue realize that if they don’t control their
emotions, matters will get worse. So they try something else.
They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best
to get back to dialogue. At least, they give it a shot.
Unfortunately, once they hit a rough spot in a crucial conver
sation, their suppressed emotions come out of hiding. They show
up as tightened jaws or sarcastic comments. Dialogue takes a hit.
Or maybe their paralyzing fear causes them to avoid saying what
they really think. Meaning is cut off at the source. In any case,
their emotions sneak out of the cubbyhole they’ve been crammed
into and find a way into the conversation. It’s never pretty, and
it always kills dialogue.
MASTER MY STORIES 97
The best at dialogue do something completely different. They
aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or
suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when
they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their
emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their
emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors
that create better results.
This, of course, is easier said than done. How do you rethink
yourself from an emotional and dangerous state into one that
puts you back in control?
Where should Maria start? To help rethink or gain control of
our emotions, let’s see where our feelings come from in the first
place. Let’s look at a model that helps us first examine and then
gain control of our own emotions.
Consider Maria. She’s feeling hurt but is worried that if she
says something to Louis, she’ll look too emotional, so she alter
nates between holding her feelings inside (avoiding) and taking
cheap shots (masking).
As Figure 6-1 demonstrates, Maria’s actions stem from her feel
ings. First she feels and then she acts. That’s easy enough, but it
Feel –…… Act hurt silence
worried cheap shots
Figure 6-1 . How Feelings Drive Actions
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begs the question: What’s causing Maria’s feelings in the first
Is it Louis’s behavior? As was the case with the nacho-mother
in-law, did Louis make Maria feel insulted and hurt? Maria
heard and saw Louis do something, she generated an emotion,
and then she acted out her feelings-using forms of masking and
So here’s the big question: What happens between Louis act
ing and Maria feeling? Is there an intermediate step that turns
someone else’s actions into our feelings? If not, then it has to be
true that others make us feel the way we do.