Make the Other Person Feel “Felt”

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Mark Goulston

“How much longer will this take? I’ve got better things to do,” grunted Hank, a gray-haired senior partner at a prestigious LA. boutique entertainment law firm.

I’d been called in to smooth out the relationship between Hank and Audrey, another senior partner. Audrey, whose name preceded Hank’s on the door, brought in most of the firm’s business. She was a good lawyer, but she really shined as a rainmaker. Hank was a brilliant lawyer, but he’d rather eat nails than schmooze to bring in business.

Unfortunately, rather than admiring and appreciating Audrey’s talents, Hank saw her as a loudmouth who frequently disrupted the office with her excited outbursts after she’d been to an event, appeared on television, or been interviewed by a magazine or newspaper. Compounding the problem, Audrey wanted Hank’s admiration more than anyone else’s in the firm, a carryover from wanting respect from her father and never receiving it.

Hank’s stubbornness stemmed in part from his background. His mother, an emotionally overwhelming person, made life miserable for his dad, his brother and sister, and Hank. When Hank left home, he swore that he’d never let anyone bulldoze him like that again. And Hank experienced Audrey as a bulldozer.

Since they shared cases, it was important that they work together more cooperatively, especially since their friction was spilling over to the rest of the firm and distracting everybody. My job: to get these two talking—and working—like a team.

At the moment, it was an uphill battle. The exchange between the two kept growing more heated, with Audrey’s voice turning shrill and accusatory. Hank talked down to her in front of others, she said. And he snickered at her comments, making her feel humiliated.

Hank barked sarcastically, “Hey, she doesn’t need any help from me to humiliate herself. She does a pretty good job of that on her own.”

“See! What did I tell you?” Audrey chimed in.

Audrey’s barrage continued for several minutes, with Hank looking alternately at the ceiling and his watch and saying on several occasions, “I really do have a lot of work to do. Can I leave?”

One of the services I provide to firms is what I call “Rent-an-Adult.” At this point I certainly was the only adult in the room, and my patience for this exchange was growing thin.

As I listened to them, I realized that the issue wasn’t Audrey’s belief that Hank refused to listen to her. Even Hank’s disrespect wasn’t the whole answer. The key was that Audrey didn’t feel felt. When I understood that, I asked myself what she was feeling, and it came to me.

I stopped them both. Then I looked at Hank and asked, “Do you know that Audrey feels that you find her utterly repulsive and disgusting a lot of the time?”

Bull’s-eye. The flood gates opened, and Audrey started crying so hard that she could no longer engage in the stupid dance-of-death debate. Her deep sobbing revealed tremendous pain, but also relief and the awareness of “feeling felt.”

With the tug-of-war abruptly ended, Hank became disarmed, and genuine. “Look,” he said, “I don’t think Audrey’s repulsive or disgusting. She’s an amazing rainmaker. She’s one of the best business development lawyers in this town, which is something I’m miserable at and feel miserable doing.” He repeated, “I don’t find her repulsive or disgusting. I even like her. It’s just that sometimes she comes in and she’s so hyper that she upsets the whole applecart of this office. And I . . . well, as you can tell . . . I prefer there to be more order.” He looked at Audrey, whose tropical storm of tears was beginning to lift, and said, “Audrey, really . . . I don’t think you’re repulsive or disgusting. You just drive me frickin’ nuts sometimes.”

I looked at Audrey and asked, “And what redeeming characteristics do you see in Hank?”

She responded, “He’s one of the smartest lawyers I know.

“Even if he’s grumpy a lot of the time, he can size up what’s wrong with any case and redirect any lawyer in the firm, including me, in a direction that will be more successful. I guess that’s why it’s so important to me that he thinks I’m a competent lawyer.”

With those two seismic shifts, the tension started to lift and some of the warmth that these comrades-in-arms felt underneath their anger started to show through. In just minutes, they went from resistance (“I hate you”) to considering (“maybe we could actually get along”) on the Persuasion Cycle.

At that point, Hank added: “Audrey, you are a good lawyer”—and then he smiled, not able to give a compliment without taking something away—“it’s just that you can be a real pain sometimes.”

“You had to say that, didn’t you?” I commented in response to Hank’s sarcastic rejoinder. In a moment of humility, Hank replied, “Just like a zebra, can’t change his stripes, neither can a jerk.”

After this chance to get past venting and exhale, the two reached a point where they could commit to communicating better. For Hank, it meant being less caustic; for Audrey, it meant calming herself down before she came into the office following the adrenaline rush from some business development activity that had her all charged up. The result of their détente: a more cooperative and productive office and less time spent fighting each other.

Audrey’s and Hank’s story is so common it’s almost universal. Look around your office, and you’ll probably see at least a couple of smart, high-achieving people who can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. Look higher, and you may spot a CEO who treats dedicated team members like enemies and has an astronom¬ical staff turnover rate to show for it. If you’re in sales or customer service, think about the clients who seem more interested in mak¬ing you miserable than in getting service. In each case, look behind the façade and you’ll probably spot a failure to “feel felt.” You’ll also find an opportunity to fix things.

Why Does Feeling "Felt” Change People?
Making someone feel felt” simply means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you succeed, you can change the dynamics of a relationship in a heartbeat. At that instant, instead of trying to get the better of each other, you “get” each other and that breakthrough can lead to cooperation, collaboration, and effective communication.

The Steps to Making Another Person Feel “Felt”
You might think, “Mark, this is all easy for you to say or do. You’re a psychiatrist with thirty years experience.” My response is, “Don’t kid yourself. You don’t need a medical degree to do something this simple.” Here’s all you need to do.

1. Attach an emotion to what you think the other person is feeling, such as frustrated, angry, or afraid.

2. Say, “I’m trying to get a sense of what you’re feeling and I think it’s ————— ” and fill in an emotion. “Is that correct? If it’s not, then what are you feeling?” Wait for the person to agree or correct you.

3. Then say, “How frustrated (angry, upset, etc.) are you?” Give the person time to respond. Be prepared, at least initially, for a torrent of emotions, especially if the person you’re talking with is holding years of pent-up frustration, anger, or fear inside. This is not the time to fight back, or air your own grievances.

4. Next, say, “And the reason you’re so frustrated (angry, upset, etc.) is because...?” Again, let the person vent.

5. Then say, “Tell me—what needs to happen for that feeling to feel better?”

6. Next, say, “What part can I play in making that happen? What part can you play in making that happen?”

This script isn’t cast in stone; use these questions as a starting point, and go where your conversation leads. Here’s an example:

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Just Listen by Mark Goulston. Copyright 2010, Mark Goulston. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Mark Goulston M.D., is a psychiatrist, consultant, business coach, and author of Get Out of Your Own Way and Get Out of Your Own Way at Work. He writes a leadership column for Fast Company and the “Solve Anything with. Mark” career advice column for Tribune Media Services.