Deciphering emotions—improving relationships

Frayed and frazzled by data overload

“The ways of men and women are such a puzzle. And I could barely decipher my own feelings, let along anyone else’s.” ― Megan Shepherd, The Madman’s Daughter

If I asked you to list all the emotions you could name, how many would you come up with? I can produce a list that requires more fingers and toes to count them on than I have. Several people I asked also listed off a decent bundle. Interestingly though, depending on what source you read, there are only a handful of basic human emotions. Some researches suggest four, which include anger, fear, happiness and sadness while others include the addition of disgust and surprise. All other emotions are versions, subsets if you will, of those basic few. Does that surprise you? It did me.

Consider too that the human face has forty-two muscles, which express emotions, and is capable of creating up to 7000 different expressions. Add to that titbit of information that each face due to gender, structure and development is slightly different and may express those emotions in different ways. There are those among us who betray nothing on their face and yet their emotions volley at us, unannounced, through words and actions. Deciphering emotions can be tricky.

Dealing with emotions is complicated. They are, according to Daniel Shapiro: unavoidable, numerous, fluid, multilayered, varied in impact and triggered by multiple possible causes. Is it any wonder we find it hard to negotiate the emotional terrain in our relationships? A better way to prepare to deal effectively with emotions is to recognise and learn how to respond to the core concerns behind the emotion.

Fisher and Shapiro (2005), experienced in high stakes negotiations, developed a framework to deal effectively with emotions by focusing on five core concerns that are important to most of us. They are appreciation, autonomy, affiliation, status, and role.

Shapiro suggests we can use these five core concerns as both a lens and a lever to simplify our approach to emotions; whether we notice them displayed across the face or more overtly through verbalisation or behaviours. As a lens the core concerns can provide us with a way to understand the cause of emotion and as a lever, to offer a way to respond to emotions to improve the situation.

It’s worth investing some time observing and appreciating each of the core concerns. It is a skill that will assist you whether in workplace or personal interactions. It is a skill that will assist you in building rapport, more cooperative behaviour and better relationships. The following exercise suggestions come from Shapiro’s article, Teaching students how to use emotions as they negotiate (2006).


Observe the core emotional concern in your own life and appreciate the core concern in situations you observe.


Take a week to notice each core concern and how it arises in your life and then a second week to appreciate that concern in an interaction you have with someone else. Journal your findings and experiences. This process is repeated for each core concern.


During the first week dedicated to appreciation, you might observe/write about your frustration when your suggestion at a meeting was ignored or brushed over.

During the following week you might actively appreciate someone else’s input in a meeting or seek their input on a project. Mentally note or journal the experience; what worked well, what might you do differently in the future?

The guiding questions below, linked to each core concern, might support your observations in this exercise.

Appreciation: were your thoughts, feelings, and actions devalued, or acknowledged as having merit?

Autonomy: was your freedom to make decisions impinged upon, or respected?

Affiliation: were you treated as an adversary and kept at a distance, or treated as a colleague/ equal?

Status: was your standing treated as inferior to others, or given full recognition where deserved?

Role: did you feel the many roles you play were meaningless, or personally fulfilling?

Of course there is a quicker method. You could spend one week observing all the core concerns. Journal the situations in which you observe the impact of the core concerns being addressed or unaddressed. During the next week, you could use at least one of the core concerns to try to stimulate positive emotions in yourself or others. Write about a situation and its impact on people’s emotions.

Play around with this idea of identifying the core concerns behind emotions. Whether there are 4, 6 or 20. For me, it’s a better model than trying to decipher 7000 expressions and trying to deal with them based on interpreting superficial data. Have fun. I’d be keen to hear what you discover.