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.


Just doing their thing


The contradictions are what make human behaviour so maddening and yet so fascinating, all at the same time.  Joan D. Vinge

We’re a curious bunch, humans, aren’t we? At times I lament our savagery, our meanness and our power to do harm yet just as often I find myself warmly cheering on our compassion, our warmth and our gorgeous quirky little ways. Sometimes I just smile. Smile because I love seeing people doing their thing and loving it. I find myself smiling and having happy thoughts because of the small way I’m touched by other people’s existence.

This random theme was prompted on my walk home a couple of days ago. I noticed a gentleman a little way ahead of me. He had stopped near a seat on the street and then moved to one right next to it. I noticed he placed something on the second one, a bright red apple. As I got closer I also noticed that he’d placed an orange on back of the previous seat. He had in his hand a bag full of fruit. This behaviour was puzzling. Here was a man, leaving fruit on public seats in a public; was he making some sort of statement, was he simply leaving fruit for the homeless or was there some other purpose behind his seemingly unusual behaviour?   He brightened my day, his act of kindness or madness was, for me,  an artistic one. I found myself marvelling at the scene,  two closely placed concrete seats with vibrantly coloured organic fruit placed strategically atop. The pure atheistic value of the juxtaposition, on an overcast and dreary day was akin to standing in front of a masterpiece in a gallery. I found myself smiling all the way to the car and pondering the quirkiness of this “random” act.

It got me thinking about how incredible the human animal is in their capacity to bring joy to others through the small acts they perform by just being themselves. I’m not talking overt or gratuitous acts planned to bring joy. I’m taking about the simple, quiet,sometimes habitual acts that form part of the course of life. For instance, I follow a photography blog. This guy posts great photos of birds with quirky titles and tidbits of interesting information. It’s not vital to life, it’s not something that wakes me in the night with an urgency to dissect the meaning behind it but it does make my day brighter, it raises a smile and adds value to my week.

A school friend posts a “happy Monday kids” post to Facebook each week. She follows up on Wednesday with encouraging words to let us know it’s hump day and then she wishes us all well on a Friday for a happy weekend. She’s not winning Nobel peace prizes nor being interviewed by Oprah for her humanitarianism but she brightens my week and from the long list of comments on each post, she’s brightening the week of dozens of others too. She’s just one person, doing her thing and making a difference.

I visited another floor in my building a few weeks back and was mesmerised by the desk of a colleague, everything, and I mean everything was purple. The whole space was a purple haze. Every folder, binder, pen and trinket was a shade of purple. I don’t have a favourite colour, nor a favourite food or a favourite anything really, I pretty much dabble across the palette but I love when I see someone so passionately into something that it colours their world. It makes me smile at the quirky nature of us humans.

Each of us has potential to bring joy to the world and brighten it in some way. Some share their hilarious and breathtaking  adventures, some write beautiful poetry, some walk the streets smiling at those they pass, some share poignant thoughts and ideas for others to ponder.  There are so many and varied ways that we impact the people around us. Do you recognise how you brighten the world by just doing your thing?