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Labeling: A Technique to Handle Emotions in Meetings

Handling emotions in meetings can be tough. That’s why people in meetings generally try to steer clear of them. Positive emotions are fine. But negative emotions? Nah, it’s better to leave that at the door!

But when negative emotions are left at the door, they are suppressed at the same time. Which doesn’t help to resolve them at all. It might even do the opposite and make negative emotions grow, spiral out of control or spread like wildfire to other team members.

In this article, we want to introduce you to a facilitation technique called Labeling, which can be used to surface and handle both negative and positive emotions in meetings. This technique is something we learned from Chris Voss and his bestseller Never Split the Difference. If you want to learn how it works, stick around!

Here is what you will learn:

    What is Labeling?

    Labeling refers to attaching a descriptive word or phrase to the observed emotions of others, in order to give them the chance to explain their feelings.

    Here are some examples of Labeling:

    • It looks like you wouldn’t be happy with this decision
    • It sounds like you are not convinced of the data in this report
    • It feels like you are surprised about hearing the project has been approved

    So in essence, labels are just verbal observations. Although their usage seems trivial, they can have a large impact on the conversation. Exposing someone to a label of their feelings does a couple of things:

    1. A label creates a space for the person to speak out their feelings. Often, people are grateful for this opportunity because it’s difficult for them to come out with their feelings on their own.
    2. A label validates feelings. Humans have good skills for observing emotions. But they are also not perfect. A good label helps to validate if the observed emotion is exactly what the person is feeling, or if it’s something else that grinds their gears.
    3. A label helps to resolve negative emotions. When the observed feeling is negative, the label enables someone to talk about their feelings and be heard. That is the first step toward resolving the emotion in a good way.
    4. A label reinforces positive emotions. When you label a positive emotion correctly, you hit the jackpot. Because then people often go into explaining their positive emotions and this quickly catches on to other team members.

    How do you use Labeling?

    Using labels isn’t rocket science. In fact, there are only two main steps to it.

    1. Being aware of emotions in people

    Humans are natural talents in observing emotions because reading facilitation expressions, body language and tone of voice happens almost automatically. All you have to do is to pay attention to people. Then all of these cues will help you to get a gut feeling of what might go on inside a person.

    2. Form a sentence that starts with “It looks”, “It sounds”, “It feels”

    These are the first two words of any label. After that, you just fill in the blanks and try to put your gut feeling into words. And then just look at the person, and try to communicate the label in a calm, observative voice that doesn’t inflict any kind of judgement.

    What is an example of Labeling?

    Let’s say you observe someone tapping their pen on the table and moving in their chair. Your gut feeling tells you they might be impatient to move to the next topic in the meeting. Since what they are doing is mostly visual, you can build a label with “It looks”.

    Here are two options for how to frame it:

    • A:It looks like you are impatient to move to the next topic
    • B:It looks like you are eager to move to the next topic

    Generally, I would recommend going with Option B. Simply, because the word “impatient” has a negative connotation and can sound more judgemental. Choosing A is the more direct way of addressing the emotion, but might lead the person to respond why listing all the reasons why they don’t like the current topic.

    eager” sounds more positive and opens the window for that person to explain why they would like to move to the next topic. Which would basically express the same emotion, but allow it to resolve more easily.

    [.box-highlight]Tip: If you are interested learning more how the use of words can contribute to create or resolve conflicts, we recommend taking a look at Non-Violent Communication.[.box-highlight]

    Final thoughts

    Negative emotions act like a kind of virtual earwax. The more you have, the more you’re distracted by an internal dialog. We all know this is true from first-hand experience.

    That’s why “Leaving emotions at the door”, isn’t the right approach for handling emotions in meetings. Because it completely ignores both the negative and positive effects emotions can play in the workplace.

    If you want to be a good facilitator, labeling is a simple, effective technique to surface emotions at the workplace with the goal of resolving them (negative), or reinforcing them (positive).