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Mine for Emotion, "Ignore" the Facts

Most of us are aware of confirmatory bias. This well-established phenomenon posits once we reach a decision, we focus our attention on factors that support it and likely ignore elements that rebut it.

When I was running schools, I would often receive long, well-conceived, and logically argued emails complaining about some policy, decision, or an employee’s competency. Just as often (and please don’t tell anyone this) I would stop reading the email halfway (or less) through. It was not because I did not want to hear bad news; it was because I knew the litany of facts presented were garnered to confirm the writer’s belief. As a result, I also knew that carefully rebutting each argument would not change the writer’s mind nor make them feel better. I knew, even if the writer did not, that the item being discussed logically was not the major motivator behind the email, an emotional hurt was.

In the vast majority of these situations, the writer wanted to be heard, understood and feel valued by the institution. Responding to an email with another email, no matter how well or empathetically written cannot achieve what is needed. That can only be accomplished by having a conversation and listening.

Once I received an irate email from a parent complaining bitterly about her son’s standardized test scores which they claimed were substantially lower than the previous year’s. The email went on to list numerous complaints about her son’s teaching team. It ended by blasting the middle school director, saying she could not run a decent division and that she did not listen to the family when they lodged a complaint about the “abysmal” test scores. The email was couched in logical and dispassionate language.

I talked to the middle school head who had indeed talked to the family and who thought the meeting went well, though clearly the family did not. She asked if I would talk to the family. I agreed.

Both mom and dad arrived for the meeting. Instead of having them reiterate the points in the letter, I asked how they were feeling in general about the school. I then listened. Every now and again, I would ask a clarifying question and repeat what I was hearing. After they spoke for about 15 minutes, they ran out of steam. At that point, I repeated some of their concerns and confirmed I understood what they had said. It is important in these kinds of meetings to listen and to hear. After rephrasing their concerns, I said, “you don’t seem very happy at the school. Is that true?” Suddenly, their entire demeanor changed. They love the school they stated. They would not want their child anywhere else. They just felt their issues were being ignored. In part, I think their change in attitude came from them being able to cathartically tell the leader their concerns and have the leader listen.

Once we established that they loved the school, I could talk about the concerns in their letter. When you looked at their son’s test scores from year over year, they were almost identical. The parents were now ready to hear these facts. I then asked specific questions about the middle school head and the family’s sense that she had dismissed them. Reviewing the meeting, they could see that they may have pushed the middle school head into a corner. They were able to see her perspective.

Finally, I ended by saying that I would check in with them in three weeks time to see how they were feeling. After they left, I suggested to the middle school head that she call the family in a day or two to re-establish a dialogue.

In three weeks when I called, the family reported that they were happy with the school, the division director and the teaching team. They ended up recommending the school to a number of their friends. By focusing on the emotion behind their email, I was able to defuse a situation; a situation that would have not been defused if I had started the meeting by pointing out that their son’s test scores were similar year over year. It is more often emotion, rather than fact, that leaders must address.


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