Many of us believe that the worst thing we can do during a disagreement is to become emotional. Emotions are unpredictable, we think, and they’ll undermine our ability to discuss an issue objectively and dispassionately; therefore we need to suppress our emotions or ignore them while seeking to resolve a disagreement.

This view has many flaws. First it’s simply not possible. The goal of a balanced communicator is to properly manage and express both thoughts and emotions. When the apostle Paul encourages Christians at Ephesus to pursue Christ, he doesn’t pray merely that their intellect or rationale would be enlightened by God. Rather, he prays that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18). In Hebrew the word “heart” means all of an individual—intellect, emotions, body, and will. God wants all of our selves to be engaged in our pursuit of Him.

The same is true when we approach conflict. To deny or push aside our emotions is to enter into a conversation only partially. The surest way to inflame another person’s emotion is to belittle or ignore it. Expressing and acknowledging emotions correctly is foundational to healthy conversation.

Second, the problem with suppressing our emotions during a charged conversation is that in the process we may also suppress our motivation to resolve the conflict. In his massive 500-page treatise On Religious Affections, the great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards writes that the nature of human beings is to be inactive unless somehow motivated by a powerful feeling or affection. Feelings of hatred, love, passion, hopefulness, hopelessness and anger serve as a spring of action that propel us forward to duty and others. If we mistakenly suppress our emotions, we may also short-circuit the very mechanism that launches us toward resolution. Often within difficult conversations our emotions—desire to reconcile, address an injustice, resolve conflict, share Christ’s love—provide the spring of action that keeps us in the conversation.

Third, emotions are a powerful indicator that individuals still care about each other and the relationship. I often tell my students that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. I don’t hate individuals I’m indifferent to or who do not matter to me. Why waste the emotional effort? My anger is more likely to arise in response to people who mean something to me—a boss, spouse, co-worker, child, or other close individual.

Last, the reason we don’t suppress or deny our emotions is that God didn’t suppress His while engaging with us. In the Scriptures we encounter a God who is unchanging, powerful, holy, and emotional.

Preparing to engage

When the time comes to engage another person in a difficult conversation, what are the steps we can take to identify and express emotions? The following are some suggestions.

Take a read of your current emotional state. We’re all susceptible to having our emotions get the better of us. Foundational to expressing emotions effectively is recognizing the feelings we’re experiencing before the conversation even starts. I say “feelings” because in most situations we experience multiple emotions.

The first step in assessing your emotional state is to give words to your feelings. The difficulty is that many of us have poor emotional vocabularies. If we are angry, we simply say, “I’m mad!”

When I counsel couples I ask them to provide at least three distinct descriptors for a single emotion. If a person tells me he or she is discouraged about the relationship, I ask him or her to provide additional words. There is a significant difference between feeling disheartened and feeling disappointed. A person can feel good about the overall relationship but still feel disappointed about one particular aspect. Conversely, a person who is disheartened may view the entire relationship as hopeless. The key is to reflect on and clarify your emotional state.

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Use fractionation. This odd-sounding technique is a staple for experts at the Harvard Negotiation Project and is considered the most effective way of reducing the intensity of emotion during conflict. Fractionation is the process of breaking conflict down into smaller, more manageable portions. The idea is that the smaller the conflict, the less severe the emotion. For example, statements like, “I feel unappreciated in this relationship!” or “Our communication climate is lousy” are too broad and emotionally charged. How can these feelings be broken down into a more manageable size without trivializing them?

The key is to use the simple x-y-z formula: when you do x, in situation y, I feel z. For example, a coworker feels that you are not respecting his religion and has grown increasingly defensive. Not respecting another person’s faith tradition is a serious issue, but it is too broad to negotiate. It may be helpful to ask, “What causes you to feel disrespected?” Your coworker responds, “When you ask me about my religion, you tend to only point out what’s wrong with it. You never try to find areas of agreement. So, what’s the point of even asking me about my faith?” Putting his concerns into the x-y-z formula would read like this: When you only find faults (x) when I am describing my faith (y) it makes me feel belittled and defensive (z). While this method doesn’t suggest a resolution, it helps both parties understand the source of the emotion.

After listening to your coworker’s complaint, you might summarize the difficulty as follows: “What seems to be causing our emotions to escalate is that you view my challenges to your faith as being disrespectful, rather than how I intend them, as healthy debate.” This formula can move individuals away from emotions to what scholars call this meta-communication—communication about our communication. For example, you could ask, “Would it be helpful if I didn’t interrupt while you’re describing aspects of your faith?” “Might it be more productive to start with areas of agreement rather than areas of disagreement?” “How can we structure our conversation so it comes across as healthy debate and not an attack that evokes strong emotions?”

The difference is the Holy Spirit

While these suggestions focused on managing emotions are valuable, they contain an inherent flaw. In order to clarify and manage emotions we need to be disciplined and aware of our fluctuating emotional state. Success is determined by our emotional intelligence and skill.

The apostle Paul takes a fundamentally different approach. When calling Christians in the church at Ephesus to put away powerful emotions such as rage, bitterness, and anger and to form healthy relationships, he didn’t tell them to work harder. Rather, he encouraged them to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). What sets apart Christian communicators is their reliance on a spiritual power outside of them.

Taken from I Beg to Differ by Tim Muehlhoff. © 2014 by Tim Muehlhoff. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.