Isn’t it great when there is a sale and the item you want has been discounted? I sure like that. But in dealing with people and responding to their concerns, discounting is a mistake. I am reminded of this true story (names have been changed).
I was attending a farewell party for dear friends. Eric had lost his job and found a position across the country. He and his wife Patty were relocating.
I greeted Patty at the reception and mentioned that this must be a bittersweet moment. Her husband has a new position, but they must relocate. The extent of Patty’s distress became clear when she corrected me and said that it was not “bitter-sweet” but rather “bitter-bitter”. She was upset about having to make the move, especially since the new location would be much colder than the pleasant climate she currently enjoyed.
As we were speaking, Max joined us. Overhearing Patty’s words, Max put on a happy face and pointed out that millions of people live in cold climates and do just fine. Patty repeated that she felt “bitter” about the move. Max, undeterred, repeated with a happy tone of voice what he had just said. Patty again said that she was “bitter”, and her tone of voice indicated that she was becoming increasingly upset by Max’s words.
Later, Max pulled me aside and said to me, “You are a communication expert. What went wrong? Why did my happy attitude and words of encouragement only make Patty more agitated?”
I said to him, “Max, your intention was to help Patty, but you discounted her feelings–and discounting hurts.”
To ‘discount’—which is to tell people not to feel what they are feeling—is a major communication mistake. Feelings don’t disappear by being ‘discounted’. It doesn’t make feelings go away. Max thought that by telling Patty that she would be fine her distress would be alleviated. But in fact, his ‘discounting’ only increased her upset, because he invalidated her experience.
What Patty needed at that moment was to be listened to empathically, which means to be heard, understood and acknowledged. Even something as simple as “I am sorry things worked out this way” would have been helpful.
When people are upset about something, ‘discounting’ their experience by telling them not to be upset or not to feel what they are feeling is not usually very helpful. The initial upset doesn’t go away, and the ‘discounting’ only adds another layer of frustration. A much more skillful approach is to listen, understand, and acknowledge. That is truly supportive of the other. Do this and watch the magic happen!
These exercises can help you master this skill:
- Pay attention to how you respond when people share their concerns with you. Notice if you are telling them not to feel what they are feeling (i.e., ‘discounting’) or if you are minimizing it.
- When people share a concern with you, listen with the intent to understand; when appropriate, acknowledge what they are saying. This is empathy, and it is a very valuable skill.
- Even if you think that what people are describing is not a cause for upset or concern, remember that for them it might be. And even if you are right, you are more likely to be heard if your first response is empathy. Don’t ‘discount’ people’s feelings.