Communicating with Emotional Intelligence

I recently got a $300 refund from a company that did not want to give me anything at all. Here’s how Emotional Intelligence made that possible.

5929475379_63854eacfd_oI’m not one of those people who instantly grasps how other people are feeling (just ask my wife). As a project leader and department manager, improving my Emotional Intelligence has been critical for me to be successful as a leader. One aspect of EI is knowing how (and when) to express your own emotions, as we discuss in Learning Tree’s Emotional Intelligence for Leadership course and Emotional Intelligence Essentials 1-day virtual Bootcamp.

But EI isn’t just for business. EI really applies whenever you’re communicating with another person. Recently, for example, I took my smartphone into a repair store to have the screen replaced: total cost $300. When I got the phone back the screen was perfect…but the phone wouldn’t stay on. I took the phone back to the store twice and they finally tracked the problem down to a problem in the circuit board that, the store was confident, they hadn’t caused.

Now the store and I had a difference of opinion. Because they had replaced the screen and the phone’s failure wasn’t their fault, they didn’t feel they owed me a refund. I felt that because I’d started the transaction with $300 and a working phone, I should finish the transaction with either the $300 or a working phone…but not neither. You, of course, are free to agree with either one of us. I, however, I wanted to change the store’s mind and EI was an important part of that process.

Emotional Intelligence

Initial Emotions

Emotionally, at this point in the conversation,  I wanted to be “cooperative.” But it’s not enough just to appear “cooperative” — your body language alone will give you away if you’re just pretending to feel some emotion. A key component of EI is your ability to actually manage your emotions and, in my case, that meant putting myself in a cooperative frame of mind. “Managing” doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions: It means bringing to the front and making visible to the other person the most appropriate emotion for the occasion.

This may sound like you’re manipulating your emotions (or the other person) but I wouldn’t look at that way. Suppressing your emotions, presenting a “blank affect” (as psychologists say), doesn’t give the person you’re communicating with enough information to make good decisions. Overwhelming the other person with a random selection of emotions isn’t helpful, either. In the same way that “managing your money” doesn’t mean that you’re stingy, “managing your emotions” doesn’t mean you’re acting.

There’s a well-known story about a huge food company that wanted to buy a restaurant. Negotiations with the restaurant owner never seemed to get anywhere, though, and no one could figure out why — the offer being made to buy the restaurant owner was more than fair. One of the negotiators noticed, however, that while the restaurant owner always appeared calm, cool, and disengaged (a perfect example of “professionalism”), the words the owner used in discussing his restaurant said something else. The owner frequently referred to how he had “grown” the restaurant and how he had “brought it up.” The negotiator realized that the restaurant owner really felt about the restaurant the way most people felt about their children and, as a result, was incapable of selling it. In the end, a deal was worked out, but it was as a partnership, rather than a sale. Had the restaurant owner revealed his feeling earlier (instead of suppressing his feelings), the process might have gone much faster.

Of course, emotions aren’t enough — actions count also. Being cooperative, in this case, meant being flexible and providing a variety of ways for the store to make me happy. I suggested that they could get me a replacement phone (I made it clear that a refurbished phone would be fine because I had, after all, brought in a used phone); I was willing to see if the manufacturer would honor the phone’s warranty (then the store would have to give me anything…but replacing the screen had probably voided the warranty); the store could keep the phone and use whatever parts they wanted from it (the phone had a brand new screen, for example) as long as they gave me my money back.

Changing Emotions

Unfortunately, at this point, the store wasn’t willing to give me anything more than what I thought of as a token refund. So, I moved to “aggrieved customer” and became angry. Aristotle summed up this aspect of EI: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” In my case, managing my anger so that I didn’t turn into a raging monster was the difficult part.

In “anger” mode, I made it very clear to the staff at the store (and to the store’s owner through an email) that I was very unhappy with their offer. I stressed that I was angry enough that I would post negative reviews about my experience, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, and register a claim with the Small Claims Court. I stressed that I was willing to invest a great deal of time into reporting my unhappy experience in as many ways as possible.

Engaging Empathy

At this point, I got a call from the store’s owner. He was now willing to consider a refund but, at most, only half of what I wanted.

Rather than continue in “angry mode”, I used another tool from the EI toolkit: Empathy. In EI, empathy doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person or feel they are justified in the way that they feel. Empathy just means that you can understand how, from the other person’s point of view, they might feel the way they do. When you can say to the other person “I can understand why you would think I’m being a complete jerk” you have achieved the peak of empathy.

In “empathy mode,” I began by talking about something that I thought he was proud of and that we could agree on; The quality of the staff that I had interacted with.

My next step was to show that I understood his problems. I told him that I recognized that he probably organized the repair part of his business on a “job ticket” basis (I knew this from the sticker that the store had placed on the back of my phone: it had a five digit “ticket no” field on it). I stressed that I understood that ticket had been charged the time and materials his store had spent working on my phone. Also recorded on the ticket was any money they’d collected from me. If the store’s owner gave me back all my money then the ticket would show a loss totaling all of those costs. I finished up my description of his process by saying “I can see how you’d want to avoid losing all that money. That’s got to hurt.”

Now that we’d established some mutual understanding, I asked the owner to look at the problem differently. I suggested that, unless he had someone work overtime on my phone, his shop costs for the last month had been exactly what he had predicted before the month even started. On that basis, in fact, I hadn’t cost him any more money — I was just taking away some of his revenue. If he wanted, I suggested, he could  charge the money I wanted from him to a marketing account: “Customer Relations,” for example (phone companies call this account “Customer Retention”). On that basis, he could feel he was actually purchasing something, rather than giving money away.

During this conversation, I realized that he was also concerned about blame — that giving me the refund would be an acknowledgment that his staff had done something wrong. I stressed that I had no desire to assign blame or guilt. I just wanted to end up at the end of the transaction close to where I started: With $300. I also pointed out that he was, in fact, standing in the way of me telling a great story about his company. If I got my refund, I wouldn’t post a negative review. Instead, I would be telling people about how I had brought my phone in, got it back with a great new screen but with a problem, and that his company had given me a full refund to make up for the problem. It seemed to me that would be something he wanted.

And, in the end, the store decided to give me my full refund. I wrote them an email to say thanks because, while they originally did not want to give the refund, after listening to me they had changed their mind. That’s an unusual thing and worth rewarding.

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