• johned@aibi.ph

Recognising And Understanding Emotions In Others


(Matthew 9:4 NKJV) But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts?

As I write this chapter the news is filled with the horror of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centres. Emotions such as grief, sympathy, sorrow, anger, anxiety and perplexity are openly being expressed. The world teeters on the brink of war and there is anxiety about the stock market’s ability to open on Monday. The air seems charged with highly contagious emotion. Now how can I recognise all this from a television screen? What gives us the capacity to read another person’s emotional state and to respond to it? What happens when we fail to do so?

There are about 30 or so common emotions that are reasonably easily recognised. These include, fear, surprise, apprehension, sadness, elation, doubt, anxiety, guilt, contentment, sexual interest, curiosity, anger, frustration, annoyance, and laughter amongst others. A sensitive, discerning person may be able to recognise hundreds of different types of emotions while an abusive person may recognise as few as nine or ten. Criminals frequently have trouble recognising or identifying with the emotions of their victims. Sociopaths are almost completely unable to recognise emotions in others in any meaningful way.

Jesus and Emotional Recognition

Jesus was able to recognize emotions in Himself (“my heart is deeply troubled”) and others (“for He knew what was in the hearts of all men”) and was able to read situations with astonishing accuracy and spiritual perception. This made His ministry very effective and His encounters with His opponents very humbling for them. Jesus could read, understand and appropriately categorize people e.g. as “wolves”, “whitewashed tombs” or as “that old fox” and He was always spot on. We are not quite so fortunate and it seems that we are always learning about how to read people and continually being surprised by the twists and turns of the human personality.

Jesus judgement of others was not by sense perception alone for Scripture says He did not judge “by the hearing of the ear or as the eye sees” (Isaiah 11:3). Rather He judged by the Spirit of the Lord. His connection with God gave Him the perception, beliefs, wisdom and understanding with which to make accurate judgements about other people. He also would have used His five senses but the data from them would have been fed into the existing faith framework. Faith perception was primary and sense perception fitted into that, yet if you had tested any of His findings, you would find they were not vague and mystical but would have stood the test in the real world. They were not fanciful mystical attributions but factual, correct and perceptive judgements.

Jesus’ advice on the topic of discerning other people was generally simply to look at their actions, not their words and especially to look at the fruit of their lives. (Matthew 7:20) Later on we will see why that advice is so valuable. For now we just need to note that Jesus did advocate using one’s eyes ears and intellect when reading other people. Jesus did not recommend a peculiar mystical formula for arriving at conclusions about people but rather He recommended careful and prayerful analysis based on facts taken over time. While this advice was primarily aimed at helping the disciples assess human character it is also good advice when assessing human emotions.

Emotional Recognition

It seems sophisticated neural processing is needed for the recognition of emotions and that it is based in an almond shaped part of the brain called the amygdala. (Damasio et al. found that bilateral damage to the amygdala impaired the recognition of emotion from facial expressions.) To give you an idea of how complex this task is, “affective computing” or teaching computers to recognise emotions in humans, struggles, even on fast computers, to obtain a 50% success rate on just 8 basic emotions. The complexity of the task of accurate emotional recognition means that it is a task we are learning all life long.

But isn’t emotional recognition simply a “natural attribute” with some people being naturally sensitive to others while others are brutish and insensitive? There is plenty of evidence in the EQ literature that emotional recognition is partly genetic wiring and starts very early in life. However there are two schools of thought. One school says EQ is truly innate, that we can be damaged but not improved. That EQ is set very early in life and is mainly genetic and that like IQ it can be reduced (say by a blow to the head or emotional abuse) but not improved. Thus this view maintains that a sensitive person can be hurt and become emotionally clumsy but that a person born with a brutish disposition cannot become sensitive.

The other view is that EQ, while having a genetic component is a teachable skill. My experience from teaching EQ seminars is that about 85% of people are teachable to varying degrees but 15% have not even the faintest desire to improve emotionally. I think that on the whole EQ is more learned than genetic.

Emotional Recognition and Christian Ministry

Sensitive and caring ministry to others depends on being able to accurately recognise and understand the source of emotion in others. Without this skill pastoral care will be clumsy at best and damaging at worst. Tasks such as counselling and prayer ministry require a fine feeling for personal emotions. If God has called us to ministry He has called us to minister grace to a hurting and damaged world and called us to be able to understand people – including being able to read their emotions.

This is becoming increasingly difficult as in our multi-cultural societies ministry means reading emotions of people from different backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities than our own. Any pastor of a church of any size in the modern world will have to be able to read the feelings of people of half a dozen races and a wide variety of professional and economic backgrounds. We cannot run away from this challenge but must embrace the learning required to be emotionally competent ministers in a complex world.

Interestingly some research done with the Penn Emotional Recognition Test suggests that introverts have better skills at recognising emotions than extraverts. Given that extraverts are more socially active this seems surprising. Perhaps introverts have greater sensitivity which makes them withdraw from numerous interactions through overload. It also gives some truth to the stereotype of the loud, insensitive extravert! Thus quiet sensitive counsellors and spiritual directors may indeed be the ones to look for when you want your emotions deeply understood.

In reading another person’s heart the thoughts, intents and feelings need to be surfaced. Jesus, our model, was deeply emotionally aware and “knew what was in the hearts of men”. He did not just read the surface emotional issues but the deeper undercurrents of the heart. There are some gender differences in what people conceal and what they are willing to reveal though these are far from absolute. In general I find men are willing to talk about their plans and intentions and tend to conceal their feelings while tend to women conceal their plans and intentions and are more revealing of their feelings. While it is relatively easy to recognise the six basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust it is very hard to recognise thoughts and intentions and the more subtle emotions such as apprehension and tentativeness. Reading people deeply takes time and practice and wisdom. Here are a few clues I have found helpful:

1. Start from a neutral position as free as possible from your own baggage. The more emotion you are carrying – and thereby projecting onto others, the more inaccurate you are. A study by Walz showed that aggressive men saw more anger in other people than was really there. The aggressive men were projecting their own anger onto others. This mislabelling led to behaviour problems in life as they reacted in hostile ways to this perceived but non-existent aggression.

2. If you do have a great deal of pain, do not try counselling others until you have dealt with it. This is why I recommend that Christian counsellors and ministers who have been recently divorced take two years out from the ministry until their emotions have been worked through. There is generally too much baggage there to be accurate in reading emotions and to be therapeutic in counselling.

3. Do not take the latest bit of psychology you have read and dump its conclusions and observations on everyone. I have a lot of time for the MBTI personality test and similar instruments but personality typology can become an obstacle to judgement when taken too literally. In general look at the objective facts about the person first then, much later, employ your theories.

4. There is no prize for the hastiest judgment. Suspend religious judgements until all the facts are in. Hasty labelling of clients and leaping to spiritual conclusions is unwise and potentially damaging. There is plenty of time to come to conclusions, so use it wisely and well.

5. Listen to understand and not to judge. There is indeed a place for confronting sin – after we have fully understood the situation. If we seek to understand first and listen intently and with intelligence and wisdom our words of admonition will be far fewer, much more on target, and more easily accepted by the parishioner.

6. Expand your own emotional vocabulary. For instance use words like exhilarated instead of “up” and ‘satisfied” instead of “good”. By becoming aware of a wide range of emotional terms as they apply to yourself you will be soon able to pick up these finer emotional tones in others as well. Roget’s Thesaurus is a good starting point.

7. Use the “mirror principle” to work out what the other person is thinking. By the mirror principle I mean the observation that what A thinks of B is generally the mirror opposite of what B thinks of A. For instance if you think someone is very tall then you probably look short to him or her. If you think someone is not too intelligent you probably look like a complicated intellectual to him or her. If you think that certain people are quiet and polite they probably think you are loud and rude. And if you think young people are loud and over the top and energetic they probably think you are staid, quiet and a bit on the slow side. People are often seeing you in an exact mirror image of how you see them.

8. If you can get hold of a “chart of emotions’ do so. These charts have dozens of different facial expressions with the emotions labelled underneath. A counsellor should be able to help you get hold of one.

9. Don’t just read one aspect e.g. facial expressions, voice, body language or verbal statements. Survey the whole person and watch for patterns as a whole. Just reading body language alone can lead you astray. For instance a person with their arms crossed may be just cold from the air-conditioning – not rejecting what you are saying at all. You need to look at all the other factors as well.

10. Try and figure out what they are not saying as well as what they are saying. For instance if a client talks freely about everyone in their family with the exception of their father – about whom they are totally silent, then there may be something worth exploring.

11. Study crowds and pick up on social distance, actions and reactions. The location of the person in the room , who they are talking to, how many people they move amongst and the degree of animation they are showing. For instance a person who is feeling timid may be in the corner of the room, the person who is feeling lonely may be on their own, the socially insecure may be glued to just one person and the tragically disconnected person may be near the bar and drinking a bit too much.

12. Assume that even the most seemingly irrational behaviour seems intelligent to the person doing it. Then try and work out what that reason is. What thought is behind it? What need are they trying to meet? What emotion is driving it?

False Positives and False Negatives

Most of us have an area that we “get wrong” consistently when reading others. A “false positive” is when you think someone is happy and they are not. It is mistakenly thinking the situation is better than it is. Most men think their marriages are good when their wives think otherwise. Thus the men have a “false positive” when it comes to reading their wives emotional state. A false negative is when a person thinks a situation is bad when it is in fact good or OK. For instance a person from a rejecting family may see anger or rejection around them in normal friendly social situations. They have a “false negative” when it comes to reading others emotions. They “fill in the blanks” with rejection and find it difficult to believe they are accepted. These false attributions can have enormous social consequences. The young man who thinks a girl loves him when she does not and goes away heartbroken, the husband who thinks his wife is flirting with other men when it is not the case and becomes enraged “over nothing”, or the feeling in many offices that “the boss does not care about us’ when that is often far from the truth. Learning to read other people’s emotions accurately can thus save us much pain.

False reading of other people’s emotions leads to mistaken action and reactions on our behalf. People react to “shadows” instead of realities and defend themselves from perceived emotional threats that simply do not exist. For instance if we believe that the boss hates us and is about to fire us we may start a rumour campaign or even resign our job to avoid the rejection. What a surprise if we get promoted instead! We do not just react to circumstances we react to our interpretation of those circumstances particularly the emotional perception – whether we are liked or disliked, accepted or rejected, valued or despised. Most people will stay at even a lower paying job if they perceive they are liked, accepted and valued. Therefore people who habitually see the world as disliking them, rejecting then and despising them are going to find life tough going. They, like Cain, will be a wanderer on the earth. This is indeed tragic if their fears are unjustified and their rejection only in their own minds.

To continue this thought for a while we need to look at how “false negatives” can affect us socially and politically. When people constantly misread others intentions towards them and this spreads to an entire group then entire churches, denominations, cities and even nations can become embroiled in it. This group aspect of emotional misunderstanding is often indicated by phrases such as “they hate me” or “they are up to something” where “they” is rather loosely defined. Eventually false negatives can come to include whole classes of people e.g. “all men are lustful rapists” or “all Americans hate Muslims” which of course rapidly leads to prejudice. If this goes far enough the false negative can involve an all-embracing projection of fear and suspicion upon the total environment. This fear and defensiveness produces a harsh defining of boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out”, those who are with us and those who are against us. Or even between those who are of God and those who are of Satan. Fear, paranoia, prejudice and hatred can all flow from allowing false negative attributions of others to grow and become believed.

How do these false perceptions come about? They mainly come about through three basic errors in observation and logic:

The first error is not gathering all the facts, or using a biased source of facts. Take the prejudice “All Muslims are terrorists”. If we base our sampling on action movies where all the Muslims are terrorists we may arrive at this conclusion. However if we gather all the facts we will find that there are over 1 billion Muslims and that there are maybe 10,000 terrorists. So if we do our sums we see that only one in one hundred thousand Muslims are terrorists. Thus the complete facts do not bear out the prejudice that all Muslims are terrorists. If truth be told, the facts paint the opposite picture.

The second error is choosing to unjustifiably filter the facts so that some aspects are emphasised and some heavily discounted. For instance take the radical feminist rhetoric “all men are rapists”. This is easily disproved statistically. However someone being shown the statistics on rape might say “Ok not all men have been caught as rapists and maybe not all men have raped someone – but they would if they could” and thus the false negative is maintained by using a “filter” which keeps the prejudice intact.

Or thirdly we can have no facts at all. The whole thing can be imaginary. We can be so completely inaccurate in our reading of people that we get it completely wrong to begin with. This is often due to our family background training us to see things a certain way e.g. training us to see rejection where there is none or being unduly suspicious of others motives.

Another source of error that I find is becoming common in Christian circles is “mystical attributions” such as “I sense in my spirit that so and so has a Jezebel spirit”. This often lacks an objective basis in fact. Where I have seen it in operation it has been a power play that makes the speaker look spiritual and perceptive and labels their enemy with a stigma that is difficult to contest or remove. Unless there is substantial good evidence for such a judgment these mystical observations that are plucked out of the ether should be treated as insubstantial and perhaps even as dangerous. At best they come from being misled about the nature of the gift of discernment. Genuine discernment is both spiritual and intelligent with the Holy Spirit operating through a renewed and quickened intellect not just through impressions.

People who operate through inner impressions alone are liable to serious error. Those who have a genuine gift of discernment are generally characterised by a sharp mind, a habit of continual observation, a deep and quiet graciousness, a listening spirit and the ability to keep their conclusions to themselves. While the spiritual man does indeed judge all things he or she does not do so irrationally and hastily or solely on the basis of an inner intuition. True spiritual judgement is solid and substantiated. When Jesus said the Pharisees were “whitewashed tombs” He was able to clearly point out why in factual terms such as the devouring of widow’s houses. He did not say “In my spirit I just know you are whitewashed tombs don’t ask me why!”. The spiritual perception is a new framework that encompasses all known and substantiated facts. Jesus said it is like reading the weather and knowing that a certain wind means rain and another means heat. First there is observation and fact, then there is interpretation of all the observed facts in the light of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

At this point take a minute and ask yourself the following questions about the ay you form judgements:

Do others say that you are overly critical or defensive?

How often do you properly gather the data?

How often do you sit down and calculate things out and check the facts?

Do you thoroughly search the Scriptures using a concordance or computer bible or do you just pluck verses from here and there?

Do you “look on the negative side of things”?

Do you filter out positives?

Do you over-emphasize negatives?

Do you anticipate rejection when there is none?

Are you often suspicious of people and then find out that your suspicions were unjustified?

Do you draw sharp boundaries between groups of people, lumping them together as “in” or “out’, good or bad, with you or against you?

Do you fix on the negative and ignore the positive?

Does one bad part make the whole thing wrong for you?

Do you go on inner intuitions and dark emotions separate from objective evidence?

Do you feel that you must play judge, jury and executioner?

Do you imagine terrible things about people and imagine them doing evil deeds? (e.g. “I am sure our neighbours are bank robbers.”)

If this partly describes you then you need to be aware of these tendencies and strive to counteract them. If you have a constant sense of rejection you may need to tell yourself: “I am probably just imagining this, I always see more rejection than there is.” If you are overly suspicious stop and ask “Is this the real picture, are my suspicions based on solid evidence, not just wild fancies? If you are constantly defensive and see criticism in every remark, then try and re-interpret those remarks “Maybe they were just making a constructive suggestion, maybe it wasn’t a personal criticism at all.”

This involves standing outside your own mental processes and evaluating them. Its called “meta-cognition” or thinking about thinking. You think about the way in which you think and as you do this you correct that which is unhelpful, illogical, irrational or untrue. In the realm of emotions we do this by realising that our thinking about our emotional environment and other people may be wrong. We than think about our thinking and challenge our negative perceptions with the simple question “Is this really so?” Is it really so that my wife is having an affair? Is it really so that my neighbour is a bank robber? It is really so that everyone is out to get me?

Good emotional recognition means picking up the emotions that truly are present in the situation such as love and acceptance and not projecting into it emotions that may not be truly present in the situation such as criticism and rejection.

False positives are generally not as dangerous as false negatives but can be just as difficult to recognise and deal with. The pastor may build a castle from a compliment and may start to believe that everyone likes him and become oblivious to his weaknesses. The naïve and sheltered may honestly believe that all people are beautiful and have good intentions – and only find out otherwise in one of life’s hard lessons. The missionary may think that the village accepts him because it is polite to him while underneath they are seething with anger at his cultural blunders.

The indication of false positives is constant disappointment. The girl does not love you. The wonderful business opportunity sends you broke. The church does not renew your call. The village eventually tells you what it thinks. There is a balance here, on one hand its good to be positive, optimistic, hopeful and full of faith and its Ok to strive high and fall flat now and then. That’s part of the journey, an honest mistake. On the other hand it’s lousy to be constantly and continually disappointed, ripped off and hurt. Lets be blunt, its stupid, its folly, its not listening to your warning bells. There is often a fine line between faith and folly and pain is a warning of folly. Blows are made for the backs of fools. If you are constantly disappointed in relationships then perhaps you are just too optimistic about how much people love you. If you are in a constant state of shock and your plans come down with a thud at regular intervals perhaps a reality check is in order.

There are two main sources of false positives which are a) being conned by others and b) being conned by ourselves. Sometimes the two work together so that people who want something from us play on our vanity and then we go home and strut and preen and daydream about how wonderful we are. As we do this we edge closer and closer to catastrophe and disappointment.

Lets get a tough but fair biblical perspective on this. All people are sinners, and for the vast majority of people self is on the throne. What does this mean? It means that most ordinary people are primarily acting in their own self-interest and are not particularly concerned about your interests except as they may intersect with their own interests. They aren’t terrorists or bank robbers but they are not saints either. They are just plain selfish with a few bursts of altruism at Christmas time and during a crisis. After these seasons of good-will it’s back to looking after number one. Neither are most people interested in the fine points of being terribly good, honest and ethical, as this conflicts with their more selfish interests. Sure they are not as dishonest as a con artist, but they are not at all interested in becoming like Mother Teresa.

This means that selfishness rules and that real love and appreciation is relatively rare. The Bible does not paint the picture of a world filled with good, nice people who we can trust and who really love us. Neither does it paint a picture of a world full of terrorists. It paints the picture of a selfish world that has disconnected itself from God. This should be our picture also. If we see everyone as “nice” we probably have a wrong picture, or a very low standard of what being nice is. If we walk into a new group of people and believe we have been instantly accepted and that everyone loves us and is only thinking about our welfare – then perhaps you should double check. Maybe behind their acceptance they have a selfish motive. They may want your money, your membership or even your soul. Normal people are only that nice when it is in their self-interest to be that nice. Always ask, “Who benefits?”

It does not hurt to ask the question “Is it really so?” in positive circumstances, especially if they are unusually positive, and very especially if things seem “too good to be true”. I have no intention of plunging you into doubt and cynicism, that’s why I dealt with false negatives first. But I do not want you to be ripped off by nice salesmen of shonky goods, used cars, cheap real estate and fake watches; or in the spiritual realm by cults and some televangelists. My experience is that perhaps a dozen people, tops, really love us, and act in our interest and care about us. That’s good and it makes life worthwhile. The rest of the 6 billion people on the planet are only being nice in order to get something. Now that’s Ok if it’s a fair trade. But sometimes its not a fair trade and we are being conned or used. In which case we get disappointed. You cannot trust the 6 billion like you trust the twelve. You need to be careful and cautious and wise.

By nature I am a positive, faith-filled optimist who loves seeing people achieve and being involved in big projects and grand schemes. Unfortunately I am nearly always way too optimistic and trusting and I need help with the details. So I value the input of people who can help me see reality. I have needed to adopt the solution-focused thinking mentioned earlier in the book and to meticulously look at the data and ask tough realistic questions if I am to make the impossible, possible in the real world. There is a balance between say, believing in everyone/selecting the best possible staff; or between seeing all things as possible / and choosing projects that are wise, sane and profitable and which will not bankrupt Frontier Servants.

The questions I find most helpful in digging out reality are:

· Who profits?

· What is their track record?

· What is this leading to?

· Why do they want me in particular?

· If I look at their actions alone, separate from their words and stated policies, what picture do I get?

· What are the statistics on this? (business opportunity etc.) Are they showing the stats to me? Are the stats they are showing me reliable and verifiable

· How much extrapolation is going on here? Am I taking a little acceptance to mean total acceptance or a little profit as an indicator of great riches to come? Am I just daydreaming?

· What percentage of people who do this are truly successful? Are the trainers and speakers rich and everyone else poor? Does the business itself generate money or does talking about it generate the money and the business itself is a scam?

· What are the obvious, logical interests of this person/group of people?

· What about the big four areas of self-interest which are money, sex, power and status; are they involved in this, if so, how?

· What do they want from me? Can I deliver those expectations? Should I deliver those expectations?

· Will I get a fair deal at the end of the day?

The above questions may seem at first to have little to do with our emotions. But they do have a lot to do with avoiding disappointment on one hand and not becoming overly cynical on the other. They are questions that will bring you to the truth of the matter and help you get in contact with reality, which is ALWAYS good for us emotionally. These questions do not have to give negative answers. You may indeed find out that you will profit, that it is a fair deal, they do really like you and they are reliable, honest people with a good track record. If so go good! Go for it! The above questions will help you sort out the wheat from the chaff and the rogues from the rest. They will enable you to lead a less ripped off life and guide you to worthwhile and profitable areas to spend your time, money and life energy. In fact I regularly watch the investment channel CNBC, which is a bit weird for a missionary who has no investments of any sort. I do this because I want to find out how realistic and successful people think. The interviews on leadership and the tough questions people ask and the emphasis on facts and data are healthy for me as I am someone who needs to come down to earth regularly and not get lost in my nice, comfortable but thoroughly impractical theological speculations.

Other than being conned by others we can be conned by ourselves. We can mistake mere politeness for genuine love or being given a position on a committee for genuine acceptance. We project our own faith and hopefulness into the situation. We extrapolate and we build castles in the air. We build expectations of love and warmth and hope and success that go way beyond the facts, and that this world may not deliver on. Pride and vanity alter our ability to objectively look at ourselves and our plans and others. Pride and vanity puff us up so that it becomes painful to be honest with ourselves and hard to look reality in the face. We need to come to a “sober estimate”, not a wildly projected estimate, of ourselves and of reality. When we have a fair idea of who we are we and who others are we can see past flattery and politeness simply accepting them as normal social nonsense. We can then instead listen to the real heart values and concerns of those around us. We can hear what they are really saying. We can learn to cope with the truth; which well may be that “we are mainly selfish and only love you a little bit”. If we are to perceive the emotions of other people truly and understand and communicate with them well, and attain to a high biblical EQ, then we must be humble and meek to hear what is really there.

But what will this do to our self-esteem? If we cannot con ourselves how do we stay happy? If we have to face the truth, such as “we are mainly selfish and only love you a little bit” - is that worth believing? Why not stay with the illusion? Living in touch with reality is far more emotionally functional and will eventually cause your self-esteem to grow and you become more successful. How? I’ll give you a common example from Christian culture.

Christian workers ask people to pray for them and support them and they get a lot of positive vibes. With even a little bit of extrapolation they may think “All these people love me and hundreds of people will pray for me and support me, they really care for me”. Buoyed up by all this they become euphoric and surge into ministry on cloud nine. They perceive the emotions of others as being altruistic, positive, caring and full of love. Everyone is nice and they are happy. But six months later there is a huge crash. People forgot to pray, and people didn’t support, and people were just being nice. It wasn’t real. Your brochures went in the bin. So bitterness overtakes the Christian worker. Anger and resentment rise to the surface. All those broken promises hurt and they hurt badly. If the Christian worker is lucky they wake up and say: “That’s life, I should not have expected a fallen world to be that nice. I’ll divide my supporters into three groups. Those I know well and who I know want all the details about what I am doing, then those who I think will support regularly but are not terribly interested in the details of the ministry, then the flaky ones who will support me once or twice then give up. I’ll divide my effort proportionately and expect my prayer support and human understanding from the first group, my economic support from the second group and a bit extra now and then from the third group but I will not rely on them”. Thus the Christian worker adjusts to reality, takes a sober and realistic view of people, and works out how to move forward in a solution-focussed way. They succeed. Life stabilizes, and ministry happens, and self-esteem grows. Reality is good for you.

What’s Going On Here?

One of the big barriers to correctly reading the emotions of another person is that we cannot understand how on earth they could possibly react that way. We make light of reality of the other person’s emotions. People may react in immature ways but we still need to try and understand the source of their immaturity. Writing someone off as “just unspiritual” without understanding why they are unspiritual does not contribute to the solution. It only contributes to the problem. Lets take the teenage “you don’t love me” explosion as a classic case. The teenager stomps to their room, slams the door and accuses their parents of not loving them. Why? Is it a means of gaining emotional distance so they can feel free to grow up? Are they hurting and disappointed over a personal matter and were not listened to at home? Writing off the reaction as unspiritual or trying to cast out the demon of rebellion out will only make things worse and rob the parents of insight and understanding and valuable relationship building opportunities. Humouring the reaction then searching for understanding is far more profitable.

· Firstly acknowledge the emotion as real. It may seem bizarre but it is never the less being expressed.

· Next, search for the concept that the person is acting on or reacting to. With the teenager the concept they are reacting to may be “you don’t listen and you don’t understand”.

· Try to put that concept in a single phrase or sentence. Once you have boiled down what they are reacting to in one sentence you have probably got the gist of the matter.

· Then ask “why have they come to that conclusion, is it a mistaken conclusion or a correct conclusion, and what can I do to help the matter?”

With those four simple steps you can go a long way to sorting through emotions. In addition bear in mind the three levels of a difficult conversation I mentioned earlier in this book – Facts, Feelings and Identity:

What are the facts of the situation?

How are they interpreting those facts and generating certain feelings?

What are they sensing about their identity – is their core being under threat in some way?

To sum up this chapter – as Christians we need to be sensitive to the emotions of others so we can minister grace to a fragile and hurting world. This means we need to be able to accurately read other people’s emotions. If our judgements are inaccurate it is often because of false positives or false negatives. We need to review our thinking patterns so they are both faith-filled and positive but also realistic and humble. Much can be gained by distilling the thought behind a person’s emotion into a single sentence. This sentence provides the key thought that they are acting on or reacting to. It can also help to ask about the facts, feelings and identity issues involved.

Once we have identified another person’s emotions we need to know how to respond appropriately. That is the next chapter.

Discussion Questions

1. How important is it for people in ministry to be accurately able to read the emotions of other people?

2. What are some of the main ways in which we make errors in judging other people’s emotions?

3. Jesus “knew what was in the hearts of men”; what do you think this must have been like for Him?

4. What is a “false negative’? How does it come about? How can we overcome our tendencies to think people do not like us?

5. What is a false positive? What are some of the dangers from false positives? How can being realistic in our expectations improve our Christian life?

6. Jesus and the prophets often distilled a person’s attitude into a single sentence beginning with a phrase something like “In your hearts you think…”. Pick four well-known people such as movie stars and try to put in one sentence what they might be thinking in their hearts.