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Nothing Personal: To Talk About Emotions Or Not?

“Nothing Personal,” a film from the Dutch / Polish director Urszula Antoniak ( ), presents beautiful images but few words. For this reason, Bor Beekman characterizes the movie, in his recent review in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, as a “plea for unspoken feelings, which seem to be of much greater value than the ballast of all those little facts and pieces of information that the average person is carrying with her.”

The movie does show us that words aren’t necessary for the cautious beginning of a relationship between the two main characters. Maybe there was no other way for them, due to the implied traumatic experiences in their pasts. Their mutual trust grows on the basis of small agreements (e.g., no personal questions: “Nothing personal”), humor, delicate touches, and small attentions. But finally it seems to be unsatisfying for each of them to know so little about each other. Both try – without the awareness of the other – to discover information about the past of the other. When one of them dies, and leaves behind only a short note, the lack of talking (and of deeper contact) seems to hit the one who is left behind alone all the more.

People often don’t dare to talk about the really difficult issues and painful experiences in a relationship. There is a fear that emotions will be unmanageable and escalation could get out of hand. Thus, in mediation, people often get the advice that it is better to leave painful past experiences out of the discussion, and to focus their attention instead on what both have in common and what could connect them rather than keep them apart. In this way – so the idea goes – the parties could more easily leave their conflict behind and focus on a hopeful future. The path for constructive negotiations on mutual agreements is thus considered open.

But how helpful will that be in conflicts that really matter, especially those that are about people and issues that are really important to you?

Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861- 1937), a writer and psychoanalyst who had serious relationships with members of the European intellectual elite of her time (such as Friedrich Nietsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud and Paul Rée) said the following in her autobiography about her relationship with her husband:

“We were bound by so many common inclinations and interests. In general, it seems to me the value of this is overestimated. Of course it builds bridges, gives pleasure, and leads to shared work, but just as often it simply glosses over personal differences and disparities rather than allowing people see another clearly and thus draw together more profoundly…” [Andreas-Salomé, L. (1995). Looking back: Memoirs: The intimate story of her friendships with Nietsche, Rilke & Freud (p. 143). New York: Marlow.]

Thus, – if the relationship is really important – it is also necessary to focus on just those difficult differences, or as Carl Gustav Jung calls them, the delicate and dangerous topics:

“The first rule … is to talk in the greatest detail about all the things that are the most ticklish and dangerous, and the most misunderstood” [Bair, D. (2003). Jung: A Biography (p. 452). New York: Black Bay.]

A similar point was made by opera director Peter Konwitschny in an interview about the opera Salomé by Richard Strauss:

“… You need to go to the cause of the pain in order to be able to overcome it. That will be a very painful process itself. If it becomes nice and beautiful too early, you will not reach a real solution. It will be just a bandage, and you will treat only the surface or superficial issues…” (NRC 13/11/2009, 13)

On the other hand, just venting and laying all the negativity upon the table could also be risky. According to Bill Noonan, an OD consultant following the school of Chris Argyris, the worst possible advice to give to an HR professional or a consultant (and also, I would suggest, for a mediator):

“Telling someone or a group of people to have a difficult and candid conversation about a company’s undiscussable … Like poking a dangerously large creature with a pointed stick, it will only create agitation and the result is usually disastrous. Too often, human resource executives and consultants call together a dysfunctional team or division and tell them to get everything out on the table. Soon, everyone lets it rip and there is blood on the floor. The aftermath of sore feelings, escalated tension and further entrenched views only serves as a confirmation that the undiscussable should remain undiscussable.” [Noonan, B. (2007). Discussing the undiscussable: A guide to overcoming defensive routines in the workplace. San Francisco: John Wiley.]

The result of a “venting” discussion will be only ‘blood on the floor’ and confirmation of the idea that sensitive, emotional issues are best not discussed. Just venting emotions is risky because our emotions often reflect our wounded pride and wounded ego’s, our anxieties, and our unreflected impulses. It could easily be overwhelming for the other (‘flooding’) and elicit a defensive reaction in the other, either a neglect response (‘denying or minimizing’) or an exit response (“stonewalling”, physical or psychological avoiding or withdrawal). This could be the start of a self preserving, destructive communication pattern or spiral.

Talking of emotions requires some kind of communication skill and maybe some guidance from a third party. One needs help in order to dig deeper than the (more superficial and instrumental) secondary emotions, such as complaints and accusations, to reach the deeper, real important emotions, which motivate our interaction with other people.

The question is not: ‘To talk about emotions or not?’ but rather, ‘How to have a conversation about emotional issues?’ and ‘How could a third party assist in such a conversation?’ This will be an issue for another blog.


Hugo Prein

Dr. Prein was for 34 years an Associate Professor for Conflict Management, Mediation, Intervention, and Group Facilitation at the Department of Social and Organization Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His lifelong research interest has been the effectiveness of third party conflict intervention strategies and the intervention competencies of… MORE >

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