Make People Happier by Acknowledging That They’re Not Feeling Happy.

Sometimes, an idea sounds so simple, and so non-controversial, that it takes a while to appreciate how important and helpful it is.

I found this to be true about a happiness-project resolution I made after reading the brilliant parenting book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. In it, the authors Faber and Mazlish suggest acknowledging the reality of other people’s feelings: instead of denying feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance. articulate the other person’s point of view. In other words, Make people happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. I had no idea how often I contradicted other people’s assertions of their feelings until I tried to quit. “You always have fun when we go.” “You should be thrilled, this is great news.” “It won’t be that much work.”

I had the opportunity to put this resolution into action just yesterday, over a minor issue that could nevertheless have turned into a big pain. We’ve had a lot of snow here in New York City, and I wanted my younger daughter to wear her snow boots to school, but she wanted to wear sneakers. (Why do children always resist wearing appropriate gear?) I could tell by the warning signs that she was on the brink of getting very riled up. Without this resolution, I would have answered her protests with a stream of contradictions: “The boots aren’t uncomfortable,” “You’ve worn them before, and they felt fine,” etc. Instead, the conversation went like this:

“I don’t want to wear those boots. They don’t feel comfortable.”
“It’s wet and snowy out, so you need to wear the boots, but you’d rather not.”
“I don’t want to wear the boots.”
“You wish you could wear your sneakers.”
“I don’t want to take my sneakers in a bag, I want to wear them.”
“You just don’t feel like wearing these boots today! They aren’t as comfortable to wear for the long walk to school.”

Then she calmly put on the boots. Really.

Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. That sure seemed to be what happened. Also, on my side, it’s much more pleasant to feel calm, agreeable, and understanding.

This principle is just as true for adults. Recently, I undertook a MAJOR household project. Which, I admit, I did with about zero grace – but I did do it. My husband was well aware of my simmering resentment. Just before I was about to start the biggest part of it, he looked around and remarked, “Well, this doesn’t look like it will be too tough.” Wrong thing to say! Probably, he thought he was being comforting or encouraging. Instead, he enraged me. It would have been better to have acknowledged my feelings, by saying something like, “Wow, this looks like a huge job, it’s great that you’re going to do this.” Plus it never hurts to give me some gold stars.

I’ve found, too, that when other people deny or ignore my feelings, I tend to keep repeating myself (i.e., whining), because I think my feelings haven’t registered. So, for example, maybe my husband doesn’t want to talk about my irksome problems with my email, and I don’t even particularly feel like talking about it, but until I get my “Wow, that must be so annoying,” I can’t let it go.

Have you found that acknowledging bad feelings allows them to dissipate better?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* The other day, I posted about the resolution to Ask yourself: What did you do for fun when you were 10 years old? On that topic, here’s a short news clip about Michael Giacchino — a spectacular example of someone turning a childhood passion for music and film into a career.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and each weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email in-box. Sign up here or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com (don’t forget the “1”).

  • Jpjohnso0

    This makes sense. You need your own feelings validated. See here for how researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were – and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. http://www.slate.com/id/2282620/

  • LivewithFlair

    I love that book, Gretchen. It completely transformed my parenting! Just saying to my daughter, “You seem really frustrated,” eases her. It’s amazing how just acknowledging another person’s feelings helps so much. Thank you! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I’ve read that book about five times, and am ready to re-read it again.
      And it’s such a pleasure to read, not just useful information.

  • Mary B

    I’ve found that after I make a statement of sympathy of how my husband must feel after coming home from work that he feels so validated that he will go on and on and get himself worked up even more. People’s emotions are tied into their point of view of a situation and sometimes they need to see that there is a different point of view that is also valid. I give him about 20 minutes and then either change the subject or find an excuse to leave the room. Since it’s no fun talking to yourself, he usually finds something to do that takes his mind off of his bad day.

    • gretchenrubin

      Good point. You don’t want to assist someone in ruminating over something
      upsetting.

  • Wow, I just had an “aha” moment! I find, I, too will repeat myself, and I wondered why I was doing it. Like you said, it is because I sometimes feel like my feelings aren’t being registered! I will have to tell my husband that next time I repeat myself, please let me know you heard me.

  • So true! A very simple concept, yet so often we don’t even think to do this in everyday life.

  • Tracy

    Thanks for sharing your experience Gretchen! This one practice in parenting has had THE most impact in my relationship with my son. I’m about to facilitate a book club for parents on “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene, and practicing empathy/sympathy is a cornerstone of the author’s strategy. Other books that encourage and outline how to do this:
    “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” by John Gottman (love him!)
    “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell (love these two too)
    And I love how you admit how hard this is because it is. So hard. It’s not instinctive for me and remembering to do it is the hardest part.
    Thanks!! Have a great weekend!

  • Vnordstrom

    You know partly what’s so refreshing about this is that you admit your own shortcomings or quirks or whatever you’d call them. You get cross and admit it. You want your aggravation acknowledged. You get grouchy when you’re hungry. We all do, but as adults tend to rationalize it all away, want to be who we think we ought to be rather than just who we are. Thanks for the honesty first of all. love, Val (someone who gets on a real pity party when too tired)

  • Kathy

    This is so true! I learned long ago to say to an upset child, “You are upset.” Just saying it, got a lot of them to calm down. When you talked with your daughter, you helped her think through the situation herself without having to make her feelings more known. Everyone likes to be recongized…

  • GaryInToronto

    As a someone who went through a serious bout of depression for most of last year, I can attest to the fact that it helps when people acknowledge what you are feeling rather than ignoring you (which further enhanced my depression) or telling you to just be happy. You don’t want to be enabled; you want to be acknowledged and supported. My co-workers ignored me and isolated me, my friends at my local pub listened and suggested paths to help me get better. My therapist is a friend of one my pub buddies.

    Simply telling people to “think positive” makes you feel as if your pain is not real.

    • Dee

      Absolutely. Depression lends itself to intense feelings of isolation – which even the most well-meaning of people will exacerbate it they try to lead you down the “cheer up it ain’t so bad” path.
      You want someone to acknowledge and understand your reality – otherwise how can they possibly assist?
      There’s a reason why a lot of good therapists can understand and articulate so well when helping you – they’ve been there themselves and they get it.
      I’ve had a really close and well-meaning buddy try to impose her cheerful worldview upon me in a misguided attempt to help – but right now my depression is severe and I’ve have had to add her to my list of ‘people that aren’t helping my recovery and should be avoided’ list. Which is a real shame.

  • Peninith1

    SO wish I had this advice when my kids were small. My older one, especially! But much later, when he was in his 20s, I tried just reflecting back or simply listening acceptingly as he launched a very long tirade while in the middle of a depressed episode. It was agonizing to just sit and receive . . . and yet, after about 40 minutes of replaying old resentments, he said “I don’t know WHY I’m talking about this, it happened 14 YEARS ago,” and began to calm down. Sometimes it takes people quite a long time to be able to hear themselves! But truly, this way of listening affirmatively can be helpful with upset adults as well as with resisting grade-schoolers!!!

  • Ella

    Yes, yes, yes! This always works with my child. Whenever something happens or he is forced to do something he does not want to do just saying look I know this isn’t working for you and that you are angry so I’m sorry for that, really seems to cool him off and make him feel better. It’s funny because my mother-in-law who I like in many ways has over the top nervous energy that permeates our entire home and does and says a lot of hurtful things (petty really) and my husband flat out refuses to allow me to say a thing to him after she leaves. He says he prefers not to see it. I find it builds up resentment in me whereas if he would just acknowledge that it must be hard for me (the truth is when he was living at home with her energy used to make him hop in the car and drive clear across town to my house to get away from it!) I would probably stop noticing her stuff!

  • Trish

    This makes so much sense. It’s so obvious, really, when you think about it. We just want people to understand, to acknowledge our pain – and not just minimize it or dismiss us. Really great point!

  • Sue

    I think that this is also the reason why the “blanket apology” is no apology at all! Unless we feel like the other person truly has a handle on WHY we’re upset or WHAT they did that they’re apologizing for, we have ZERO confidence: a) that they’re truly sorry and, b) that they won’t repeat it, because they’re not sure what it was. Good to remember when the tables are turned, as well…

  • Shelley

    Interesting that you could tell her what she was feeling, but she didn’t perceive it as permission to wear the sneakers. How did you do that? (Not that I need to know – I don’t have kids to tell how to dress). I hated my galoshes as a child – cool girls just didn’t wear them,or carry umbrellas for that matter. I think they were just waterproof.

  • Debbie

    I can so identify with this! I think this ties in with the “you can’t pick what you like/dislike” idea for me too. If I am complaining about something that others don’t find annoying (ex. having too much time on my hands, being bored), they make comments about how great it would be or wish they had that problem. Meanwhile, I get fed up that no one is understanding me and I feel more isolated and left out. Thank you for putting words to a feeling that’s been bugging me!

  • This is very true. Whenever I complain to my boyfriend about something I find frustrating he always seems to think I’m telling him my problems because I want him to fix them for me. He’ll start throwing out all sorts of random suggestions which drives me nuts because I really only want him to listen and acknowledge my feelings.

  • LSB

    The withering response my parent used if I was upset about something or protesting: “Don’t be ridiculous.” Right. Now I”m not only upset, I’m ridiculous. Never worked…

  • Nicola Henderson

    Yep, spot on. When I acknowledge my 9-year-old son’s anger or frustration, it defuses the situation every time. As you say, it’s the same with adults. When we feel supported and heard, there’s nothing to fight against and we can relax into relief.

  • Eileen

    I love this post. It is true. It is counterintuitive. It is necessary.

  • This is very insightful, Gretchen, and not just for children! I use this in the workplace, too. Usually when someone complains about too many meetings, it gives rise to office oneupsmanship, where everyone wants to complain that they have it worse. I find that if I say, “Wow, today must be really difficult for you with so many meetings!” the complainer gets less short-tempered and more willing to spend a minute on what I’d like them to pay attention to.

  • Rose Sell

    I read this book when my oldest child was a year old. I had forgotten some of the great stuff in it. I try to acknowledge my children’s feelings but find myself starting to say “Don’t be Ridi-” when I am tired or just not being mindful!

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    I’m a beginner on this one… I have a LOT to learn, but have tried it a little bit when I heard you mention it before. I need to keep on going! I think I may buy the book, too.

  • It’s showing empathy. When we acknowledge their feelings, it makes them feel listened to and heard, even if you can’t or won’t do anything to change the situation.
    Great post Gretchen!
    Bernice
    Letting go of who I thought I was supposed to be

  • jenny_o

    Having someone acknowledge our feelings in a compassionate way is so much more effective than having them dismiss the feelings or try to solve our problems for us.

    We need to be heard and understood before we can start to find our own solutions or just be at peace with what must be.

  • Hilary Gan

    I think this is important to do for yourself, too.

  • Exactly! To be truly happy, we must honor all our feelings. Being a happy person doesn’t mean “feeling” happy all the time. So much wisdom here!

  • Frankchambers

    Great post! I am going to watch out for those moments when I can turn someone’s negative emotions around by agreeing with them.

    Frank Chambers
    http://www.frankchambers.com

  • What you described is called active listening. I took a training session in this a number of years ago and found that it can work absolute miracles when dealing with conflict. Not only does it diffuse tension, but it can make it a LOT easier to deal with someone who is angry without internalizing that anger.

    One difficulty is acknowledging the others feelings without encouraging the feelings – I see that difficulty in some of the comments already made, and in the dialogue you posted, you managed to avoid that problem. I think that the key there was the use of “You feel/wish/want”.

    The hardest part I had with this was always being the one to listen, and ending up never being the one being listened to.

    • Catica

      And… To take it a step further… Active listening is really just another example of really being IN the moment, paying attention to what is really happening right in front of you rather than absent-mindedly staying focussed on your own task (getting the boots on your child, etc.)

  • Sunshinecook

    I read that book cover-to-cover as an 18 year-old nanny an again as a 30 year-old mom. This advice applies to an ASTONISHING number of situations, all the way from the president trying to pull off an “I feel your pain” message in the first state of the union after the financial collapse to my conversation with my 3 year-old last night:
    Her: “I wish I had a PLAYGROUND in my house [tearing up]”
    Me: “You wish we had a playground in our house? Wow, that would be amazing.”
    Her: [sniff]
    Me: A playground right in the house!
    Her: In the house!
    Me: Let’s go to the playground tomorrow.
    Her: [delighted] OKAY!!

  • There is something about having your reality accepted that is deeply calming. If there is no resistance you don’t have to push. It’s amazing how easy it is to say that and how hard it is to do.

  • Stacey

    Yes! I’ve also found that acknowledging the “hard” feelings almost always has a magical effect of releasing them into the ether. But not always.

    And when it doesn’t I’ve realized that it’s my judgment – my thinking about it – that’s making the situation hard. If I feel I’m right that means my kid is wrong and that energy never feels good for anybody.

    Yes, I wish my kid would wear “appropriate attire” but when he doesn’t want to I simply pack the things I think he’ll need later (dry socks and shoes if he doesn’t wear the boots) and that works well for everyone.

    Really, I’ve noticed that *doing* whatever it is I think someone else should do takes a whole lot less time and energy than *thinking* those negative thoughts and feeling the negative emotions they generate.

  • You are so right! I just read that part in your book two days ago and found myself nodding along. I don’t have my own children, but I am an intermediate teacher and have learned over the years that almst nothing settles an angry, frustrated 13 year old faster than agreeing with them, “You’re right. Math stinks. This question is really hard.” Somehow, validating how they feel gives many kids the gentle push needed to pick up the pencil again.

  • Librealma

    While I acknowledge your point of view, I have found that as long as I depend on others to acknowledge how I feel, I place them in control of my happiness. It has taken many experiences with people who have made the decision to not acknowledge when they hurt others, including me, to realize that my happiness comes from acknowledging my own feelings. For me, happiness does not originate from waiting and depending on others to do this for me.

  • Susan

    This was a major revelation to me also! My normally intelligent and responsible daughter went through a behavioral rough patch in middle school – not caring, rebellious, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc. I tried reason, punishment, yelling, rewards – well, nothing worked and our relationship became unbearable. This was when I read every adolescent parenting book around and discovered listening and acknowledging. Wow, it seemed so simple and although not a magic pill, it really worked. I kept that attitude and it has made me a much better parent. I have to admit it does not work as well on my son, boys just don’t seem as forthcoming with feelings. Something to look at.

  • PNW Gal

    I LOVE How to Talk and How to Listen…..to the parent who said it worked less well with boys, one of my parent ed instructors said with boys it helps to be in a side-by-side conversation (like in the car) or on a walk or while doing an activity like yard work when having conversations with boys because they responds better when there is less eye-contact and an activity to work on while talking.

  • hmm thanks G. good advice.
    Have also been teaching my children not to complain (easier said than done..complaining is a childhood accessory). Ask for a solution, come up with one yourself, but don’t just moan. No one likes it. Trust me on this.
    And really when adults complain, i listen, then say so what do you intent doing about it? Stops the whining, pretty much, straight away as they then turn their minds on to finding a solution.

  • Reading How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk is one of the best things I ever did, after I read about it in The Happiness Project. Like you, I had that, oh, duh, moment when I thought about how many times I deny my stepdaughter’s feelings, and a whole host of other folks. It’s hard to remember, but once you get in the habit, so much easier to just say, “Yeh, it sucks to get up in the morning” when she’s complaining about getting up for school rather than trying to argue her out of what she’s feeling. Easier on me and on her. Love, love, love that book.

  • We all desire to be happy most of the time, but there are some times when you are not. Accepting this in us and others is essential.

    Thanks for this great post!

    Krizia

  • Hmmm … I don’t think my comment showed so I’ll try again.

    We all want to be happy most of the time, but there are sometimes when we’re just not. It’s important to accept this in us and others!

    The goal is to be happy 99% of the time, but that 1% is also happy because something being blue makes appreciate the times when life is high even more!

    Thanks for this great post.

    Krizia

  • Bryahnn

    I work with teenagers, so I know this is especially true for them. Everytime I lean over a kid and acknowledge what they are feeling, they calm down and focus nearly immediatly. We all need to be told that somebody notices us.

  • Maxi

    Here is an allied issue.

    When I want to express a feeling, I just want to express it. I usually don’t want a suggestion on how to “fix” the problem. I may well know what to do next, or maybe it’s not really fixable. Whatever, I just want to express my feeling.

    My husband almost always thinks it is loving to give a suggestion on what I could make the situation better.

    Like I say: Oh this computer is sooo annoying!
    He responds: Look why don’t you try doing X, Y or Z.

    NOOOOO, that is not the point. I know what the options are anyway. I just want validation that yeah, I am annoyed and yeah computers are annoying, that’s all. A fix isn’t loving, it adds to my frustration. I just want to hear that he gets that I am annoyed and understands.

    But that is not how he shows caring. Sigh. He so doesn’t get it.

    • Edra_fehr

      You can help him ‘get it’.  Next time, say something like, “I’m just venting; keeps me from throwing the thing out the window.  If you really want to help, carry it over there for me!”  lol. A little humor dissipates my anger and gets the message across that this isn’t a ‘real’ problem that he needs to protect me from.

  • Oliver

    Part of me really wants to show this to my mother, who invalidates my feelings whenever I try to talk to her about them. She’s in denial and it really hurts. I’ve gone to professors and to a peer support adovcate to talk about everything and none of them have ever doubted what I’m going through. They’ve become my support network and a part of my chosen family. Fortunately, my mom has agreed to let me see a psychologist, although she wants more than one opinion on me. I find this absurd, as who better to advocate for myself than myself? *sigh*
    Hopefully the psychologist will help me think of ways to improve my relationship with my mom.
    /endrant (thanks for listening)

  • Stephen Covey mentions a similar technique in his “7 Habits…” book. I think he calls it empathetic listening. After I read that I realized just how often I’m listening only in order to respond with my own thoughts, or to try and come up with something that makes the other person feel better, but rarely listening in a way that actually acknowledges what’s really going on with that person. Your post is a really great and practical reminder of this!

  • I facilitate parenting workshops on How To Talk…. using the workbook, hand-outs,etc. and parents rave about the effect that simply acknowledging children’s negative feelings can have on diffusing the battle. This is an extremely powerful communication skill. It’s amazing how when people (adults as well) first feel acknowledged and then understood, intense feelings drop down a notch and the real problem-solving can begin to take place without all the reactive and explosive feelings.
    Great post and so important!! This is obviously resonating with loads of people, as seen by all the comments.

  • My favorite parenting book too and I agree that this can be applied to everyone not just kids. I have the copies of some pages out of this book on my bulletin board!

  • I’ve been using this the last couple of days, and it works! Thank you.

  • Very true! Today my son kept saying “I don’t want to go to school”

    Have you ever read the book, “Parenting with Love and Logic’ ? It’s one of my favorites. I read it before I became a parent while working in an elementary classroom.

    The authors suggest responding to a childs repetative complaints/jabs/etc. with an “I know” or “What a bummer” as a way to let them know they’re being heard without being drawn into an emotional battle.

    Even so, it’s difficult to listen to the complaining/challenging behavior and retain your personal zen state of happiness

  • Jansonsjeanette

    After countless conversations where my husband complained that I repeat myself (which unfortunately is true) I told him straight out

    “when I repeat myself, I don’t want solutions or suggestions, just to get my feelings out in the open and for you to HEAR me.” I try to extend the same courtesy back too.

  • Amanda

    My difficult person (MIL) is this person. She never acknowledges feelings about situations. She makes you feel worse because she minimizes or even makes you feel guilty about how you feel and then tells you what you SHOULD feel instead. How do you deal with a person like that? I lash out and say mean things that I know will irritate her and I know that is wrong. Maybe I need to acknowledge her feelings and then she will do the same? The problem is this is what drives her kids up the wall too.
    I too repeat my complaints until I feel the person who needs to acknowledge the feelings does so in a way I feel they get it.