Avoiding a collision between technology and emotion

We don't normally associate the term "emo" with IT.  In fact, emo is usually associated with a genre of emotionally-charged music listened to by unsmiling teenagers wearing lots of black.  As IT pros, however, we sometimes have to deal with end-users who are under pressure to accomplish a task right when some component of IT/IS fails.  Like the emo teenager, that end-user is probably not smiling and very much emotionally-charged.  That's when emotion and technology intersect.  It's also at that moment when our emotional intelligence skills can make the difference between a successful outcome or a disaster.

Emotional intelligence has become a frequently-heard buzzphrase in the last fifteen years, popularized by author Daniel Goleman in his books on emotional intelligence.  Another way to think of it is emotional maturity.  Regardless of the label you choose to apply, it boils down to three abilities.

1) Being able to identify emotions in yourself and others. 

Sometimes it's obvious how our end-users are feeling, but even when it seems obvious, we can still make a mistake.  Facial expressions don't always tell the whole story, nor do gestures.  It can be especially difficult to identify emotions when you're providing IT support via telephone and even more difficult in chat or email support sessions. 

Often, our questioning skills will help identify what and how our user is feeling.  I try to remember to ask open-ended questions to ensure I fully understand the problem.  I'm getting better at never presuming to know what the problem is.  I'm still working on waiting to offer a solution until I clearly understand what the problem is.  (Spousal rebukes and eyerolls have been a stern teacher.)

2) Being able to manage your own emotions. 

When I was a kid, my parents taught me to count to 10 before reacting, especially when I was angry.  (I should say they tried to teach me to count to 10 before reacting.  I'm still working on that, too.)  That's good advice.  A big part of successfully managing our own emotions lies in our ability to calm ourselves and step back before reacting.  I have a fairly sarcastic sense of humor and I've learned to squelch it when dealing with end-users.  What may seem obvious to me about working with a network share isn't necessarily obvious to my user. 

Another short-term technique is to use the stoplight metaphor where red means "stop", yellow means consider all my options, and green means choose the best one.  (By the way, these techniques take time and practice to master.  If you foobar it a few times, don't worry about it.  Just keep practicing until you get it.) 

One long-term solution appears to be meditation.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests people who meditate regularly are generally more calm and happy than those who don't.  Check out this article on Wired about Matthieu Ricard, often called the "happiest man in the world" or this more recent article in USA Today.  Meditation can take many forms, but one that seems to work even for non-meditators is 8 Minute Meditation, a practice developed by Victor Davich in which you sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for eight minutes every day.  (I have a very difficult time sitting still for 30 seconds, let alone eight minutes.  I have had some success, however, with Davich's technique.)

3) Being able to influence the emotions of others. 

If you have children or pets, you've probably observed how they mirror your energy level.  When you get excited, they get excited.  When you're calm, they're calm (or at least not as excited).  The same thing is true of our interactions with our end-users.  Our brains are actually wired to connect with each other.  When we approach a support session in a state of calm confidence, our end-user will pick up on our energy level and mirror it.  We certainly can't control the emotions of our end-users, but we can absolutely influence their emotions by managing our own emotions.  Author Daniel Goleman discussed how our brains are wired to connect in a talk on social intelligence, the next step after emotional intelligence, at authors@google.

You could say that a big part of successful end-user support boils down to just two things (besides technical competence):  Asking appropriate questions of the end-user and calming yourself.  Questioning ensures that we fully and clearly understand the issue.  Calming ourselves ensures that our end-users have confidence in us and that we make the right decisions.  Ultimately, when we handle IT support sessions correctly, we can turn around unsmiling, emotionally-charged end-users and prevent a collision at the intersection of technology and emotion.

Don R. Crawley is President/Chief Technologist at soundtraining.net, the Seattle IT training firm. A geek and nerdy kind of guy since sometime back in the 60s, today he pontificates at Computerworld, writes books for IT people, and speaks on command.

His full profile and disclosure are here. You can reach him at ftte@soundtraining.net.

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