Talking thoughts or talking feelings - does it matter?
How to use language to influence thoughts and feelings
By Mark Tyrrell
In a previous instalment of the Hypnosis Master Series I wrote about how to talk to the unconscious mind - how to use metaphor and a kind of 'parallel conversation' to address, in effect, different parts of a person's mind. Now I will focus on how to appeal to emotional thinkers as opposed to cognitive thinkers.
Nowadays we tend to use the expressions "I think" and "I feel" interchangeably, as if talking about what you feel is exactly the same as discussing what you think. Of course, thoughts do affect emotions, and emotions most definitely can affect the quality of your thoughts.
For example, the emotions of anger, fear and depression tend to make our thinking more basic, simplistic and black-and-white. When we are calmer, we are able to think in more sophisticated ways, seeing multiple possible perspectives and taking account of the bigger picture.
Many years ago I worked as a telephone charity fundraiser. We would call known supporters of the charity and ask them to make a regular donation. I remember being specifically instructed not to ask what people thought about giving £5 of their hard-earned income to the charity every month, but only what they felt about it.
This raises an interesting question.
Does it really make any difference whether what you say is couched in 'thinking' or 'feeling' terms?
Does using the language of thought affect the brain in a different way from using the language of feeling?
Personally, to use the language of feeling right here :-) , I love it when principles I have noticed and utilised in my own work are validated by research.
For example, I have for many years been deliberately using 'thinking' words to calm a client when working with them to lift a phobia, or deal with post-traumatic stress. I and my colleagues have found this a very effective way to calm people right down.
It's not that people should never express any negative emotion, because of course sometimes they need to offload, but when helping someone re-process traumatic memories or get free of a terrifying phobia it's vital to keep as much feeling as possible out of that part of the therapy.
So when a client becomes upset, rather than going for that old cliché:
"How does that make you feel?"
(a question only too likely to get them more emotional), we can ask them what they think about something, how they'd weigh something up, or how they would analyse it.
To stimulate their 'thinking brain' even more, I might ask them to scale in numbers how soon they want to get better.
Appealing to someone's thinking brain during times like this can have a strangely diluting effect on the emotion, because it's hard to be fully aware of what you think and what you feel at the same time.
Conversely, when you want someone to stop using their rational and cognitive skills, the way to do it is to get them feeling really emotional. This is what bullies and cults tend to do to their victims.
What the researchers found
Now, about that research. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin back in 2010 found that the seemingly unimportant distinction between whether you couch your message in feeling or thinking terms can actually influence the power of your persuasive message. (1)
In their study, psychologists Nicole Mayer and Zakary Tormala first assessed the natural tendencies of the 65 participants to think either cognitively or emotively. This enabled them to establish which participants tended to describe their experiences with reference to feelings - whether those feelings were unpleasant or pleasant, scary or comforting, and so forth - and which participants generally experienced their world with reference to thoughts, perhaps categorizing things as useful or useless or harmful or beneficial, and so on.
The subjects were then given a persuasive message to read about donating blood. Two versions of this message were used, identical in argument but different in language. One version used the word 'think' to present the arguments, while the other used 'feel'. Afterwards each participant was asked how likely they were to donate blood in the future.
Those who tended to process experience in cognitive terms were more persuaded to give blood when the message was framed using 'think'. Those who responded to their experience through emotions were more persuaded when the 'feel' word was used.
This suggests that if you want to persuade someone, it's useful to know whether they are a 'thinker' or a 'feeler' and then target your message accordingly.
If you don't already know which they are, the easiest way to find out is to listen for whether they describe the world cognitively or emotionally. Of course, everyone to some extent does both, but a surprising number of people generally swing more one way than the other.
The researchers found that women who read a review for a movie they hadn't seen were more convinced that they too would like to see it if the reviewer wrote in terms of "I feel... " whereas many more men were convinced by "I think" words. But the important thing here is that the message was the same.Only the way it was expressed was subtly different. Rationality isn't better or worse than emotionality, any more than the first gear is better or worse than the fourth gear in a car. Which one you use depends on the context, and it's the same for thinking and feeling.
So a great way to build rapport with someone, and therefore more easily influence and persuade them, is to listen for the extent to which they use emotion-laden or rationality-laden language and use it back to them.
Which part to appeal to
If someone says something to me like: "Oh I don't know, it was just such a happy and beautiful afternoon!" I have two ways to respond. If they are struggling with their emotions, I might aim to calm things down by asking, "Okay, so what do you think was so good about that afternoon?", thus moving the focus from feeling to thoughts. On the other hand, if I want to build more rapport with that person, I might say something like: "Wow! So that afternoon felt really happy and beautiful. Can you get a sense of how that felt even now?" In that instance I would be connecting with them more and possibly helping them feel those good feelings right now, rather than diluting them with too much rational thought.
When communicating with someone it's really valuable to know which part of them you are really appealing to: their feelings or their thoughts. This is not to say that thoughts and feelings don't mix and blend. A really good communicator will alternate between appealing to your emotions and thoughts. But it's also true that sometimes we need to focus more exclusively on feelings and at other times more on rationality. For example, if you are having a romantic first date with someone you have feelings for... well, let's just say you don't necessarily want to be appealing exclusively to their logical, rational and analytical mind - at least, not if you want them to really enjoy themselves! Likewise, when someone is trying to work out their tax returns or calculate their monthly budget, too much feeling and emotion will just get in the way.
Knowing how and when to let feelings reign and how and when to use more dispassionate thought is one of the keys to being a fulfilled and effective human being. Feelings aren't always irrational, and logic and rationality certainly don't always lead to better outcomes. Just to emphasize the point; as with everything, context is key.
So I've talked about how 'think' words and 'feel' words appeal either to emotions or to calmer thoughts and how we can elicit responses from people and influence their experience by using feeling-laden or thought-laden language. It's possible to help people calm down with thinking-type language or to feel more connected with their emotions with feeling-laced words. We can also build rapport with people (and so be more persuasive) by first going for the type of language, whether more or less emotion-laden, that they themselves use. Try it! :-)
- Mayer, N.D., Tormala, Z.L., "Think" Versus "Feel" Framing Effects in Persuasion. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin April 2010 vol. 36 no. 4 443-454
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