Movius Consulting is working with select partners in our network to deliver innovative solutions to organizational conflict and problematic internal and external communication.One of our new projects is a workshop focused on teaching leaders, teams, and negotiators how to recognize and more effectively respond to subtle signs of emotional behavior, using a technique called emotion coding. Irena Djuric of Westwood International ( sat down with Joanna Chango of Movius Consulting to talk about emotion coding and the new workshop.

WI: Joanna, why is it so helpful to learn emotion coding?

JC: Learning to label emotional behaviors and how to respond to them more effectively can aid in problem solving. That’s one piece of it. There is a really elegant line of research coming out of MIT, showing that teams whose members are really sensitive to emotional cues tend to perform at a higher level. There’s also recent research from McKinsey that found that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams tend to display high-quality problem-solving skills, in terms of resolving team disputes or disputes with employees, and so on.

WI: Tell us about the emotion coding workshops you’ve developed. What can people expect?

JC: In each workshop, we teach people to detect subtle signs of emotion in one another. As a part of that, we also show them how to avoid common negative patterns of communication and give them strategies for responding more effectively to emotional behavior in others, instead of reacting impulsively or automatically.

WI: What happens during a typical workshop?

JC: In the first part of the workshop, we teach people to detect and label emotional behaviors. They learn what to focus on when they interact with others: things like facial features, body language, voice, and the content of what’s being said. They observe all of these things so they can label the emotional behaviors being displayed, which has been shown to reduce emotional reactivity in the person labeling the emotional behavior. But, we also suspect that if they can accurately label the behaviors, they can engage with them more effectively. We provide a lot of examples via video, have people practice making different facial expressions, and get them to a point where they’re really good observers.

Next, we teach behavioral sequences, or patterns of communication. For example, a common emotional behavior sequence is when people get caught in a cycle of criticism and defensiveness. When a boss offers a critical comment, for instance, it’s very common for people to respond to criticism with defensiveness. That’s part of human nature. But the problem with it is that it keeps the tension or conflict going; it doesn’t solve anything.

In the third section of the workshop, we talk about how to respond to these toxic emotional behaviors. For example, in a situation where a boss is offering a criticism, we teach people to catch themselves before responding defensively. We have them address the criticism with some other strategy that keeps the conversation going or resolves the conflict. Asking more open-ended questions (instead of responding defensively) is one possible strategy, but there are others. Different things work for different people, and we have very collaborative conversations about that.

WI: Tell us about the science behind these workshops.

JC: We rely heavily on a couple of different threads of scientific research. For example, you may have heard of a researcher named John Gottman from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, or from his work with newly wed couples. Applying his coding system, called the Specific Affect Coding System, Gottman is able to predict with 90% accuracy which couples will divorce and which couples will stay together, all based on the patterns they exhibit in conversation. Based on this research by Gottman, Jim Coan, and others, we’ve created a new coding system to make it relevant to the workplace. We call our version the Standardized Affective Recognition and Response (StARR) system and we teach it in our workshop.

WI: Emotional intelligence has been a popular topic for over two decades — how is this different?

JC: We are driven primarily by scientific research, and we rely heavily on that research to guide our teaching. Whereas the emotional intelligence movement approaches things from a place of self-awareness, we work from the opposite end: we teach people to notice concrete, observable behaviors in themselves and others. Then, when they can detect and correctly identify those behaviors, we teach them to respond strategically.

We believe that everyone can do this, given the right training and tools: anybody can become a successful emotional coder.

WI: What’s something people are surprised to learn in these workshops?

JC: There are a couple things we cover that are counterintuitive. For example, people are often surprised to learn that anger is not a bad thing if it’s used sparingly and is not very intense. Pure anger, which is very different from things like contempt or belligerence, can actually facilitate communication. It’s an emotional behavior that can promote problem solving, whereas something like contempt hinders problem solving because it’s so toxic to communication.

So pure anger, when not blended with any of the other more toxic emotion codes, can actually move a conversation forward. For example, a common anger statement we hear in a conversation where a person is being interrupted is, “Please let me talk,” or “Stop talking, and let me talk.” If that’s happening once or twice in a 30-minute conversation, it’s not going to be destructive. But if the anger blends with higher-level codes like belligerence, stonewalling, or contempt, then you’re going to have a problem.

WI: Who should participate in these workshops?

JC: These workshops are great for teams, small groups, and leaders who want to be better at engaging them. Teams don’t have to be limited to one company, either, and we can work with negotiating teams from a few different organizations. These workshops are ideal for smaller groups because it contains a lot of interactive discussion and exercises. 

WI: Do you customize workshops for different clients?

JC: Yes. We have the core material, but how we deliver it to clients is flexible. For example, we might do a half-day workshop to give people a “taste” of emotion coding, but then follow up with a two-day workshop where we teach people to become “mini-coders” skilled at labeling emotions. It really depends on a client’s needs.

WI: Joanna, thank you for taking the time to tell us more about your work. We’re excited to partner with you to deliver these workshops to clients!