Forging better relationships by understanding and adapting how you manage others' feelings

People have different preferences and tendencies when it comes to giving and receiving emotional support. Understanding these could be the key to developing stronger working relationships, according to a new project led by Professor Karen Niven.

A man with his eyes closed and his hands over his face.

Written by Professor Karen Niven.

Imagine you are going through a stressful life event, like a divorce, and you need to speak with a lawyer. How do you want that person to interact with you? Do you want them to focus purely on the problem and how to approach it, or do you want the lawyer to listen to you talk about the situation and how you are feeling about it to understand where you are coming from?

Interpersonal emotion regulation is the process of influencing someone else’s feelings. We use interpersonal emotion regulation in so many of our interactions with others, whether it’s comforting our child who fell over, trying to make a friend feel enthusiastic about our idea for a night out, winding up our neighbour in retaliation for their antisocial behaviour, or making our partner feel guilty for ignoring the mountainous washing pile.

In the workplace too, interpersonal emotion regulation is a regular feature of our exchanges with coworkers, managers, customers and clients, amongst others. Professor Karen Niven has developed a programme of research seeking to better understand interpersonal emotion regulation in the work context: how people do it, why, and what consequences it has for people’s wellbeing, their performance, and their relationships.

A key insight from this work is that there are differences in how people naturally relate to others and try to manage their feelings. Some people are ‘problem-oriented’ and focus on solving issues or reframing situations. Some people are ‘relationship-oriented’ and focus on empathy and validation. And some people are ‘emotion-oriented’ and just want to minimise the experience of emotion, for example, by distracting someone or telling them to ‘calm down’ or ‘cheer up’.

While some approaches to interpersonal emotion regulation might be more effective than others overall, how well an approach works will depend on how the person prefers for others to relate to them. Getting the approach right is particularly important when it comes to forming new relationships that need to be built on trust and respect, such as those between lawyers and their clients.

In her latest project, collaborating with colleagues at University of Manchester and a Liverpool-based law firm, Professor Niven is seeking to apply what she has learned in her research. Focusing on people’s natural tendencies towards using interpersonal emotion regulation as well as their preferences for how others support them emotionally, the goal of the project is to ensure a better match between clients and the lawyers to whom they are assigned. In doing so, the entire legal process can be better tailored to clients’ emotional needs.

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