Do you get irritated with or choose to block out colleagues, children, and friends who roll their eyes when you talk? Eye-rolling is actually a great opportunity to connect with others and catalyze a needed change.
The emotion behind eye-rolling
Eye-rolling is a physical representation of cynicism, and cynicism is poison to relationships. Cynicism also stifles engagement and future growth. It is better to encourage someone to get angry than to let them roll their eyes.
Caitlan Moran wrote in her novel, How to Build a Girl, “Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.” She describes cynicism as the armor built over scars of disappointment. The armor helps you stand up to being ignored, discredited, dehumanized, snubbed, humiliated, or betrayed again.
Cynicism reflects that hope is lost, the circumstances won’t change, and it is what it is no matter how awful or idiotic it seems.
On the other hand, anger demonstrates that there is still hope. When you angrily tell others what you want or what you lack, you are hoping to be heard. There is a chance things might change in the future, no matter how bleak. Those who protest believe a change can come. Those who roll their eyes when scornful things are said and disparaging acts are done show complacency, accepting what they feel they are powerless to change.
How to react when you notice eye-rolling
Do not read eye-rolling as contempt; see it as your chance to re-connect.
Whether it is in a business meeting or informal conversation, the last thing you want to do is angrily respond to eye-rolling. Eye-rolling might be the person’s last-ditch attempt to get your attention.
If you don’t encourage people to express their anger and frustration, their cynicism might cause them to disengage or it might emerge as sabotaging behavior. Dr. Amy Willis says in the face of eye-rolling, “If you instead show that you respect them, you will prevent a rupture that can occur in your relationship at a time when maintaining connections is vital to the years immediately ahead.”
During a tense discussion, you might be focused on making your point heard. You want people to do what you think is right. Eye-rolling indicates you have pressed too hard. The person thinks you have closed the door to change, or at least, to listening to their perspective.
You want the person to surface their anger and frustration, to feel there is safety in venting, to declare what they think they have lost, and to demand what they need. Even if you can’t give them what they want, feeling heard is better than being ignored.
So, instead of checking out or having your own knee-jerk reaction when they begin to express their anger…
- Notice your urge to defend, reprimand, or shut off from someone for eye-rolling. Exhale your stress and recall feelings of respect and care for the person as best you can. Shift to wondering why they feel so badly right now. If you can’t do any of this, at least shift to calmly (and genuinely) asking, “Would you please tell me what you think I have done or what I’m not hearing from you?”
- Even if it takes prompting, encourage eye-rollers to vent. Venting is a way to release frustration. According to Amy Gallo in The HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, “Don’t interrupt the venting or interject your own commentary. While you’re doing this, you can either be completely quiet or indicate that you’re listening by using phrases such as ‘I get that’ or ‘I understand.’ Avoid saying anything that assigns feeling or blame, such as ‘Calm down’ or ‘What you need to understand is…’
Flip anger into action
- Summarize what they are saying and ask for confirmation. Say things like, “I think you are saying…, I see that you are upset because you think…., and I sense you feel this is the reason why the decision was made…” Let the person tell you what is right and correct you if you are off. The person must feel heard before the conversation can move forward.
- Shift the anger from blame to desire. Once the person feels you are listening, ask them what they need to feel heard, understood, or valued. Ask questions like, “What do you need that you feel you aren’t getting from me right now? What has you most frustrated? What would you like to end, and what would you like to see happen instead?”
- Agree on what the desired outcome is. If even only a slight change is possible, have them describe what the change will look like. Agree or negotiate, but make sure the person feels there is a payoff for them in the change. If they aren’t ready to provide an answer, ask if you can come back to the conversation at another time. They might need space to think without feeling hurt or angry.
Don’t let eye-rolling get by you. Use the opportunity to re-engage and find new solutions.
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