Communicating Data is About Handling Egos and Emotions

Behind every furrowed brow and annoying question about your slide is someone’s ego getting dinged. People don’t like their egos dinged.

This tiny bit of emotional intelligence will give you massive insight into how to handle tough data communication scenarios we all find ourselves in at one point or another. I used to take disruptive people personally, like I had failed, until I got some confidence that my visuals and my content were, in fact, super helpful. That confidence (that comes with experience) is what helped me see disruptive people in their own light.

I had one the other day. Someone in my workshop was being a bit difficult and I handled it with some humor (more on that below) and put the question out to Twitter to see how others handle those situations. Soti’s compassionate way of handling someone disruptive revealed – BINGO – there were some bruised egos and emotions brewing.

Let’s walk through some common data communication scenarios, take a peek at what’s really going on with people’s egos and emotions (assuming your data, graphs, and slides totally rock), and think through an appropriate response. I’m going to offer multiple responses so you can pick what feels comfortable to you, and knowing that the appropriate response will vary depending on the power dynamics of the situation.

The Behavior Exhibited

Someone doesn’t like your graph and is dismissing you by questioning how you collected and analyzed the data.

The Emotional Ego Underneath

They don’t like the numbers the graph is displaying because they aren’t what this person hoped. This person has a personal stake in how those numbers look and if performance isn’t good, there may be consequences. Will I get in trouble for these numbers? How will I explain this to my boss? Could I get fired? Who would hire me during a pandemic? (People go down the emotional rabbit hole real fast.)

The Insightful Response

You can be prepared with a detailed description of your methods and analysis and sometimes that works. But it is trying to logic your way through people’s emotions. If your documentation isn’t cutting it, that’s how you know you have an emotional issue. Test the waters quickly with “I’m happy to send you the detailed documentation that back up how solid our methods are, given the budget and parameters we have.” If the frown is still there, try to distribute the burden with “We all want these numbers to look better than they do.” Then present it as an opportunity: “Thankfully, we have caught this issue now, so that we have the chance to turn this around before it gets worse. Let’s problem solve together.” Empathy is usually the best response to try, the first time someone is disruptive.

The Behavior Exhibited

Someone doesn’t like your graph and is making that clear by loudly proclaiming “I don’t understand this!” and “I can’t even read this!” and, even after some patient explanation, “I just don’t get it.”

The Emotional Ego Underneath

They don’t like your graph because they aren’t familiar with the graph type. They don’t know how to make that chart themselves. They don’t feel they will be able to learn to make something so intimidatingly cool. Their skill set is becoming obsolete. Can they make it to retirement without having to go back to school?

The Insightful Response

Help them feel like they are not alone, left out to dry: “Many people who are accustomed to the small selection of default charts in Excel don’t like this one at first glance…” then add in something that addresses the underlying issue: “… and that is often because they don’t know yet how to make it.” Then some reassurance: “I made this one right inside Excel and it is surprisingly easy. I’ll show you and once you know how to make it, you’ll warm up to it more.”

The Behavior Exhibited

Someone doesn’t like your chart type because “my boss won’t let me get away with that.”

The Emotional Ego Underneath

If I upset my boss, I could get fired. (So much of our ego response is based in threats to our underlying sense of security. Can you see that in these emotional ego thought patterns?)

The Insightful Response

In my case, I can usually reassure them that their boss, in fact, hired me to come in as the consultant and make these changes, so the green light has been lit. If there is still some hesitancy, I ask: “Even if you couldn’t pull off this entire visual revolution overnight, can you get away with implementing some small aspect of it? Maybe just the great title or a switch in colors? If you can make tiny changes every few months, in a year you’ll get there. Sometimes it is an evolution, not a revolution.” Make it feel do-able.

The Behavior Exhibited

Someone doesn’t like your graph and is making that clear by proclaiming “That just isn’t the way we do it. People won’t understand this change.”

The Emotional Ego Underneath

What they are really saying here is that the proposed change deviates from the norms. And disruption is bad, people will get upset about change and I’ll have a lot of upset people on my hands. (Now the original person is bringing in the emotions and egos of other people too, see how this works?)

The Insightful Response

This person needs to see that change is not necessarily bad just because it is change. Pitch a response that is contained in a halo: “The hero of every story becomes the hero because they made a change to the status quo.” Nice, right? Address concerns: “Some people might drag their feet on this but other people will be by your side and we’ll grow as a team through any discomfort.” Then appeal to some other emotions: “Taking people through change is what leaders do.”

The Behavior Exhibited

Someone doesn’t like your graph and is making that clear by picking at some minor aspect of your slide, distracting the conversation from your main point.

The Emotional Ego Underneath

They actually really like your slides and are so impressed by the design they are scrutinizing how you made and didn’t even realize that the conversation was elsewhere. You made good design look so easy they think they can do better than you so they are taking mental (and verbal) notes about what they’d tweak.

The Insightful Response

Humor works best here (at least for me). Laughter is the expression of emotion, so make a joke like “That’s a fantastic observation! I’ll have you make all of my slides next time.”

Another big piece of protecting egos and emotions is how we deliver the insightful responses. For some people, they’ll need to be addressed privately, pulled to the side during a break in the agenda or debriefed after the fact, like Soti did. For other people, the more gregarious or intentionally incompetent crowd, humor and confidence go a long way.

When I first became a parent, someone gave me some sage advice. When your fresh baby is screaming and red-faced, it can look like anger but it is probably one of a small number of underlying conditions: hunger, tired, lonely, or sick. What’s showing up on the surface is rarely the full story.

The more we can train ourselves to hear the emotional need behind the “difficulty,” the better we will be at communicating with data AND bringing everyone with us.

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