Reading the Emotional Climate

To engage people at their level, take a moment to read their emotions
January 18, 2019 Updated: January 18, 2019

World-class negotiator Stuart Diamond teaches that in a low-trust, high-stakes environment, if the other party isn’t ready to listen, they won’t follow you. Instead, they are going to become social insurgents and cut your knees out when you’re not looking.

I saw this in full force in Afghanistan in November 2004. When I walked into the Shura (council) room of an Afghan compound, I could immediately sense the simmering tension in the room. There was a lack of trust between many of the militia leaders and the American soldiers who were sitting there. There had been bad blood for quite some time. I could see that many of the militia members were actually toying with the trigger wells of their AK-47 rifles. It was tense, trust was low, and the stakes were high.

I quickly assessed the emotional climate and I started about my work of engaging with a couple of relevant militia leaders to bring the temperature down. I needed to effectively change the climate in the room so we could identify goals and consider a framework of moving toward them. 

It was a very clunky process. Negotiations usually are when risk and stakes are high. It involved some level of atoning for the conflict that had happened between the U.S.-led coalition and the militia. It involved an explanation of actions and backstories. It involved talking about things that had happened in a very open way. It involved authentic discussion.

And when we did that, the emotional temperature in the room began to go down and the Afghan militia leaders in the room started to see an opportunity to connect with us that hadn’t existed before. In turn, we began to see an opportunity to connect with them. It was incremental. Negotiations always are.

Eventually, we made deep enough human connections that we actually started to work side-by-side with a lot of these militia leaders. They began working with the local government leaders and conducting village stability operations in support of coalition objectives and U.S. government objectives for the Afghan government.

How did all that work? Well, it started by meeting them where they were. But before we could even get to that point, we had to assess the emotional climate in the room.

That’s true in your boardroom. That’s true with your kids. That’s true with your associates, your prospects, your clients. There is always an emotional climate around us and we continuously have to assess it.

Are people feeling the primal fear of resource scarcity? Are they feeling vengeful? Are they angry? Are they distrustful of what is happening around them? Are they skeptical? I want to know the emotional temperature. I want to know the emotional climate. Are there any trust gaps? If so, with whom? What’s the backstory of those trust gaps?

The better we can paint a picture of the emotional atmosphere, the more quickly we can ascertain what actions need to be taken to meet people where they are. Then we can carefully bring that temperature down and get them ready to listen.

This is what great negotiators do. Stuart Diamond taught me this in his book, “Getting More.” This is what rooftop leaders do. Green Berets taught me this.

So, as you go about your week, I’d like you to think about the emotional climate of the rooms you walk into. What is the emotional temperature in the room? Is it frigid? Is it tense? Is there a sense of abundance in the room and everybody is being collaborative? Or is it somewhere in the middle? Where are the tension points? Where are the trust gaps? Identify them specifically, take notes and map them out on a napkin, laptop, or whiteboard. Now you know where you need to focus to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.

This is a huge human connection skill that will give you a serious edge.

This skill set, in conjunction with other rooftop leadership skills and the right collaborative mindset, will help you be the most relevant person in the room. So, while everyone else is stabbing others in the back, you can enhance your sales, impart deep vision to your associates, and have a deeper connection with your spouse and kids—all by reading the emotional climate of the room you’re in.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the rooftop.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit