Don’t Put People on the Spot (and What It Says About You When You Do)

Don’t Put People on the Spot (and What It Says About You When You Do)
Photo: Lighthunter, Shutterstock

Most of us have been put on the spot in a number of different situations, whether at work or among a group of friends. And having a set of eyes turn toward you with the expectation that you’ll provide an answer you just aren’t ready to give — whether it’s because you don’t know or you’re just not ready to share yet — is a nightmare-inducing situation.

We’ve all been guilty of putting others on the spot ourselves, usually by accident. Perhaps we asked a sensitive question of a friend in a group setting, were trying to nudge a quiet coworker to share their answers in a meeting, or we just didn’t like someone and wanted to make them squirm a little.

Putting someone on the spot though, whether intentional or not, has the effect of eroding trust in a relationship. The key to maintaining trust in a relationship, according to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is developing your emotional intelligence, a key part of which is being able to identify and predict how others feel. As Krauss wrote in a recent Psychology Today article, “A sign that you’re not as sensitive as you could be when you pressure people is that others try to stay away from you to the extent that they can.”

Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense the emotions of others

Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense and evaluate the emotions of others, as well as control your own. An emotionally intelligent person is someone who can sense the emotions of others, using this knowledge to help the situation at hand, while also maintaining a steady control over their own emotions.

When it comes to maintaining trust in a relationship, this requires a certain level of emotional intelligence, one in which you can sense if the other person might be feeling insecure about something, as well as the knowledge of how to put them at ease. We all know what makes us feel awkward or insecure, but we don’t always know what makes others feel the same, as everyone is a little different.

To avoid accidentally putting someone on the spot, it helps to be mindful of their emotions, in the event we accidentally hit on one of their insecurities.

Emotional intelligence can be strengthened

There is a certain debate about whether emotional intelligence is an innate or learned characteristic. Are people born with the ability to develop a high level of emotional intelligence, or was that something they were taught?

Although the answer is probably a little bit of both, but strengthening your emotional intelligence is definitely something we can all do. Many of us have gotten more emotionally intelligent as we get older, while the process of listening and empathizing with others, as well as reflecting, can often help us understand a situation that would have otherwise confused us.

The process of strengthening our emotional intelligence through listening, empathizing, and reflecting are tactics that many of us have developed with time, whether with the help of a professional or through our own trial-and-error.

Research suggests these tactics may be effective

As Krauss notes in her article, some additional research has come out lately which suggests some additional tactics that may also help. As you can probably imagine, studying emotional intelligence is a tricky task, as it’s an ephemeral trait — one that’s pretty hard to quantify and verify. However, in a recent study, researchers evaluated the strength and methods of a number of studies in order to identify the ones that have the most evidence to support their effectiveness. Here are two of the methods, which we can do on our own, to strengthen our emotional intelligence.

Evaluate emotions based on watching a video without audio

As Krauss notes, this is an exercise that can generate some useful information for our own personal benefit. As she recommends for this particular exercise,

“[R]ecord or stream a movie or television show in which there are closeups of the actors (i.e., not an action film). Play the video alone without the audio and see if you can figure out the actors’ emotions. Watch the scene again with the audio turned on and compare your guesses with the emotions that the actors say they’re feeling.”

When watching this video, it’s useful to jot down your perceptions, so that you can compare your initial impressions against what the audio later reveals.

Evaluate emotions based on looking at photos

This particular exercise is a little simpler, while also being a little more personal to your situation. Krauss recommends looking at photos of people you follow on social media, without looking at the captions. As you look at the photo, try and guess which emotion they are feeling just by their facial expression, which you’ll then compare to what they’ve written about the experience. Sometimes, there will be a difference.

As Krauss points out, “Someone who looks afraid while riding on an amusement park ride might actually post that she was having a great time and enjoyed every minute of it.” If you notice a similar discrepancy, that can either mean that your initial impression of their facial expression was wrong or it could signal a situation when someone felt too uncomfortable to speak openly.

For example, if you pressured a friend to go on a roller coaster ride with you without realising they are too embarrassed to admit they are afraid of heights, that’s a situation where a little emotional intelligence can go a long way toward maintaining a friendship.

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