When at work, how often do you get asked a question that is something like “how do you feel about that”? Or perhaps “what are your feelings on this subject”?
Now think about your responses to these types of questions. Do you respond with your actual feelings? Responses like “I’m feeling anxious that we haven’t yet hit on the right strategy” or “I’m angry that marketing didn’t hit their deadline”.
Probably not. More likely the responses are more like “I think that we’ve put some good work into this issue, but there’s still more to be done” or “how do we make sure that our people understand deadlines aren’t negotiable?”
Our North American culture, fueled by our British roots, have generally taught us that when it comes to work, we should park our feelings at the door. In fact this probably extends beyond work into a general belief that showing our feelings publicly is less than desirable. Given that this general belief has been held for generations, at least in Britain and its former colonies, it is likely that this has been imbedded in us from a very young age.
Here’s why I think this is a bad idea – one we should work to change.
Research in the field of emotional intelligence looks at two key dimensions with respect to feelings.
- The first is our access to a range of feelings. Depending on the type of work we do, having access to our full range can be extremely valuable. Especially leaders. Our feelings help us define the importance of someone or something in our lives. They provide us information about how our relationships are impacting us and others as well as how our feelings are contributing to or inhibiting our performance. Even distressing feelings such as anger and anxiety have value to offer us – why else would evolution have left them within us? There’s a good article on about.com about the purpose of emotions.
- The degree with which we can balance our reliance on our thoughts, wants and feelings while in working with others in stressful situations. Our thoughts provide us with an intellectual dimension to consider. Our wants give us an action orientation and move us forward. Our feelings give us important information about the importance and meaning of what we are experiencing internally. When we park our feelings at the door, we lose the emotional rudder that our feelings provide in challenging times.
I am not suggesting that we just let our emotions run amok in our interactions with others. What I am suggesting is that each one of them has a value to us, and we would be well served by increased capabilities to both access and rely on our emotions.
Are you with me so far? If yes, how might we go about learning to use our emotions more effectively? There are really two sides to this coin that we might want to be aware of. Let’s have a look.
Knowing and naming our own emotions
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. First off, emotions usually appear when we are in a challenging situation or under stress in some way. Our heightened state does not usually lend itself to slowing down and noticing what we are feeling in the moment. So as a starting point, it is good to have a daily practice of setting aside time to catalog feelings you experienced during the day. Pick two or three times during the day and put them on your calendar. Take the time to step away from your day-to-day activities and slow yourself down. Then think back over the time that has just passed to your interactions with others (meetings, emails, phone calls, etc.) and relive what you were feeling. Were you happy that someone loved your report? Were you frustrated that it took hours for someone to respond to your email? Were you warmed by someone’s personal story they told at a meeting? Were you humiliated by being publicly criticized?
As you identify a feeling, see if you can also associate a physical sensation with it. Having somatic awareness of your feelings will lead to faster identification of them. As you get good at this, you will find that you can drop the planned sessions and start to do this as you are engaged in situations.
Once developed this is a powerful capacity for us in managing ourselves in relationship with others. Imagine a situation where you are sitting in your leader’s office and he has asked you to take on a new, challenging assignment. As you hear this you notice that your heart rate has increased, and you have come to know this somatic trigger as an indication that you are feeling anxious. You immediately check into that feeling to see what you know about it and you notice another feeling lurking underneath it. You notice that you are doubting whether you can do this new assignment. You are feeling a bit inadequate.
Now that you have brought your feelings out into the open, you can apply your intellect to them. You quickly run through similar work experiences and you note a number of successes you have had. You realize that you are quite capable of handling this assignment, so you bring that feeling of inadequacy back into mind and you notice it fade away. You also check in with your anxiety and notice that your heart rate is going back to normal. You deliberately bring a smile to your face as a means of conveying your confidence and you engage with your boss in creating the beginning of a plan to move forward.
That sort of command of our emotions is a powerful advantage!
Knowing what others are feeling
This is the realm of empathy, specifically our ability to accurately know what other people are feeling and intending. It is about our ability to understand them and to align ourselves with them with ease. We are relational creatures at our core, and parts of our brain are wired with the capability to sense the emotions of others. We read them through listening to words, watching faces, picking up on body language, tone and cadence of speech, etc. We are so wired for this that we can actually be better at knowing the emotions of others than our own!
If you sense that you might want to develop your abilities in this space, here is an approach that you might find useful. First start by taking every opportunity you can to tune into others. When at work, at home, in a restaurant, in a store or wherever you can observe people closely be curious about what the other person might be feeling and experiencing. If you catch yourself making judgments let them go and return to your curiosity. What do you sense? What stories do you tell yourself? Look for opportunities to engage the other person in conversation to see if you can confirm your perceptions.
As your confidence grows, tap into your most trusted relationships to share your perceptions. Start by asking for their support in allowing you to practice identifying what others are feeling. When you are engaged in situations where there is a bit of stress or tension, continue to observe as above. When you read an emotion, share with your colleague what you are experiencing and ask them how well that fits for them.
Fully developed this is another powerful tool for you as a leader. Imagine being the boss in the new assignment scenario above. As you describe the nature of the job, you notice what you think is anxiety in your team member … “I’m sensing that you might be a bit anxious about this assignment. Want to talk about it?” Your team member, not really in tune with their emotions, is surprised to find that they are anxious and confirms it to you. They express that they aren’t sure they are capable and you ask them to think of other successes they’ve had that they can draw on. They find two or three examples and you note a growing sense of confidence in them and begin the process of planning an approach.
So how about it? Is there a case for bringing our emotions to work? To other aspects of life?