When it comes to our emotions and our workplace’s we’re in a bind.
Display too much emotion, and we’re too emotional, unprofessional. Don’t display enough and we’re seen as cold and hard hearted. If we don’t know how to connect emotionally with people, we can’t inspire them or lead them effectively.
And if we let emotions rule we lose respect, can’t make tough decisions, and can’t give effective feedback.
Think for a moment of the worst boss you ever had. And now think of their general emotional tone. Chances are they were at one end of the spectrum or the other: either emotionally cold, distant and unapproachable, or emotionally volatile, prone to explosive rages, or moodiness - with their moods having everyone on eggshells. You feared them or disrespected them - or both - and probably left them as soon as you could.
And now think for a moment of the best boss you ever had and their emotional tone. Chances are they were probably somewhere in that sweet-spot in the middle, emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. They may not have talked overtly about emotions, but they clearly made space for feelings to be felt and didn’t expect you to be an unfeeling machine. You worked harder for them, went the extra mile, and did some of your best work for them.
Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work on emotional intelligence has really helped to change the conversation around emotions at work, and frame emotional intelligence as a core leadership skill. But time and time again I see people falling into the trap of thinking that emotional regulation and emotional intelligence are about only allowing oneself to feel “positive” or “good” emotions. Susan David succinctly calls this “toxic positivity.” This is the idea that if one is feeling anger, resentment, irritation, guilt, shame, rage, despair, sadness etc. these are bad, bad, bad and one should immediately be able to shift out of them.
The other thing I see time and again is people “tapping out” of these difficult emotions. Their most common comments are “If I allow myself to feel I’ll be overwhelmed. I’ll drown.”
Let me be clear: There are no good or bad emotions.
I’ll say that again.
Emotions are not positive or negative, good or bad. They just are.
At the most basic level all emotions are simply electrochemical compounds in our body. That’s it. There is no good or bad to them. They might feel more or less pleasant, more or less comfortable, but emotions just are.
I’ll risk a definitive statement: All our problems with emotional intelligence and regulation arise when we judge emotions rather than discern emotions; when we either refuse to feel them on the one hand or allow them to rule us on the other hand.
The problem is not what we feel. The problem is what we DO with what we feel, once we’ve truly discerned what we feel. And that discernment is a process.
So here are the three rules of what to DO with emotions that my years of training, coaching, personal experience, and reading of the research and best practices boil down to. The three rules that, collectively, can shift you to the emotional sweet spot.
Clearly, there is a lot more to each of these rules - but here they are at the high level to get you started.
Rule #1: Validate, validate, validate
The very first thing we are taught to do as coaches is to validate what the other person is feeling. We might think their perspective is dead wrong or that they are way overreacting. But they are feeling what they are feeling. That is their reality and their truth. Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them or even that we think they’re right. It just means that - from their perspective, given their experience, their values, and their stories - what they are feeling makes complete sense. And we would feel how they were feeling if we were in their shoes.
And this applies not only to other people’s emotions, but to our own too. When we judge our own emotions as good or bad, when we say we shouldn’t be angry, sad, depressed, lonely, frustrated or whatever, because “other people have it worse”, or because “I don’t have time for this”, or when we fear to feel what we feel because we fear we might be overwhelmed, we are invalidating our own experience.
Emotional invalidation is gaslighting. And it’s crazy-making. Literally. And it’s generally regarded as a form of abuse.
Validation, or rather the lack thereof, is where I see abrasive leaders get stuck. They either don’t even know what they’re feeling, or if they do, they blame everyone else for what they are feeling, and argue that whatever anyone else is feeling - they’re wrong and shouldn’t be feeling it. They take zero responsibility for their own emotions and offload them onto others. Then heap on the judgment when others react to their emotional offloading. It’s a toxic crap-shoot.
I have to do a lot of work with them to get them to the point of starting to see how they are not dealing with emotions effectively, and how doing so will help them, not hurt them, and increase theirs and others productivity, effectiveness and performance. (It’s a process, it takes time, but it is 100% possible).
Once I’ve got them there, I can teach them how to validate emotions. When they first attempt to validate, their initial unskillful attempts often land really badly. They can come across as manipulative and insincere, or even patronizing. And then we need to lean even harder into the importance of emotions - as of course it takes courage to keep on going at that point. But that’s exactly what they need to do. Because every master was once a disaster.
It is an acquired skill to be masterful at validation. I certainly flunk it sometimes. But when I do it right, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Because when we validate our own emotions we feel heard, and now we can listen to others. And when we validate others emotions, they feel heard, and now they can listen to us.
Rule #2: Feels the feels
Strong, difficult emotions feel terrible. They feel overwhelming and scary. We feel we are going to drown in a river of despair, or are terrified at our explosive, murderous rage. There are very good reasons anger is so feared. The atrocities and horrors it can unleash at home, in the workplace and in wars are horrendous.
But we cannot selectively feel. When we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we want to feel joy, we also need to be prepared to feel anger, fear, despair and sadness.
Feeling our feels does not mean acting on our emotions (that’s rule #3). Feeling our emotions simply means actually allowing ourselves to feel them in our bodies.
At the biological level, emotions are combinations of electrochemicals in our brain and blood. If we were simply to simply let our emotions be, to come and go as they do, and not amplify them either through resisting feeling them, or looping into a cascading thought-emotion spiral, the process would last six seconds.
“That’s how long it takes for each burst of electrochemicals, from the time it's produced in the hypothalamus, to be completely broken down and reabsorbed back into our body. If we’re feeling something for longer than six seconds, we are – at some level – choosing to recreate and refuel those feelings.” (Six Seconds, 7 Amazing Facts About Emotions).
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being human.
But with any biological process there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like a tunnel. There’s the first rush of feeling. That gut punch to the stomach of shock or fear. That involuntary gasp of surprise. That sudden flush of rage. We enter the emotions tunnel.
But to get to the other side of the tunnel, we have to go through the middle of it. We actually have to feel what we are feeling.
And this is where I see emotionally aware and sensitive people get the most stuck. Because the middle of the tunnel for strong, difficult emotions is dark, and scary. The light behind you is rapidly receding, and you can’t see the light at the other end yet. So you tap out. You numb, you suppress, you binge watch, you eat, you drink, you work and work and work.
When I guide my clients through the tunnel, they are consistently amazed at the relief they feel on the other side. “I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown, get stuck in there and never get out,” they say. “But I see now they only way out is through. And I feel so much better now. I can actually think straight”
You get to choose when, where and how to go through the tunnel. My preferred place is either by myself in my office, away from my family, or when I need extra support, with a peer coach.
And we feel our way to the other end of the tunnel. We don’t talk our way there. Venting is not feeling - that’s amplifying. Feeling our emotions looks like tracking them in our bodies. We feel the flush on our face, the wild thumping of our heart, our clenched fists, our roiling guts, our hot wet salty tears, our stuffy runny nose.
Feeling the feels literally got me through the pandemic. Saved me from burnout. And is saving me now as I contemplate the horror of Ukraine. I very intentionally allow my train to go chugging into the tunnel. All the way into the dark, where there is no light to be had. And I keep on feeling into my body. And the light comes. It always comes. And I reach calm and peace, and am ready now to decide what to actually DO with what I’ve felt.
Rule #3: Data, not directives
Emotions come from our “Thinking Fast” brain (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman). Wise action comes from our “Thinking Slow” brain. Emotions give us critical data about the situation, our values, and how we feel ourselves to be in relationship to others. But the data is crude, raw and riddled with biases, assumptions and judgements. Emotions are not the full picture - but they are vital pieces of the puzzle. Our emotions always point us towards something we value, something that is important to us and we care about deeply. This is why we need to feel our emotions - so that we can gather ALL the data.
But to take wise action on this data, we need to bring our “thinking slow” systems online. In particular, we need to engage our prefrontal cortex, which is home to our executive functions. Master meditators access this state almost at will. For the rest of us, going through the tunnel provides another way there.
It’s never our emotions that are wrong. It’s only what we choose to do with them that is helpful or harmful. Outraged at what is happening in Ukraine or how your boss or an employee is behaving? Feel your outrage, mine it for all of its data. Get to the other side of the tunnel, where the flush of electrochemicals has subsided and you are now calm, purposeful, values-centered and grounded. Then and only then decide what action to take. Maybe you don’t share the outrage-inducing post, but rather connect with a local volunteer organization instead. Maybe you decide to stop feeling like the victim, and start to take responsibility for what you can do. Maybe you realize there is more you need to know before assuming your employee is just being willful.
It’s not our emotions that light our way out of the dark tunnel, it’s our values. But to find them and connect with them, we need to go through the tunnel. Then we can take calm, purposeful, value-centered action that is not about hurting someone else, or numbing ourselves, in an attempt to make ourselves better.
Feel the feels.
With practice we start to live more and more in the sweet spot: emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. Caring, but clear. Empathetic, but straightforward.
“You question everything, but do you question your thoughts?”
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.