The importance of naming your emotions

April 22, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 05:47 am IST

Our emotional state profoundly influences the quality of our work — a fact that is rarely acknowledged

“How are you feeling?” Those are four deceptively simple words that my colleagues and I regularly use to begin our meetings and training sessions at other organisations. People ask the question to each other, one at a time. We don’t mean “How are you?” or even “How are you doing?,” because the rote responses to these questions are usually some version of “Fine.” What we mean is, “How are you really feeling?”

Although our emotional state profoundly influences the quality of our work, many of us aren’t aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what its impact may be. Most employers don’t give emotions much attention either, preferring that we discard them in the morning so that they don’t get in the way during the workday.

Unfortunately for those employers, we aren’t machines. We’re human beings.

Think about how you feel when you’re performing at your best. What adjectives come to mind? After asking this question to thousands of people over the years, the answers have been remarkably consistent.

At our best we feel positive, happy, confident, calm, focused, enthusiastic, open and optimistic. That’s when we’re most productive and get along best with others.

At our worst we typically experience the opposite feelings: negativity, unhappiness, self-doubt, impatience, irritability, defensiveness and pessimism. Our sense of value feels at risk, our vision narrows and our energy gets consumed in self-protection.

Imagine that you sense a serious threat to your physical well-being lurking in the shadows. Then you’re asked to solve a complex problem. How will you perform? In this “fight or flight” state, you would struggle to think clearly or imaginatively, and it would be difficult to collaborate effectively. Most of us move along the spectrum between our best and our worst all day long, depending on what’s going on around us.

The most prevalent unexpressed emotions in the workplace revolve around suffering. It’s not that suffering is a modern phenomenon or that it’s the only thing we feel at work. What seems to have changed is the pervasive impact of increased demand in our lives, leading to anxiety, uncertainty and a sense of being overwhelmed.

So what’s the value of getting people to express what they’re actually feeling? Naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create. The psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.”

It’s also true that we can’t change what we don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and choose what to do with them. Emotions are simply a form of energy, forever seeking expression. Paradoxically, sharing what we’re feeling in simple terms helps us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions.

By naming them out loud, we effectively take responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others during the workday.

Several weeks ago one of my colleagues was working with a group of senior leaders for whom asking “How are you feeling?” was way outside their comfort zone. As it turned out, the first person who was asked how he was feeling responded, “Actually, I’m feeling kind of anxious and distracted. I just heard this morning that the roof of my house completely collapsed last night and my wife and children were inside.”

Thankfully, no one was hurt, but is there any doubt that sharing this news and his concerns was healthy and appropriate, not least because it was such a significant event? The impact on one of his colleagues was transformational. He had been highly skeptical about the value of sharing feelings, which he usually kept close to the vest. “It just dawned on me,” he told his colleagues, “how much likely goes unsaid between us and what the cost of holding that in must be.”

As the chief executive of my company, I’m acutely aware that whatever I happen to be feeling at work is disproportionately contagious, for better and worse. Mostly I’ve learned to simply notice my emotions without feeling compelled to act on them. To my chagrin, I still have occasions when negative emotions rise up in me without my realising it. The impact shows up in the tone of my voice or my choice of words, and my solution has been to turn to colleagues for help. I’ve asked that, any time they sense that I might be feeling negative emotions, they simply ask me, “How are you feeling?” That’s usually all it takes for me to notice. Once I’ve noticed, I’m almost always able to manage whatever is going on inside me more gracefully.

So how are you feeling?

(Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project.)

© 2015 The New York Times

The New York Times

Sharing what we’re feeling in simple terms helps us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions

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