The vocabulary of emotions
Jen coordinated large-scale events for her consumer products company. Twice a year she was responsible for putting on events for more than 5,000 attendees. The rest of the year she put on “small” events for “only” 500 or 1,000.
In her feedback report, people praised her gifts of coordination and tactical command. What they didn’t like so much was her style. There, they used words like “intolerant,” “inflexible,” and “harsh.
Over the course of our coaching, Jen repeatedly described situations as “frustrating.” For example, she told me that arguing with one of the founders about a new process was “frustrating.” One particular direct report of hers was “frustrating.” Dealing with a favored vendor was “frustrating.” She overused “frustrating” so much I couldn’t help but tease her. We ended up laughing about it.
Soon we were talking about why it’s important to have a rich emotional vocabulary.
Vocabulary influences experience
I began by stating a premise. “You tend to name all your feelings as ‘frustrated.’ But it’s a safe bet that you actually have more feelings than just that one. What do you think?”
“Sounds reasonable,” she said. “But wait. Are you saying my emotions aren’t limited, but my language is?”
“Well, I’m saying they influence each other. It’s like a loop. I think that having a limited vocabulary to describe your emotions creates a limited capacity for experiencing your emotions.”
“But you think I actually have different emotions? They’re all there? So it’s like a painter who has a whole palette of bright colors but is only using a couple shades of gray?”
I told her the limited palette analogy was great.
“And,” she asked, “you think that if I had a bigger vocabulary to describe my emotions, people wouldn’t think I’m ‘harsh’ or ‘intolerant’? Really? It’s that simple?”
“Well, it’s not that simple, but I do think a better vocabulary is part of the fix,” I said. “Here’s why.”
Emotional fluency ≠ being emotional
I told her that her lack of words for describing her emotional life created a kind of emotional scarcity. I believed that scarcity contributed to people experiencing her as “harsh” or “intolerant.” In some ways, I said, she was “intolerant” of her own emotions: she was only allowing herself to experience a select few.
That struck a chord with her. She told me that one of her direct reports had accused her of being made of stone.
Then she said, “But I don’t want to be emotional in the workplace, Tom. That can’t be good for me.”
“We’re not talking about you running around boo-hoo-ing or screaming at people, Jen. I’m talking about having a healthy relationship with your emotions.”
I went on. “I’ve been coaching more than twenty years, and I’ve seen that the leaders who are most magnetic, who draw people to them, don’t choke off their emotions. Their range of emotions is robust. Same with people who get lots of support from others—whether they’re at your level or they’re assistants! We’re happy to root for people who have a healthy range of emotions.”
She thought about that and cautiously agreed. Then she asked, “Is that choice really available to me? Can I just decide to broaden my range of emotions? Really?”
Emotions = behaviors
I asked her to imagine a young child whose emotions are just developing. Her environment will determine, in part, whether her palette of emotions becomes scarce or abundant. For example, in one home, displaying an emotion like elation might be celebrated but in another household it might be frowned upon. Distinctly different emotional palettes would emerge in each case.
By that definition, many of our emotional responses are learned responses. So if we can learn emotional responses when we’re young, we can unlearn them as adults. Or re-pattern them. Or choose them consciously.
“Here’s the biggest reason this is important, Jen. Our emotions directly affect our behaviors. And our behaviors are what make us successful in the workplace.”
I gave the example of someone who hates feeling embarrassed. As a consequence, he might avoid apologizing even when a simple apology would defuse a difficult situation. His feelings, or his avoidance of a feeling, creates his behavior. She laughed and said she knew someone like that!
I gave two other examples. A person who protects herself against feeling defeated might avoid competing to her fullest. Or someone unwilling to risk feeling frightened may flinch when offered opportunities to shine.
“My point,” I said, “is that a limited emotional range can limit your behavioral range.”
“Well, my palette is pretty limited,” Jen said. “All my emotions look kinda the same to me. And I’m only talking about my own!” she laughed. “I haven’t even started thinking about anyone else’s feelings yet!”
“That’s as it should be,” I chimed in. “What we’re talking about is called ‘emotional self-awareness.’ It’s focused on increasing your knowledge of your own inner workings.”
Emotional self-awareness, I told her, is the first step in building what is called emotional intelligence, or EQ.
She knew the phrase but not much more than that. I explained.
Emotional Intelligence defined
In 1995, Daniel Goleman published a book called Emotional Intelligence. This influential best-seller made the case that, in a multitude of measurable ways, emotional intelligence, EQ, matters more than IQ. By showing a wide variety of studies, Goleman demonstrated how individuals who are high in EQ consistently perform better, both at home and at work, than people who are high only in IQ.
Since then, businesses have begun to accept that emotionally intelligent individuals and groups can positively affect the bottom line. Consequently, they invest in developing their employees’ emotional intelligence. Performance reviews now regularly have as a goal, “Demonstrate greater emotional intelligence.” And I can attest that a desire for someone to display more emotional intelligence triggers many coaching engagements. A perfect example of that is Jen!
In its simplest form, emotional intelligence is made up of four building blocks. They are:
- The first building block is emotional self-awareness, which is what Jen was working to develop. It is the ability to understand your own unique emotional inner workings.
- The second building block is the ability to use that self-awareness to manage how you respond to your feelings.
- The third building block is awareness of how your behaviors affect others.
- The fourth building block is your ability to manage your behaviors with others in order to get the most positive results possible.
So, I told Jen, she and I were working on block number one: building her emotional self-awareness. I told her we would use a simple two-step process.
Step one of two
Step number one for Jen was to begin to recognize when a feeling was present—which, I suggested, was practically all the time.
Since Jen was not in the habit of registering her feelings, she might not know they were happening. She would need to adopt a belief that she had feelings that were alive and active inside her.
She said she could imagine she had many feelings inside her but that they were locked away.
“I picture my feelings like little old women abandoned in cells in some basement deep below my surface. And they’re pretty frail ‘cause I don’t let ‘em out much.” Jen joked, “Actually, most of the time, I think they’re in a pretty deep sleep!”
I joined in and said if she wanted those poor old creatures to venture out of their cells, she would have to make it really safe for them. She’d have to pay attention to even their slightest stirrings and then coax them upstairs!
So step number one to develop emotional self-awareness: Notice feelings. Accept that they are happening even if you can’t register them. Acknowledge their existence. Allow them. Welcome them.
“This is going to be really different for me,” she said.
Step two of two
Having observed that feelings were happening, step number two was to name them.
I introduced Jen to a one-page chart called The Feeling Word Grid. I’ve mentioned it in other Coaching Tips.The Feeling Word Grid lists seven columns of feelings under headings like Happiness, Sadness, Fear, and so on. It then ranks the words by intensity, either strong, moderate or weak. There are well over a hundred words on The Grid.
Here’s how step two works.
After Jen had noticed she’d a feeling (Step One), she’d look at The Feeling Word Grid and try to identify what she’d felt.
I suggested that the mere act of examining the list closely and trying to synchronize it to her inner mechanism would be like taking all those old ladies out for exercise.
Jen laughed and said, “I’ve had those poor old things locked away so long, it’s gonna be a challenge telling one from another!”
Jen worked at steps one and two but found it was a real struggle. Many of my clients do.
If you’re not used to registering and recognizing your feelings, raising your emotional self-awareness can be disorienting. One client said it was like trying to taste a flavor other people were describing; he was never quite sure if he was doing it right or not.
If you try these steps, listen for when your vocabulary begins to expand. When that happens, most likely you are describing your feelings more accurately.
The Feeling Word Grid can help expand your range of emotions. If you’d like it, just ask. I’d be happy to send it along.
Jen worked to develop her emotional self-awareness with the same diligence she used on her events. And her emotional fluency improved. Descriptor words besides “frustrating” began filtering into her stories. She even began using emotional vocabulary to describe her observations of others.
Her expanded vocabulary, and the permission she was giving herself to experience her own emotions, was leading her towards The Look & Sound of Leadership™.