William is President of International Finance for a worldwide financial organization. He was proud to tell me he’d been invited by his alma mater to give the keynote address at a prestigious Alumni Career Forum.
While brainstorming ideas for the speech, William said he’d like to talk about a professor who’d had a profound impact on him. As he told me about this influential man, William choked up with emotion. Being highly analytical and used to having control over his emotions, this surprised and unsettled him; he quickly changed the subject. Later in the session he mentioned this professor again, and again his throat constricted and his voice quavered. He clamped down and said, “Well, I guess I won’t be talking about that!” When I asked why not, he said, “Well, I certainly don’t want to get choked up in front of a thousand alumni.”
“Oh, yes, you do!” I said.
Over our next few sessions, William and I engaged in a surprisingly passionate debate over the impact he might have if he displayed genuine emotion while standing in front of a thousand strangers. He felt strongly that showing his emotions on the stage would make him vulnerable and ineffective. I agreed that, yes, displaying emotions might make him feel vulnerable, but that that same openness would inspire and move people. However, I contended, if he covered his emotions over, people would “hear” him but they would never “feel” him.
Daniel Goleman and his co-authors address the issue of displaying emotions in their vitally important book, Primal Leadership. Leaders skilled at expressing emotions, says Goleman, are “emotional magnets; people naturally gravitate towards them.” He decrees, “Without a healthy dose of heart, a supposed ‘leader’ may manage – but he does not lead.”
In order to have “a healthy dose of heart,” we need to recognize and understand our own emotions. Recently, Martha, a very expressive senior director, was telling me about a situation that, she said, had made her angry. As we explored it together, she discovered that in fact she hadn’t been angry at all: she’d felt embarrassed and defensive but not angry. Yet she’d believed she’d felt “angry.”
Like so many of us, Martha is not completely fluent in the language of her emotions. On those rare occasions when she’s willing to admit to having any feelings in the workplace at all, she often names them incorrectly. Without an ability to describe her emotions accurately, she’s much less likely to understand them or manage them well.
When I got back to my office, I sent Martha our “Feeling Word Grid.” It charts words, from strong to weak, across a range of categories such as “Fear,” “Happiness,” “Uncertainty,” etc. I send this grid to many clients. People who resist displaying their feelings at work often begin to soften after they read the chart and recognize that in fact they’ve already experienced many of the words they see there. Since their feelings are showing up anyway, they reason, why not be able to name them accurately?
I’d love to share this feeling word chart with you. If you’d like to receive it, hit the “Contact Us” button on the lower left of your screen, then click the link to our email address and request it. It’ll be our pleasure to share it with you. As Goleman says, “Because emotions are so contagious especially—from leaders to others in the group—leaders’ first tasks are the emotional equivalent of good hygiene: getting their own emotions in hand.”
By the way, William chose to risk feeling vulnerable and talked about his professor during his speech. In spite of his adrenalin, his emotions did indeed well up and show themselves. Throughout the weekend, people mentioned that specific portion of his speech to him over and over. The positive, heartfelt feedback convinced him that his willingness to let his emotions happen had been the right choice.