How to Deal with Emotions in the Workplace (Part 1)

When it comes to business success, emotional intelligence beats IQ. Knowing how to manage our feelings is important. And understanding others is crucial for teamwork. In fact, managing emotions is a key leadership skill. Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. And it should not surprise us that empathy is the cornerstone of teamwork.

How to Deal with Emotions in the Workplace

This series covers emotions and dealing with them in the workplace. From what emotions are to methods of processing emotions.

Emotions are often neglected

Managing our emotions is very difficult to achieve. And understanding how others feel or might feel is even more difficult. When considering all this, we would like to think we are doing rather well with our emotions. The sad truth, however, is that we could do a lot better. Yet we don’t. Somehow, our culture is one in which emotions are second place. From repressing them as a child, to delaying their onset as adults. Imagine that! The majority of modern grown-ups do not really know how they feel. And this issue is pervasive to most areas.

In any work setting, the western business world has prioritized everything other than emotion. We talk a great deal about R.O.I. and strategy. And we make business plans and calculations. Yet, we forever stumble on the same basic issues. Firstly, team communications and trust. Secondly, the difficulties of recruiting the right people. And doing onboarding the right way. Thirdly, harmonizing introverts and extroverts. And there are many more examples.

The reasons why we are out of touch with our emotions are numerous. At its core, it is a developmental issue. We learn that expressing emotions is dangerous. Yet, leaving them unexpressed creates inescapable tensions.

We have a surprisingly complex map of conditions for expressing emotions. It matters who, where, when, how, why. And modern workplaces make everything more complicated. After all, who thrives on being vulnerable?

Being vulnerable is not always comfortable

Emotional intelligence is very much related to how comfortable we are with being vulnerable. Yes, we often repress our vulnerability. Our culture is one that discourages public displays of vulnerability. Why? Because crying in public can attract unwanted attention. And we might feel uncomfortable doing it.

As a child, I was told that crying is unbecoming for a young boy. And that crying will give me a headache. Solution? Hold it in, and process everything rationally. Leave how you feel sulk under the heavy blanket of forgetfulness. Except that everything comes back.

Laughing by yourself, we’re taught, is a sign of madness. Or great emotional distress. While some find it more comfortable than crying, most of us steer away from both.

A key indicator of how comfortable you are feeling vulnerable is crying. So, we should really question ourselves about crying. Besides, it’s likely beneficial to cry every now and then. Clears the ducts.

But let’s dig deeper. There is a lot of vulnerability in apologizing. And not just admitting you were wrong. Rather, you need to empathize with the hurt you caused. Express your understanding. And regret and support. We typically find it very hard to truly apologize. Even when we really should, we find it very hard to open up and admit to our faults. Going one step further and developing empathy with those affected by our behavior, that might seem impossible.

Yet, most of us have a great deal of difficulty with emotions. That’s why we avoid conflicts, because we don’t feel comfortable. Either with losing or winning. The former makes us feel vulnerable and bad. The later makes us feel the vulnerability of another. Which feels indecent almost, after so many unexpressed emotions.

The bursting pipe of unprocessed emotions and meta-feelings

Imagine that we have a registry for your emotions and feelings. And this registry is as large as life. Well, your life. This registry is made of files and folding cabinets. It’s one room somewhere. Presumably in your heart, or some other construct. Everything you experience is there. And not as a memory, but as an emotion. When you experience something new, the raw emotion goes to this room and waits to be processed. You also create memories and process memories.

Our recollection brings forth the “memory file” of an experience and the “how it felt” file of that experience. This is why you can feel something over mere thoughts about something. And this is how you develop meta-feelings.

There are essentially 2 types of meta-feelings.

Those that deal with the frustration of bundles of unprocessed emotions. They cram up your space. And you feel like you can’t breathe. This is similar to anguish, anger and frustration.

And then there’s the other type. The fine joy of feeling about your emotions. Contemplation and meditation help you with that. Or, less pretentiously maybe, spending some quality time with yourself.

The west has hungrily adopted eastern philosophies and methods. This hunger is easy to understand. We desperately seek to get in touch with our feelings. Our want for emotion explains why so many seek therapy. We are deeply emotional.

Oftentimes, however, we don’t even know how to call how we feel. The issue goes so deep we lack the vocabulary to address it.

Calling emotions by their names

I find the following verse from Johnny Cash odd: “I focused on the pain, the only thing that’s real”. Granted, the song “Hurt” is a cover which Cash “owns”. But the issue remains.

My experience with pain is that if you truly focus on it, it goes away. It is not real.  While truth may be pain, pain is not truth. And I say this while dealing with a monstrous tooth ache. Also, I’ve studied feelings and emotions to some extent.

Calling it gives you clarity. You “file” how you feel in the right registry. You put 1 and 1 and you have 2. Pain is easy. You simply need to locate it. And pursue it relentlessly. Once found, it disappears.

Other feelings… they are not as simple. Here’s how to call them out.

A quick breakdown of basic emotions

Firstly, think of how you feel. How does it feel? There are 6 basic emotions humans feel:

#1 anger

#2 fear

#3 surprise

#4 disgust

#5 happiness

#6 sadness

To this, we can add a list of other, more complex feelings. To those, we can add nuances.

At work, you are likely to feel

#1 anger (frustrated, annoyed, spiteful or defensive).

#2 fear (anxious, skeptical, worried, nervous, cautious, stressed)

#3 surprise (Happy Birthday! You’re fired! etc)

#4 disgust

#5 happiness (confident, trusting, relaxed)

#6 sadness (disappointed, depressed, pessimistic)

We can go on with this list and define each and every one of them and how they differ. Instead, let’s focus on quantifiers.

Quantifiers as a mark of intensity

Quantifiers are simple. You just need to iterate the extent of your feelings.

Eg. “I feel rather skeptical about a recent team chemistry article I read.” The quantifier here is “rather.” It explains the intensity of how you feel. Expressing how intensely you feel something helps you clear things up.

Emotions expressed are not emotions repressed. Calling them out with qualifiers will help you out. Hey, this is a good thing. There are emotions out there for which we don’t have the vocabulary yet. 

 

Overall, emotions are tough to deal with in general. Dealing with emotions at work is even more difficult. Hence, we’re going to explore more practical advice in Part 2 of this piece. So don’t forget to check in for methods to soothe your soul in “How to Deal with Emotions in the Workplace (Part 2)“.

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