In leadership workshops, we work on noticing and naming the emotions that we are feeling. Knowing what we are feeling and where we feel it in our bodies is a crucial part of self-awareness. Many of us are not aware of the emotions that influence our behavior.
In every conversation, there is a fact and a feeling part. Of course, we want to know what other people are feeling, but it’s also okay for us to share ours as long as we do it in an appropriate way. Telling people that we are frustrated, annoyed, elated, or excited invites them to share what they are feeling.
In life coach training we are taught to pay close attention to the emotions of our clients and to tell them what we notice. If someone talks loudly while scowling and making fists with their hands, I could say, “It seems like this situation makes you angry.” Usually, the client will check in with his or her emotions and then clarify them. The response might be, “I am not just angry; I am infuriated!”
Of course, the technique works just as well for what we consider to be positive emotions. I could say that a client sounds excited about a situation or opportunity. In addition to verifying excitement, the client often goes on to explain why he or she feels excited which deepens the conversation.
Naming the emotional field is a powerful tool during contentious conversations. Paying attention to someone’s negative emotion and naming it is a great way to keep ourselves from reacting without thinking.
Our neocortex is the advanced “adult” part of our brain. It covers the outside of our brain, and it’s where our self-control and creativity reside. When we get super angry, our neocortex disengages and the more primitive and emotional parts of our brain take over.
One way to get the neocortex to re-engage is to step back and become an observer of ourselves and the situation. We can ask ourselves things like:
- Why might that person be provoking me?
- What emotion is the other person feeling?
- What emotion am I feeling?
- What is triggering me about this situation?
- Where am I feeling emotion in my body?
- What is my ultimate [desired outcome]?
I saw the technique demonstrated in an HBO show that I was watching called Gentleman Jack. The series is based on the coded diaries of Anne Lister who lived in the 1800s. An article that I read said that they based a lot of the dialogue on her diaries. If that’s true, the woman had incredible emotional intelligence, and she was a master of naming the emotional field.
Someone she cared about asked her a baiting, sarcastic question in one episode. She paused, looked at the woman, and said something like, “I am trying to understand why you would make a hostile comment to me. What point are you trying to make?” I think I actually said out loud, “Way to go, Anne!” Fortunately, I was watching it by myself.
She didn’t take the bait. She didn’t get angry herself. She got curious! She named the emotion she observed and then asked a question. Brilliant! It’s a wonderful way to manage a person who is working to engage one in conflict.
Naming the emotional field requires being aware of our own emotions and the emotions of others. We can practice naming our own emotions by setting a timer that goes off throughout the day. Each time the alarm goes off, we pause to consider what we are feeling, where we are feeling it, and why we are experiencing that particular emotion.
In order to name other people’s emotions, we must pay attention to all the verbal and nonverbal cues presented. Then we make an educated guess. Our guess prompts people to check in and determine their true emotions. When they confirm or clarify what they are feeling, we’ve moved the conversation forward and begun to figure out what is really going on.
The feeling part of the conversation holds most of the clues that will lead to a solution or resolution. Exceptional leaders can mine for those clues while managing their own emotions. Instead of a brawl or a standoff, a great leader can create a dialogue that maintains the positivity of the relationship.
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