Processing emotions

There are many seemingly good reasons why we do not express emotions. We are expected to be “nice” and to be “polite”. We are taught to keep a stiff upper lip and to maintain the facade. We think we should not talk about or express emotions, as that is frequently perceived as a sign of weakness and instability. As children we are told to be a ‘brave little boy and not cry’, or to be a ‘good little girl and act like a man’. In other words, emotional expression, openness and honesty have been conditioned out of us.

As much as we might sometimes like to express our emotions, this is not always possible. It is frequently not appropriate or functional to break-down crying or to start screaming at your counter-part in a negotiation, for example, if you are upset and angry because that person has out maneuvered you. However, unless that emotional charge is processed at some point when it is more appropriate, longer-term relations between the parties, and thus the larger system will suffer, and the individual’s personal health will inevitably pay some price as well.

Fortunately, there is something simple that we can do to help foster a more functional emotional climate at work thus allowing people to deal with, then let go of, the past. The simple answer is to talk about feelings. Allow feelings to exist at work. Emotions are normal and their expression is actually healthy. If you cannot talk about something, you cannot fix it. People need to have mechanisms for processing their emotions.

Processing something is the exact opposite of suppression. Processing is the exertion of effort to facilitate the flow of energy. Processing means fanning the flames, fully experiencing an emotion or event, allowing the process of an experience full reign. In order to fully experience a problem we need to get it out into the light and into the open. We need to look the problem squarely in the face, confront it and each other’s roles in it. Everyone needs to become aware that it is a problem and what its consequences are. People need to know what the alternative or desired state of affairs is, what the goals and vision are, and how what is happening is counter to those goals and vision. Also, emotional support needs to be provided. Quite frequently, emotions are involved when a problem is suppressed in an organisation. If emotions were not involved, the problem would very likely not have gone “underground” in the first place. If people were able to fully discuss and confront the issues, it would not have been swept under the carpet.

In an organisational context, publicly acknowledging and fully experiencing a problem does not suppress the symptoms. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect. It certainly is not “normal” or comfortable to do this at first. However, this allows the system, whether it be individual or organisational, to deal with the issues and provides the opportunity for cure. Of course, this works only with certain types of problems. Fully experiencing the fact that one of your machines has broken down, be it a computer or a lathe, will not help at all. However, this works quite well with non-technical problems (e.g., people problems and social-system problems).

The bottom-line regarding emotions and change, therefore, is to encourage people to talk. That means that managers have to listen, not defend or justify – just shut-up and really listen. This will allow people to process past experiences and emotions. It will allow people to “get it off their chest”. This will allow them to begin to “let go” of those feelings and the past – as all pain and hurt are in the past – and will allow them to begin to move forward. This may take a while and will likely not be much fun for anyone involved at first. Once the air is cleared, however, you will see people more and more able to access emotion, express emotion, acknowledge emotion, release emotion, and move on (i.e., access, express, acknowledge, release, and move on). This will lead to quicker and more successful change.

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