Park the Assumptions

When it comes to emotions, we’ve got our collective head in some pretty dark places…

Myths, rules and fictions about emotions run fast and thick and, because they are everywhere, it’s tempting to think they’re true.

In a recent segment of the leadership program; I mentioned last week – this one led by Neha Sangwan – leaders were asked what stories or assumptions show up when certain strong emotions present in other people.

Neha asked the group, “What do tears mean?”

Most of the responses fell along the lines of weakness, manipulation, or fear…

(I wept the first time I laid eyes on Notre Dame cathedral. I was on a late-night solo walk in Paris, across the river from the Ile de la Cité, approaching from the southeast. The images in my art history books didn’t exactly do Our Lady justice… I was deeply moved.)

When our room of business leaders was asked about leaky eyes, it took some doing to land the idea that the spigots are just as likely to be opened by joy, beauty, or gratitude.

The answers were only slightly different when the group was queried about anger.

Making up rules about what emotions mean – and, by the way, unquestioningly accepting blanket platitudes about the meaning of emotions – is silly at best, limiting and wildly disrespectful at worst.

Emotions are spectacularly rich sources of information, yet in our culture they’re consistently shoved down, moved aside and/or held with fear and even distain.

Often, they’re relegated to the realm the feminine and therefore, because we’re still largely a chauvinistic culture, considered less-than.

Whether emotions are our own or we’re witnessing them in someone else, the job of the human is to become curious, ask questions, and slow down enough to find out what’s really going on.

The challenge, of course, is that emotions don’t follow neat, clean patterns. They’re unpredictable and fleeting. On one hand, that lack of predictability is triggering, driving the ordered, rational, cognitive mind bonkers. On the other hand, that’s precisely why curiosity becomes so important.

Bonkers ain’t comfortable, and the mind works hard to explain, classify and – you got it – make up rules that allow it to imagine it’s in control.

And while learned discomfort and distrust of emotions is common throughout our culture, there’s something about the way emotions have been socialized out of most boys that can’t help but aggravate an already tough situation…

(Many women leaders, assuming they had to play “like the boys” to climb corporate ladders, have discovered that sawing off emotional limbs was neither helpful nor profitable.)

I spend a lot of time in my work first re-training men to feel, then reacquainting them with the emotional realm, including helping them find language to describe what they’re experiencing.

It’s amazing, rewarding work for many reasons, not the least of which is seeing large swaths of previously hidden experience open up to clients and students, shifting their range from muted grayscale to full color.

Here’s the thing: Great leadership – including self-leadership – is an inside-out job. Moving from the inside out requires developing empathy. Real empathy can only happen when one is vigilant about setting aside preconceptions and becoming curious about what’s really going on inside oneself and over there with the other person.

As tempting as it might be to focus on the “over there” piece, without the inner-self work, there’s just no “there there”, resulting in a kind of vapid (if not downright creepy) “I swear I care” phenomenon.

The inner work isn’t easy. It is, however, necessary.

And by the way, if you must have a hard, fast rule about emotions, here’s one that – I promise – will work with 100% accuracy: “The presence of emotions means emotions are present.”

Then the job is to notice and park the assumptions and uncork the curiosity.

There’s more (a lot more) to learn and practice, of course, and this is simply a starting place…

It just happens to be a starting place that opens to a richer experience of life, more connected, empathetic leadership and, dare I say, a whole world of more fulfilling relationships.

Have at it.