I was giving a seminar on coaching and communication skills when the subject of emotional expression as a professional came up. This group of women who work with parents of children with special needs, are often touched emotionally by their client’s stories. They questioned the appropriateness of expressing their feelings in the work setting.
I thought this was a very interesting point that deserved some attention. How often have you been touched emotionally leading a group and wondered what to do with that emotion? On the flip side, how many of you have been provoked emotionally and wondered what to do with that? Is expressing emotion in the workplace “unprofessional?” Is expressing emotion in work situations a problem to overcome, as many women in this group asserted? Let’s have a look at these questions.
An alternative to keeping your feelings out of the workplace
Swamped or Just Feeling? Before we go much further into this emotional territory, I feel it’s important to draw a distinction or two. First off, if we encounter an event that triggers a flood of past emotions that we haven’t fully expressed, we can become incapacitated. So we must ask, does this feeling seem appropriate in content and intensity to the current situation or, is this bringing on a flood of emotions from the past? Of course, in a highly emotional state, the answer to this question may be difficult to determine but if you’re present with your body, you’re likely to have a good idea.
As professionals, we certainly want to avoid being swamped by our emotions, but this doesn’t mean that we want to avoid feeling! Avoiding or burying our feelings over time leads to the likelihood of being swamped when the appropriate trigger comes along. So we always want to acknowledge our feelings and give ourselves the opportunity to express them appropriately. But there it is again. What the heck is appropriate when it comes to expressing our feelings in a work situation? The best answer to this type of question, and the most honest is, “It all depends.”
Good vs. Bad Emotion. Appropriate expression of emotion is defined by our culture. Within each national culture, we have work and community subcultures that vary widely in this regard. Within most groups in the United States, expression of passion, inspiration, and excitement is a good thing. These are considered “good” and acceptable emotions. They’re OK to express, even required if you’re an entertainer or performer of some kind. However they may be frowned upon if you work in the defense industry, or other arenas where being too positive or too happy is unacceptable.
There are few public groups where bad feelings are welcome. Feelings such as sadness, depression, or fear aren’t pretty. And we all know this. It’s a common event to hear people apologizing when they’re in tears, as if this is a sin of some kind. In fact, I believe it was the eleventh commandment that was severed from Moses clay tablets, one of which he dropped on his way down the mountain after having that stern talk with the man upstairs. It read, “Thou shalt not cry in public.”
In most cultures, crying in public is just not OK. It’s not professional, it’s not pretty, and it plain just doesn’t feel good.
Who’s problem is it really? I believe that we apologize for our tears not only because we’ve been taught that it’s inappropriate, but at some level, we know it’s uncomfortable to others. By “others,” I mean those with unresolved emotional issues who are afraid to express them. Our current outpouring of emotion sparks their fear of feeling something from the past. Like we said earlier, if we all simply feel our responses to the situations that present themselves, our feelings can come and go in harmony with the occasion and we carry on, much lighter as a result.
Can you be authentic without emotion? If you’re been reading my work for any time at all, you know that I’m a big fan of authenticity as a group leader. But what does it mean to be “authentic?” Does it simply mean to be honest in what we think? We can share our authentic thoughts, but how often have you been impacted by a thought alone? I’ll guarantee you that the thought was either delivered with great emotion or sparked an emotional chord within you in order to have made an impact that lives to this day.
How do you feel about the emotional expression of others? Personally, when someone is authentically moved emotionally, whether they’re a leader or a follower, and they express themselves with from this natural place, I receive what this as a gift. It takes courage in our society to express yourself in this way. And in a society often sterilized of all but the most superficial feelings, this is a welcome gift indeed. If this is true, then why hold back? If you’re moved, be moved. Expressing yourself disconnected from the energy of feeling is expressing less than you have to share. Why not give all you have to give? Doing so is a gift not only to others, but to yourself as well.
What are your beliefs around emotional expression as a professional? Please share your questions, feedback, or experience in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.