The mature use of emotion

Rationality is not about eliminating emotion – instead, it’s using emotion in a mature way, in a way that doesn’t harm people or cause confusion, and ideally adds a lot of wisdom and depth to a conversation. That’s really useful in relationships, and I especially find it useful in business.

Too often people try to eliminate or conceal their emotions in the workplace. But emotions convey lots of useful information that can be critical for a team to know about. I’d even say they’re essential if you want to have a great team – I’ve many times had people tell me they’re afraid the team was going to make a bad decision. And then we looked at the decision more carefully and changed direction, with great success!

And if many people on a team are mad, or sad, or afraid, or glad – that’s probably something everyone, especially the leaders, should want to know.

So how do you let people know what you’re feeling without causing problems? One way is to use the Check In Protocol – you simply say what you’re feeling in terms of four basic emotions, mad, sad, glad or afraid.

Why just these four? From a practical perspective, they have been found to work well – more or less description doesn’t get things communicated in an optimal way. And there is a lot of research that shows that there are 7 universal human emotions:

  • joy/happiness
  • sadness
  • fear
  • anger
  • surprise
  • disgust
  • contempt

(For more info see the research of Paul Ekman and his books Unmasking the Face and Emotions Revealed.)

Ethnographic studies have shown that these emotions have the same facial expressions in all human cultures. While it’s possible to get into subtle nuances of emotions that don’t appear on this list, these particular emotions (and combinations of them) are hard-wired into our brains and faces. You literally can not keep your face from making these expressions if you are feeling the corresponding emotion, unless you are a sociopath. But it is very useful to use words, since most people can not consciously connect expressions to emotions. Words are an overt channel. In Western culture, people are so conditioned to keep quiet about their emotions that communicating about a smaller list keeps things simple and clear, and makes it more likely that people will not be misunderstood.

So why aren’t surprise, disgust, and contempt on the list? I think disgust and contempt aren’t on there because if you are feeling these, you should deal with them outside of Check In to avoid doing damage. And surprise? I think genuine surprise is momentary, so can be left off.

This in no way says you can’t combine mad, sad, glad and afraid to get the nuances that you want: “I am feeling glad and afraid” to get “excited” for instance, or “sad and mad” to get “hurt.” And I will often say “I am feeling hurt – sad and mad.” That’s ok as long as you don’t diminish feelings (“a little mad”). With some work I’ve found I can get across most emotional states.