The F Word at Work: how to talk about feelings when subjectivity is taboo

A credible and well-meaning mentor once gave me the advice that if I want to be taken seriously at work, I need to stop talking about feelings.

My whole career revolves around the idea that emotion plays a starring (or at least, supporting actress) role at work. I had been hired on the strength of my promise that by helping employees consciously deal with their feelings relating to each other, their projects, and the organization at large, I could support the whole company to thrive. I was part of the organizational limbic system, there to help the living organism process, release, and circulate the information contained in the group’s subjective experiences.

Work places that elect not to address emotion and its impact on behavior of people within the system are usually plagued by collectively repressed feelings gone rogue. It’s unprocessed emotion that causes a disgruntled employee to write hate mail on glassdoor instead of politely using the HR feedback form.

Employees in an Industrial Age era organization didn’t need to know what they felt, and were probably better off if they weren’t conscious of what their feeling center was telling them. Contemporary organizations work in the complex adaptive arena, though, where aha moments, creativity, communication, collaboration and other whole mind qualities are crucial (like Daniel Pink says in a Whole New Mind). There’s still space for reason, of course, but a throne has been pulled up alongside King Leftbrain for the return of Queen Rightbrain, ruler of non-logical, creative, imagistic, feeling intelligence. Companies that hope to survive the great paradigmatic shift into the future world of work will need to learn how to work with feelings.

having feelings is like having a dog

Feelings are a handful, like children and dogs. They need to be petted, attended to, and cared for in a patient, consistent way. Ideally we love them unconditionally, though practically we don’t succeed at that all the time. It doesn’t work to indulge them with chocolate and too much time on a device, but it also doesn’t work to squelch or ignore them.

But just like children, feelings are also lovable, natural, charming, and full of life energy. They do funny and touching things that you tell your friends about. They paint pictures and cuddle you. They’re well worth the inconvenience of looking after and any energy we invest cultivating a loving relationship with feeling yields infinite rewards (better relationships, creativity, work lives, and so on). Our mammalian brains and the bodies we have, that serve as the vehicle for us to experience our emotions, are awesome gifts that come free when you sign up for being human.

I know some smart people who say that they have, but my experience says you can’t opt out of having feelings without eventually suffering. Maybe it’s our own anger and vulnerability that go Vesuvius all over the Pompeii of our private or work lives. Equally possible is that our disowned emotions get split off from our conscious awareness, and therefore projected outwards, seemingly tormenting us from “out there”, where we can’t change them. But Return of the Repressed isn’t a horror film title (should be, though, right?), it’s a fact of life. Although almost all of us were raised to do it, eliding negative feelings has a cost — we end up unable to experience sensations of joy, love and satisfaction in our bodies.

puppies feel joy in their bodies

That’s a serious curse when you think about it, because some (like me) might argue that every single choice we make in life is because of the feeling state we hope to achieve through that behavior. If we make the effort of earning a lot of money, it’s because we want to feel secure, important, or luxurious. If we are motivated by mastery and achievement, we like the feeling that courses through our bodies when we permit ourselves to think “I have accomplished something meaningful at last”. Allowing for the diversity of psychological drivers, human behavior is ultimately motivated by avoiding unpleasant states and pursuing pleasant ones. These states are subjective — we experience them as emotions sensed in the body. If after doing all the work to get somewhere, you can’t feel the pay off, you are set up for chronic dissatisfaction.

My mentor who advised me against dropping the f-bomb was too experienced and too much of an ally to be dismissed altogether. I knew that he knew why feelings at work are important, but was tipping me off to a key bit of insider information — people at the top don’t talk about feelings.

Now why would that be? Why is it so horrible to acknowledge and make space for subjectivity?

I had in fact already adapted my language since joining the corporate world. Early on in my one-on-one coaching work with employees across many job categories, I discovered that some more cognitively-identified people wouldn’t open up to me if I asked the question, “how do you feel about your team”, while “what do you think about how your team is doing” created a link through which I was eventually able to get to know them and their emotional cast of characters quite well.

Naturally I had also picked up that some people preferred if I spoke in the abstract about trends in “human capital” than about how people they knew felt on the job. In fact it was my duty to translate the foreign language of emotion into bullet points, graphs and action steps that preferably didn’t even refer to the soft, gooey way that I gathered this information from employees.

That is fine, all of it. Nearly everyone I know struggles to validate their own feelings for the simple reason that we have been raised to believe that what we feel is far less important, if it is important at all, than what someone else thinks. It takes enormous courage to consciously experience our subjectivity, especially after a lifetime of believing success in life comes from pushing emotions, the very essence of our own point of view, out of our minds and bodies.

There are also gender and culture reasons that some people are more ok than others admitting to the existence of and talking about negative feelings. There are historical, sociopolitical, feminist, and even spiritual explanations for why the realm of emotion has been largely barred from “serious” conversation in work places. And those who are in charge usually didn’t get there by reading tarot cards and letting themselves cry in front of investors, however much they may have needed to, I get that. I would never push someone to admit that they are having feelings, if to do so is tantamount to seeing themselves as weak, whiny, unprofessional, or whatever other tag is attached to it.

But for my part, I decided to say thank you and ignore my mentor’s advice. I am willing to face my bad memories of being judged too sensitive, emotional, hippie, and in general not right for this world, for the sake of expanding our collective human access to the realm of feelings. I think the world is ready, and I believe that in 2016, rather than being a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength to be able to use the F-word at work.

I’m tough and logical sometimes, just like everyone. And just like everyone else, the iceberg of my rational self sits atop a vast, rich underwater ecosystem just teeming with soft, squishy feelings, only a fraction of which are known to science. If anyone loves psyche-diving and wants to discuss, you know I’m always down to go deep :).

Thank you for reading!