When the Men Engaged with Hard Feelings
The night before, I dreamt that no one is talking. I imagined a bunch of men looking at me strangely, refusing to cooperate.
Over 50 cups of coffee for a group of 25 people, comprised of two women and the rest are men. A few dozens of short cigarette breaks during 3.5 hours. 48 colorful sticky notes with key insights are collected over the same period of time, plus a few abstract doodles made on the big white paper sheets laid on the tables.
Talking about shame, guilt, and other hidden feelings with a group of over 20 men working in manufacturing is not an easy task. Neither for them, as participants in this experiment, nor for me, their facilitator.
The idea came from the other woman in the group, their HR manager. She called me on the phone to schedule a meeting to discuss a leadership process facilitation in the factory. But by the time the meeting was held — the atmosphere had shifted completely.
“We have an emergency”, she confided in me. Apparently, the factory had gone through a big safety incident, which forced the manufacturing employees to work around the clock for nearly two weeks, until the production line was operating safely again. Not only that, there was a continuous chain of mistakes that spiraled, resulting in a tremendous end cost for the company. By the time it was all over, the men were not only exhausted — they were silent, carried guilt and shame, were confused and were wondering if they were going to get fired (although the management made it clear that they weren’t).
“We have to take care of this situation first”, said to me the HR manager, as one professional to another. “We need to help them talk about their feelings”, she pointed out, as one woman to another. “We need to uncover what is going on”, she concluded.
I agreed, realizing that it was going to be a tough challenge to tackle, but one that is deeply needed.
Exactly one week after, we were gathered in a cozy seminar room, with round tables, posters of questions hanging on the walls, wide sketching papers, and a bottomless samovar of coffee. My purpose, as I shared with the group, was straight to the point: digesting what had happened during the incident, focusing on how it made them feel. Did they feel supported during the two stressful weeks? Does the organization allow room for mistakes? Is there a culture of listening in their teams? Which emotions arose?
The night before, I dreamt that no one is talking. I imagined a bunch of men looking at me strangely, wondering what I wanted from them, refusing to cooperate. Fortunately, reality proved to be the complete opposite.
Around an hour into the process, I found myself standing on the side, watching them during one of the exercises, while they are talking aloud about their most vulnerable feelings. Every approximately 20 minutes, they got up to get more coffee or stepped outside for a smoke. But no one quit the conversation and they kept on and on about their emotional state.
It was all there, no filters for the first time since the incident.
When guilt and shame are altering the game
During the last three years, I’ve been researching the topic of burnout. As a Non-Violent Communication facilitator, I have long recognized the value of openly communicating needs and feelings. Yet never before was I aware of the connection between shame, guilt, and burnout.
Here’s what I found out, after countless conversations with friends, colleagues, and interviewees: shame and guilt are often derived from the feeling that we haven’t been doing enough; or that we have made a mistake that impacted others or even entire systems. Shame and guilt also rise when we feel that we are not ___ enough (fill in the blank), or that our words and actions are misaligned
When we maintain those feelings over time, instead of breaking them down and openly dealing with them, our self-worth decreases significantly. In fact, the less we communicate those hard feelings, and the less we are supported by others about this stressful inner situation, the more likely we are to lose trust in ourselves.
When we don’t trust ourselves, we lose the motivation to keep going and pursue our mission, personally or professionally. We might stop functioning on a daily basis, partly or completely. This vicious cycle feeds the self-disappointment and our motivation and energy further diminish.
At this phase, we’re not only stressed, or lonely, or lacking the motivation to act, but we’re on the edge of burnout, if not caught in it already. We quit the game, feeling that we lost completely, without any hope on the horizon. We’re disconnected, both from ourselves and from others.
Painful, but needed
I hate terrifying people with the worst-case scenario. I usually stay away from negative descriptions, aspiring to adhere to positive and enlightening communication. Yet sometimes, you have to shake the tree in order to see the sunlight between the heavy branches and thick leaves.
Describing the causes of burnout could paint a dark picture, unless we remember the initial purpose of opening up this topic for a wide discussion: burnout is an issue that needs to be addressed. Stress is real. Guilt and shame are emotional states that are difficult to bare. If we could understand that although those feelings are individual stressors, the end result — burnout — is a social epidemic, then we could better tackle the problem by addressing the root causes. Moreover, talking openly about shame, guilt, burnout and other hard emotions is painful — but also liberating and revealing of an elusive truth — we are never alone in this.
Join the growing discussion about preventing burnout and cultivating wellbeing, your voice is needed!