The difficult work of emotion management--which entails both awareness of and regulation of our feelings--lies at the heart of much of what I do as a coach and experiential educator. The issues my clients and students wrestle with obviously have many cognitive dimensions: There's a challenge that must be understood fully. There are potential solutions that must be assessed. There are actions to be taken (or to be avoided), and the likely result of these choices must be predicted. In a word, there's a great deal of thinking to do, and I spend plenty of time coaching people on this level.
But these issues are never purely (or even primarily) cognitive. If they were, my clients and students--all successful leaders or Stanford MBAs--are more than smart enough to determine next steps on their own. They would have reached a conclusion, made a decision and moved on. But one reason they find value in talking about these issues with a coach is the emotional dimension. The issues that come up in coaching sessions generally evoke a range of feelings that are rich signals full of data about how to proceed, but these signals are tremendously complex and hard to decipher. In a word, there's a great deal of feeling to do, and I spend just as much time coaching people on this level.
Coaching can highlight the power of our emotional drives and the inadequacy of our purely cognitive responses. We're often so ill-equipped to deal with our feelings that we try to push them away. We distract ourselves, we numb ourselves, we do anything but allow ourselves to truly feel. But the problem is that emotions are essential inputs in our reasoning and decision-making processes, and without their guidance we can get stuck--particularly when we're dealing with complex issues that can't be distilled into comprehensible decision trees.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting we should simply obey our feelings or that emotions are an unerring guide to right action--far from it. Our emotions are a "quick and dirty processing system," in neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux's phrase, and there's plenty of noise in those signals. So the task we face is emotion management. We need to both heighten our awareness of our feelings and allow ourselves to fully experience them in the moment, while also building our capacity for to regulate them, so that we can choose more thoughtfully how (and how not) to express and respond to those feelings in a given moment.
This is where a coach can be uniquely helpful. In a coaching session I'll regularly bring the focus back to the emotional level, not just by asking, "How do you feel?"--which is both inadequate for my purpose and tiresome for the person being coached--but by taking other, more proactive steps: Sensing, reflecting back, and responding to the other person's emotions; evoking emotions that may play a helpful role in the conversation; and even expressing my own emotional response in the moment.
Such work can be an end in itself--the ability to fully experience our emotions adds tremendous value and richness to life--but it's also a means to an end. Improved emotion management results in stronger relationships, greater influence and better leadership. It's difficult work, requiring a substantial commitment of time and energy, but my clients and students don't make that investment because it sounds good; they make the investment because of the return it yields in fulfillment and effectiveness.
Photo by Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.