1) Learn to access our emotions more fully, express emotions to others more effectively, and allow ourselves to become emotionally "flooded."
2) Learn to manage ourselves more effectively, interact productively with others and make better decisions while experiencing strong emotions.
3) Learn to de-escalate strong emotions when flooded and find efficient and healthy ways of soothing ourselves.
There's an obvious arc to this emotional journey, one that involves pushing ourselves to reach new heights, navigating those peaks under difficult conditions, and safely returning to lower altitudes. Looked at from this perspective, coaching (and experiential learning more generally) can be seen as emotional mountaineering. I help my clients and students make this journey by traveling alongside them and experiencing it with them--I suppose I'm an emotional sherpa :-)
This metaphor may make sense if you've done meaningful work with a coach or in an experiential learning environment--and if not, I imagine it prompts some questions:
Why so much emphasis on emotions?
The huge gap between the role emotions actually play and how they're commonly understood would be amusing if it didn't have such negative consequences. The popular view is that emotions are irrational impulses that cloud our judgment, and we need to repress them in order for rational thought to prevail. But recent neurological research has made it quite clear that emotions are an essential element in the reasoning process. As USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote in 1994 in his influential book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain,
[H]uman reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both "high-level" and "low-level" brain regions...cooperate in the making of reason.
The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism's survival... Emotion, feeling and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. [p xvii]
More specifically, emotions allows us to make decisions much more efficiently than would be possible through logic alone. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of NYU notes in The Emotional Brain that the neurological pathways that process emotions are literally twice as fast as those that process cognitions.
This isn't to say that our emotions never lead us astray; of course they do, particularly strong negative emotions such as fear or anger--see below. LeDoux calls the emotional pathways in the brain a "quick and dirty processing system," one whose signals can readily be misinterpreted. But if we habitually repress our emotions we never improve our ability to discern the signal from the noise, to determine which emotional responses are helpful in a given set of circumstances and which are counterproductive.
Feeling our emotions more fully also allows us to express them more effectively with others. Emotions are the levers of influence, and our ability to inspire, comfort, motivate, or threaten is dependent on our ability to tap into and convey the right emotions in the right way at the right time.
All this work is challenging enough when we're calm and reflective; it's infinitely more difficult when we're hurt, angry, upset or excited--this is why it's important to allow ourselves to become emotionally "flooded," so that we can practice these skills under duress.
What do you mean by "flooding"?
"Flooding" is a term employed by the social psychologist and therapist John Gottman to describe the condition of heightened emotional arousal that creates a sense of overwhelm, typically occurring when we're subjected to criticism or feel attacked in some way.
We experience flooding as a host of physiological symptoms--such as rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, shallow breathing, or sweaty palms--that result from increased levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, most notably adrenaline and cortisol. These are the biological markers of a "threat response," or what's often called a "fight-or-flight" reaction, that usually accompany strong negative emotions.
Executive coach David Rock has made an extensive study of the implications of recent neuroscience research for organizational life, and his work highlights three findings with special relevance here: First, our brains respond to social situations that we perceive as threatening in the same way that we respond to literal threats to our physical safety. Second, we experience these social threats most frequently at work. And finally, when we're experiencing a threat response our capacity for analytic thought, creative insight and problem-solving is substantially diminished.
This cognitive impairment is one of the primary reasons for popular misconceptions about the role of emotions noted above; we've all made bad decisions while in the grip of a threat response. But rather than seeking to suppress our negative emotions--an effort that rarely works and often leads to higher stress levels--we're much better served by strategies that allow us to both 1) reframe situations so that we experience them as less threatening in the first place and 2) increase our level of comfort with strong emotions and our ability to manage ourselves while flooded.
This is why it's so important to allow ourselves to feel strong emotions and even become flooded in the safe confines of a coaching session or experiential learning environment, where we can step slightly outside our comfort zone without putting ourselves at risk.
So what does this look like in practice?
To be clear, the majority of my conversations with clients and students are upbeat and even lighthearted. I'm a firm believer in the value of focusing on the positive, doing more of what's working, and seeking greater levels of happiness and fulfillment to support our professional effectiveness. And my own effectiveness as a coach depends on establishing a foundation of safety, trust and intimacy, whether on a one-on-one basis in a coaching engagement or among the members of a group in other settings.
But it's important that we also make room for a wide range of emotions in order to be able to do the work outlined above. This means very different things for each of us, of course, and I don't take a one-size-fits-all approach. I try to find the right balance of challenge and support that's called for in every relationship, but a common theme is a willingness to take some risks in order to learn and grow, and this inevitably involves stepping into some stronger emotions--from amusement to elation, from annoyance to anger, from embarrassment to shame, from disappointment to grief.
My experience in thousands of coaching sessions and group meetings over the years is that as we expand the range of emotions we can express in these safe settings, we increase our ability to make effective use of emotion in "the real world," where the risks are higher and the returns are greater. To return to the mountaineering metaphor, by pushing ourselves to new heights we become more sure-footed under stress and increase our trust in our ability to return safely.Thanks to Mary Ann Huckabay, Carole Robin and Scott Bristol.
Photo by Mitch Barrie. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.