Tools for Leading in Times of Immense Change: Let’s talk feelings. Part 2.

Posted on July 27, 2020

Our job as leaders is to move our team in unison towards business objectives. In the current moment of upheaval, uncertainty, and change, our team, and likely that includes ourselves, is probably exhibiting unexpected behaviors and reactions. Unpredictable behavior is normal when our lives are upended and fear and anxiety waft through the air like pollen. Our go-to tools for leading an effective team may not be working. As I said in the first part of this series, this moment presents us with opportunities to become more fruitful leaders and better humans through the practice of empathy.

We cannot assume what worked before will continue to work, so we need to figure out what will work. The way we do that is through empathy, understanding another person’s reasoning and emotions. This understanding can become the basis of new means of motivating and supporting, even in uncertain contexts. We can give our team what they need right now, which allows them to give the business what it needs.

A caveat here: This is not to say that, in these difficult times, once you have empathy you will drive people hard or expect them to produce exactly what they were able to produce before. These are not normal circumstances and, as you practice empathy, you may find, because of that empathy, that your team needs to be given some leeway for that. Empathy is a tool, not a miracle.

Empathy isn’t just about your team. Productive teams support each other ⸺ they show empathy. Leaders must model the behavior they want their team to exhibit, and that includes empathy for others and yourself. If you show empathy to others, but not yourself, you will end up taking on more work and being resentful and frustrated. You will yourself from the support of the team you are creating.

Also, let’s be real, you need to give yourself compassion and leeway for the confusing and precarious world in which we find ourselves. That is why we will focus our first practical skills for building empathy on ourselves.

Empathy is a skill and you are the first guinea pig

That’s right. I’m talking about practical skills. Empathy is a skill that can be practiced and honed, even for those who feel they already know how to do it. Difficult circumstances stretch our empathy skills and we can always make them stronger.

For those of you who don’t think about empathy that much, don’t worry, you likely do it already. When you try to understand the reasoning and emotions behind how someone might react to a situation, that’s empathy. When you consider what gift someone might like, that’s empathy. You can learn to use it more intentionally, and more effectively, in difficult business situations.

Often when you are first working on empathy, the moment it seems most useful is when you experience unexpected or emotion-provoking action from another person. These are also the hardest times to implement or practice. So, while self-compassion is perhaps the hardest kind of empathy, it is also the easiest to practice because we don’t need to wait for those unexpected or emotion-provoking situations. Working on empathy in small moments will make bigger events easier to manage.

Knowing and understanding yourself is the foundation of being an effective leader. The late leadership expert, Warren Bennis, said “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”

Knowing yourself allows you to disentangle your needs and motives from everyone else’s. This gives you the space to learn the needs and motives of your team and then motivate them effectively to meet the needs of the business. Consistently practicing empathy and paying attention to the needs and motives of others will allow you to continuously adapt your leadership to whatever circumstances arise. Listening to the needs and motives of others is practicing empathy.

There are three main components of empathy:

  1. Naming and recognizing emotions
  2. Turning off your inner narrator
  3. Listening

Listening tends to be the hardest of the components of empathy to practice. It is more difficult than it looks because I am talking about listening to understand, not listening to respond. If you don’t understand the difference, that’s ok — we will get there.

In order to listen effectively, though, we need to first build the foundation. Naming and recognizing emotions, generally, is the way we can communicate our empathy and connection to others. It also allows us to consciously choose how we respond to our own emotions. Turning off our inner narrator is what allows us to pay attention to our own emotional response and actively listen to another person. Combined, these two skills are critical to empathy though, in my experience, they are often left out or glossed over.

Let’s talk about feelings

We say “I feel” a lot when we are not actually talking about feelings. “I feel like you are an asshole” is not a feeling. What you are really saying is “You just behaved like an asshole.” A feeling would be “I feel sad(, because you just behaved like an asshole).” “I feel judged” is not a feeling; it’s an accusation. You are accusing another person of judging you, though you probably feel angry about it. “I feel like you’re perfect” could be a compliment on meticulous work, and you may feel proud of the other person’s work. It could also be a passive-aggressive statement on your expectations of others’ work, and the feeling might be frustrated or jealous or resentful. “I feel understood” or “I feel like you totally get my vision” means that you believe the other person understands your work and that you feel confident as it relates to your working relationship.

We tag “I feel” onto sentences as a way to soften the blow — either for ourselves or for others. In essence, we, as a society, do this, because we don’t value emotions. We think they are “soft.” We think they should be controlled. We think they are not as important as facts. And yet, emotions, far more than facts, drive our behavior. This is especially true when we take actions without recognizing what is driving our behavior. The first step to acknowledgment is to recognize and name something. This allows us to consciously respond instead of unconsciously react.

So what is a feeling then? Here are just a few emotions (or feelings):

  • Angry
  • Happy
  • Ashamed
  • Loving
  • Hopeful
  • Amused
  • Discouraged
  • Intelligent
  • Confused

You can check out this Feelings Wheel or this one or this Feelings Inventory. Did any of the words surprise you?

How do you feel about Ikea furniture? An Exercise

Let’s practice recognizing and naming emotions. We are going to use a low-stakes context. Because it’s often difficult to piece together the arc of an event after the fact, we will try to remember what happened before and after the event. This can help us to see how emotions from previous events affected our response to a task and/or how our feelings about the task affected later behavior. Using the Feelings Wheels or Inventory, you will attempt to identify all the emotions you felt at various points in the process. So let’s get started.

Grab a notebook or open a new document or however you’d like to jot things down. This should take 3-5 minutes. And no one else will see it. Don’t overthink it!

Think of a specific time you had to put together Ikea furniture. (Or did another occasional household task.)

  1. What is your initial reaction to this type of task, generally? Do you find putting together furniture (or whatever you chose), in general, frustrating, soothing, fun, impossible? Or perhaps it’s a combination of many feelings?
  2. Write down the date and approximate time of the event.
  3. What happened 30 minutes before?
  4. What happened 1 hour after?
  5. Go look at one of the Feelings Wheels or the Feelings Inventory.
  6. Using only words from the Feeling list, write down all the emotions you experienced while doing the task, as well as before and after the task. This is best done rapid-fire, from your gut. What words resonate immediately when you think of before, during, and after.

Nice work! That’s it. That’s all we are doing with this right now. The larger goal is to recognize and name your emotions in real-time. Looking at past events, however, is a helpful way to exercise this muscle. It can also be helpful to review all the various feeling words from time to time.

Now in your real lifegive that feeling a name.

Listen, Movie Trailer Guy, I need you to stop talking

“In a world, where we constantly judge ourselves and others … we really need to quiet our minds …”

Ok, this really has nothing to do with the Movie Trailer Guy, but as one of the most ubiquitous narrators, he is a good person to bring forth when we are talking about our own inner narrator. Our inner narrator is often a real jerk: they get defensive, they judge others, they judge us. Our inner narrator always talks over people and interrupts them. Even if they say lovely things, they still are constantly chatting away, regardless of who else is talking. Just because no one else hears them doesn’t mean they don’t prevent you from truly listening and hearing what other people are saying. When two people speak at the same time, it’s almost impossible for them to fully hear each other. This is true even if one of the people chattering is your inner narrator.

So what can you do? The inner narrator, let’s call them Sam, has been with us since we were little. It is hard to shut up Sam. Sam is used to yammering on unencumbered.

Go back to that time you put together Ikea furniture or whatever occasional household task you chose. Did you think: “I’m awesome at this and I’ll be done in 10 minutes!” or “I should be able to do this!” or “Why do I suck at putting together furniture?” or “My mom would know which is a Phillips screwdriver…” or other shoulds or judgments? That’s your inner narrator. What did I tell you? Sam can be a real dirtbag.

Turning off your inner narrator is the most difficult prerequisite for listening and empathy. In discussing this topic with others, I’ve found that there is a range of things you can try, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. (Kind of like approaches to management!) The foundational skill is mindfulness, or attempting to bring your attention to the present moment. This is often done in one of two ways (or both at the same time): naming or labeling your thoughts (and emotions!) or bringing your attention to your body.

Since we just practiced naming our emotions, I won’t spend too much time on this technique. If you are getting upset during a conversation and your inner narrator (Sam) starts ranting, it can be helpful to just acknowledge, “I’m angry,” without reacting to that feeling. Or you might acknowledge, “I’m ranting,” or, “I’m not listening,” and this labeling of your thoughts and actions can help you refocus your attention on the speaker.

Different people have different ways they bring their attention to their physical selves in order to get out of their heads. The technique that works the best for me is to start focusing on my breath — not trying to control it, just noticing it. Because this inherently splits my attention between my breath and the person speaking, there is not much energy left for Sam to narrate the conversation and try to map out all the responses and counterpoints. Here are some other ideas:

  • Press a fingernail into the back of your thumb
  • Squeeze your wrist and forearm
  • Focus on the bottom of your feet and what they are touching
  • Pinch your thigh
  • Bite your lip

Any ideas about what might work for you?

Have you noticed what you unconsciously do anyway in these moments where you feel a strong emotion (fear, frustration, anger, sadness)? Bounce your leg? Tap a pencil? Can you bring attention to that or to trying not to do that?

As you go out into the world tomorrow, give yourself a challenge of shutting off Sam (your inner narrator) at least once per day. If you’re not sure which technique might work for you, try each of them and see what works. Like all skills, it gets easier with practice.

Go forth and pay attention — to yourself

Now that we’ve learned how to get out of our own way in order to listen, we will turn our attention to how to actively and effectively do that listening in the next blog post. This will lead us directly into empathy because we will be able to hear and acknowledge the reasoning and emotions behind another person’s behavior. Once we can understand that, we can effectively motivate, influence, and coach them to be a productive team member who thrives and moves the business forward.

In the meantime, practice naming your emotions and shutting off your inner narrator using the techniques in this blog post.


This blog post is the second in a series on Empathy + Leadership: Tools for Leading in Times of Immense Change:

I’m in the process of writing a book on leadership, power, and belonging. If you’d like to keep up to date with my progress and posts related to leadership, join my mailing list!


photo credit: avide.alberani ALL FEELINGS ARE VALID! via photopin CC BY-SA 2.0


No Replies to "Tools for Leading in Times of Immense Change: Let’s talk feelings. Part 2."


    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.