Over the 23 years since we met, my wife Eleanor and I have spent considerable time, money, and energy on our development. Individually and together, we’ve taken workshops, studied meditation, practiced yoga, written in journals, talked about our dreams, participated in training programs, and gone to therapy.
A few weeks ago, we were taking a walk along a rural road, questioning why we do it. Is all this inner work simply navel gazing? Or does it impact our lives in a real way?
Just as we were exploring the question, we turned a bend and heard a loud party at a house on the side of the road. As we approached the house we could see the deck was filled with about a dozen college-aged men joking around and drinking.
My body tensed and my emotions intensified. I felt a mix of fear, insecurity, competitiveness, and jealousy. I saw them as the kinds of guys Eleanor would be attracted to — big, alpha, confident — and I felt inferior. Which made me feel aggressive towards them. It took me about a minute to realize what I was feeling and why.
I turned to Eleanor and told her what I was feeling. She laughed; she also felt aggressive and had an immediate, instinctual, emotional response, but the opposite of mine. She saw them as obnoxious, uncaring, sexist, and unattractive. She felt superior to them. And resentful that they would probably end up having power in our world.
Two seemingly simple but actually incredibly difficult and crucially important things happened in those few seconds: we recognized what we were feeling, and we talked about it.
Simply being able to feel is a feat in itself. We often spend considerable unconscious effort ignoring what we feel because it can be painful. Who wants to be afraid or jealous or insecure? So we stifle the feelings, argue ourselves out of them, or distract ourselves with busy work or small talk.
But just because we don’t recognize a feeling doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not feeling something guarantees that it won’t go away.
Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.
This is a particularly pernicious problem in our hyper-efficient, productivity-focused workplaces, where it often feels risky to feel any emotion at all. We’re expected to get over things, focus on the work, and not get distracted.
But repression is not an effective strategy. It’s where passive aggressiveness is born. It’s the foundation of most dysfunctional organizational politics. And it undermines the collaboration so integral to any company.
A woman I work with interrupted a presentation I was giving and asked me to proceed differently with the sixty people in the room. I made a snap decision not to get into a fight on stage and proceeded the way she asked. The presentation went fine.
But she didn’t need to interrupt me; the presentation would have gone fine either way. I was angry. I felt stepped on. And I believed she prioritized her own agenda over our mutual one.
I wanted to get back at her. I wanted to embarrass her the way I felt embarrassed. I wanted to talk to lots of other people about her and what she did, gaining their sympathy and support. I wanted to feel better.
But I didn’t do anything right away. And, as I sat with the feeling, I realized that while I felt a jumble of emotions, mostly I felt hurt and untrusted.
Mustering up my courage, I emailed her, acknowledging the challenge of making in-the-moment decisions but letting her know I felt hurt and mistrusted. She sent me a wonderful email back, acknowledging her mistake and thanking me for my willingness to let her know when she missed the mark.
And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away.
Maybe I got lucky. She could have emailed back that I was incompetent, monopolizing the stage, and communicating poorly. But, honestly? That would have been fine too – because I would have learned something from it, even if it didn’t feel easy in the moment.
Most important to me, our relationship was strengthened by the encounter.
But if I had just railed about her behind her back? Built a coalition of support for me and outrage about her? It would have felt good in the moment, but, ultimately, it would have hurt me, her, and the organization.
It sounds easy to know what you’re feeling and express it. But it takes great courage. I was tempted to write an email to her about my anger, which would have been safer and kept me in a feeling of power. Hurt feels more vulnerable than anger. But being able to communicate my true, vulnerable feelings made all the difference in how we related to each other.
How do you get to those feelings? Take a little time and space to ask yourself what you are really feeling. Keep asking until you sense something that feels a little dangerous, a little risky. That sensation is probably why you’re hesitant to feel it and a good sign that you’re now ready to communicate.
It’s counterintuitive: Wait to communicate until you feel vulnerable communicating. But it’s a good rule of thumb.
Had I not talked to Eleanor about what I was feeling when we saw that deck filled with drinking college guys, I would have gotten clingy to her, looking for some reassurance that she loved me. And, if I had not received it — and why should I since she would have no idea what was going on in my head? — I would have become distant, resentful, and insecure.
But instead, we just laughed and focused on other, more interesting conversation. Apparently, all that navel gazing really does impact our lives in a real way.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.