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Change and the F-Word: Feelings

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There is a subject people often find uncomfortable to talk about, especially in business, despite being a universal human experience: feelings.  I often say “Feelings” is the F-word of business.  You might be surprised to hear how many different feelings come up when we discuss the topic of feelings in leadership workshops. Just the mere mention of the subject can bring out feelings of anger, frustration and irritation in participants. But though we don’t like to talk about it, we all have feelings. In fact, we even have feelings about our feelings — and about everyone else’s feelings.

Like them or not, feelings play an important role in our lives. They are clues about who we have been, the beliefs we hold, and the values we serve. They are how we experience the world.

Feelings can be confusing any time, but they can really do a number on us during times of change, even if we are actively choosing change. There is an old version of ourselves that does not want to die; more than that, it wants to stay the same. It feels at peace when everything stays normal, when you are being who you have always been. It knows you and it has very specific knowledge about you and how to change your mind about changing — what to say, what buttons to push.  This version of you is called your ego.

It's like two people entering a ring, and both of them are you — but only one will walk out. And you get to choose which one it is. Is it the old you or the new you? It is here in the ring where feelings swirl. You have all this old stuff and you’re creating new stuff — it’s this zone of vulnerability between the old and the new, where the old isn’t quite working for you, but the new is not quite ready. It’s not yet a habit, not yet part of your core beliefs. You are moving away from something, but those old thoughts and patterns do not want to die. You know how to live there and be safe there — even if you hate it. It’s your ego wanting to run the show. It’s a primal human function. It’s message: you must go back to safety.

It is in this time, these moments of darkness, when understanding the nature of feelings is helpful, whether you are experiencing the stress of change yourself or helping others work through it.

I have found it helpful to think of feelings in this way: feelings and emotions fly through and around people all the time, like invisible particles in the air.  When they hit your “container,” your body, they slow down — essentially coming into your awareness. (If that didn’t happen, you’d experience nothing.) They then sustain your awareness for some period of time.  How long they sustain your awareness is up to you. If you fixate on a feeling and assign it meaning, it stays around in your container longer. If you simply notice it and let it go, it moves on faster.  Feelings are basically neutral until we give them meaning.  We give them meaning based on similar experiences and existing beliefs.

Feelings are a tool for you to have an experience, to learn about yourself, to expose your habits of thinking to you.  Feelings are not inherently good or bad — they just are. They are information. And just like other kinds of information, they can be overwhelming, especially when you are in the “in between,” the transition period between the old and the new you. 

Feelings can seem really inconvenient if you are trying to lead change, especially if they are the kind that accompany change resistance.  You may be triggered by someone else's expression of feelings as a result of their internal fight in the change ring. 

The most important thing you can do is to stop feeling like you “shouldn’t feel this way.” It’s our judgments about our feelings that actually create the tension we feel inside ourselves, not the feelings themselves. The judgments we have about our feelings are a function of our belief system, part of who we have been.  If you experienced shame for not doing something correct the first time, you may feel uneasy about trying something new. If you have bought into the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you may become angry at the idea of having to change how you do work — even if it could be better for you in the long run.

If you are a change leader, its helpful to understand and recognize your own feelings — what meaning you make of them and why.  This self-awareness is key to helping others deal with change.  It takes empathy to a new level — not just being able to understand how someone else might be feeling, but also able to be present with and acknowledge those feelings, even help them reframe the meaning they’ve assigned to their feelings — so you and they can keep moving forward.  As a leader, if you are uncomfortable with feelings, others will be, too.  Discomfort is food for the ego, and it is very good at its job — slowing things down, striving to maintain the status quo.  Instead, learn how to use feelings to help yourself and others move forward.

What experiences do you have with "feelings" in the workplace, especially around change?  Let us know by leaving a comment.  We'd love to hear from you!

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Thursday, 15 November 2018