Smash, Grab and Burble

  • Cynthia Johnson

We know that expressing emotion is a vital part of resolving experiences and building resilience.  Those people who soldier on, denying or ignoring their emotions will have a much tougher time dealing with life's rapids.  American Vietnam veterans returned, defeated, to the USA after an unpopular war and felt unable to talk about their experiences. Many took years to re-integrate back into their work and personal lives, some never did, and some suffered flashbacks years later.  In a more everyday context, you may know people who when asked why they are angry, snap back through clenched jaws 'I'm not angry!'  Or the person who tells you in a high pitched voice that they aren't stressed. 

You may work with someone who is so closed off you find impossible to read them: are they mad, bad, glad or sad? This can be a significant issue for managers.  People like to get to know their boss and to be able to anticipate them.  If they cannot be read, it's hard to form a connection with them. One of our case studies showed that managers who receive the most positive feedback from their reports are characterised by being able to express how they feel appropriately, being sensitive to how others feel and maintaining a detached perspective on issues.

If we asked the people in the above examples to do the Challenge of Change Profile, they would most likely score high on the Emotional Inhibition scale.  Their justification for not expressing how they feel will include not wanting to burden others, but the more important reason that emerged clearly from our research is what we call 'fear of disclosure' – the feeling that expressing emotion is weak and makes you vulnerable.  The opposite is true.  We all know the old adage that 'a problem shared is a problem halved', and what happens when we talk to others about our concerns is that we begin the process of putting our emotional responses into perspective, so that we can move on to resolving them and letting them go. 

Women are more adept at this than men.  Unemployed, single men have some of the worst mental health statistics: they are blokes conditioned not to talk about their emotions and there is no one to talk to.  Women are far more emotionally intelligent generally, but while we did find a significant gender bias favouring women in expressing emotion, it isn't exclusively to do with gender.  People have different styles of expressing the emotions they experience.

Not so long ago Cynthia witnessed a smash and grab at a very expensive, exclusive jewellery store.  Alas she wasn't inside purchasing a Rolex, she just happened to be walking by.  After giving descriptions and a statement to the police she was asked if she wanted witness support, which is a form of debrief and counselling session.  What she wanted was to get home, ring all her extended family to tell them to watch TV because she was a star witness in a story that they would show that night!  Had she accepted the support, the counsellor would have asked her to tell her story AND to talk about how she felt: was she frightened?  Disappointed in her response? 

When she rang her six brothers and sisters and her friends to tell them about the experience, she was really debriefing herself: each time the story got told she developed more of an understanding and more perspective into the event and her emotions.  You only need a few people to talk to: you don't need 300 face book friends.  And work colleagues really matter. It is important to be able to say 'I'm worried sick about this presentation,' 'I'm gutted I didn't get that role.'  Workmates get it in a way that not everyone at home will.  After a negative event at work, the process of talking the experience through with colleagues is an important part of resolving it.

Some organisations actively promote this practise, for example, assigning an experienced buddy to offer support after an accident. They don't necessarily need to offer a solution, the key is really listening, without making judgements. Some people might need professional counselling which is independent of work, and most organisations have EAP counselling services for this purpose. Counselling is a more structured process of understanding and resolving emotions, and although counsellors are more skilled it still won't work for the person concerned unless they can unlock their emotions.

The purpose of expressing emotion is to help you to reach the point of resolution.  You probably know people who endlessly tell and retell their story without anything being resolved; more often than not they are just story-telling rather than talking about the emotional impact they experienced.  It's draining for you to listen to, and you end up either avoiding the topic or avoiding them!  On the other hand, some people can be too emotionally uninhibited, bleeding emotionally all over the place. You need to be cognisant of the time and place as well as your role when expressing your emotions. 

What to do if you are high on the emotional inhibition scale

  1. Start expressing positive emotions.  Learn to talk about the good experiences you've had, the fun you had in the weekend, the laughs you shared with work mates, the joy or excitement of the concert you went to.
  2. When people say 'how was your weekend' don't stop at just saying 'good.'  Say why it was good – what you loved about it, the company you enjoyed and why.
  3. Likewise when you go home at the end of the day and you get asked 'how was your day' don't just say 'good' and leave it at that. Try to find a different word each day and then explain why, for example: 'Today was a load of fun. We all got together to talk about the project and we brainstormed a lot of ideas, some of which were crazy!' or, 'Today was immensely frustrating. The plant kept breaking down and we couldn't figure out why. We had to re-do a lot of work.  It was such a waste.'
  4. Next time you're at the supermarket checkout and you're asked how your day has been, watch the way you dismiss what the checkout person has said as just mechanical and automatic.  Yes, they are all told to say this, imagine how tedious it can be for them, especially when they see people getting irritated!  Next time, make eye-contact, really talk to the individual, not the 'checkout person'.  You don't have to go on at length, just say how your day was and ask how theirs has been, but mean it.  Costs nothing, and the reward is being present instead of absent.
  5. You may find it easier to write about how you feel.  Many people know the cathartic experience of banging out a grumpy email (don't send it though!) and then to return to it even a few hours later only to find you aren't so tense about it anymore.  Some people don't have anyone to share their emotions with so this approach can be especially helpful.

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