Recently I overheard someone say ‘pain in life is inevitable, suffering is optional’. I believe this to be true and to extend on that, I believe the more you talk about your suffering the more you suffer. Studies in Positive Psychology reveal when we verbalise our thoughts we embed and strengthen neural-pathways, thus reinforcing the very thing causing us pain. This article by Psychotherapist Philippa Perry on behalf of The Guardian elaborates on this point. There’s a fine balance between expressing emotion to release it and reinforcing it, but how do we find that balance, especially in the workplace?
In a world where the powers that be are encouraging us to talk more openly about our feelings, publicly and privately, I continually notice two common themes.
1. Environments – whether it be workplaces, schools or homes, where emotions are regularly openly expressed, there is heightened drama, reduced productivity and a culture where people distract others.
To put it bluntly, most people don’t have the learned skills to effectively help people expressing dark and deep emotion or notice patterns of behaviour that’s keeping that person in the ‘problem’ state they’re in. So instead we see Person A expressing their feelings, the person they’re expressing it to (Person B) unknowingly says something selfish to make themselves feel better (yes, themselves, not Person A) and that act unfortunately enables the behaviour to cycle all over again. It accidentally reinforces the behaviour.
Let me explain further what I mean because without the entire context, the above statements are lacking. The majority of the human population is good. We don’t enjoy seeing one another suffer. When someone cries, it often causes somebody else to cry too.
When it’s honest, it’s because people actually really care. So when somebody is standing in front of you pouring their heart out because they need to “get something off their chest”, often the recipient of the message feels badly for that person. We empathise. That empathy, whatever feeling it may be for you specifically, causes you to say something like ‘it’ll be ok’, ‘you’ll get through this’, ‘it’ll be fine’, ‘I’m here for you’.. and let’s stop for a second. Honestly, none of those statements are true. We cannot possibly know that any of those statements are, in fact, true. We’re biologically programmed to move away from the discomfort we feel and the quickest for us to do that, is to make one of those kinds of statements.
If we don’t say something like that straight off the cuff, then we go into a story we believe to be somewhat relevant or similar in nature – thus creating an inflated situation or a one-upmanship on who’s suffered the most. Again – neither are helpful.
Without learned skills, i.e. constructs around conversations to genuinely help someone when discussing and expressing deep emotion, the majority of the time what we say in everyday life embeds the message and therefore the pain the person feels. It’s a beautiful thing to feel for others and want to help – and to help others you must put yourself aside completely (and any discomfort you may feel) and serve them. There’s a time and a place for those questions that enables a strong, trusting culture opposed to a dramatic, toxic one.
2. The gap between a manager and a leader lies with their skills to coach others from a position of strength
Regarding the ‘what is a leader versus a manger’ discussion, one of the best distinctions I’ve heard is that a manager has demonstrated strong technical skills in a particular area which earns them credibility and recognition. Due to their capabilities, it seems to be automatically assumed that others will respect that person as their senior in the workplace. Whereas a leader has the technical skills and is also able to evoke emotion and inspire others. Some people have this naturally. Others need to learn this skill. It’s easy to identify the gap in someone’s ability to lead when they’ve been promoted on their technical skill and aren’t necessarily a ‘people’ person. A part of being able to lead others is being able to build trust.
Trust, according to Frances Frei, involves 3 pillars – your belief that I’m being my authentic self, the rigour of my logic and being able to demonstrate empathy towards you. When somebody feels empathy it’s because they recognise somebody else’s pain within themselves. It enables a bonding where mutual recognition of a similar problem comes to light. It also enables talking about the problem, sharing the problem and if the same problem is repeated too many times.. embedding the problem.
Compassion is where it’s at! Not sympathy, not empathy. Brene Brown addresses (in 3 minutes) the difference between sympathy and empathy. There’s definitely a place for empathy in the workplace but there’s a fine line between expressing enough empathy to genuinely help someone and then continuing to enable the behaviour.
I was watching Kitty Flanagan’s stand-up in Perth on the ABC and she made many valid points, one of which was people saying nothing. “Stop talking” were her exact words. Coming back to the point I’m making, if someone’s expressing themselves and you’re not sure what to say, say nothing. Even admit to “I don’t know what to say”. It’s better than you sharing a similar experience you’ve had or sugar coating it to make yourself feel better. If can hold space and silence for someone, something magical happens. That beautiful human being gets to go internally to dig a little deeper, find out what’s going on and more often than not they’ll come up with their own answer. Relax! You don’t actually need to do anything. By having an opinion (even so much as a facial expression) you comment on how you feel about their circumstance and that impacts the outcome. By saying nothing and not moving so much as an eyebrow, the person is given a true gift – time and space to be honest with themselves.
It’s so important for holistic well-being that we are able to express our emotions – both negative and positive. There’s an appropriate time and place. The more people who are educated in effective communication and holding space for others, the healthier people, and workplaces as a whole, will be.
We need to be able to support others by listening and asking questions while refraining from making false promises.
People must be able to express how they feel for holistic wellbeing. If the same “problem” keeps arising, it’s no longer helpful to talk about it. I Get them professional help in the way of a mental health professional.
When having a deep conversation with someone, get curious about the other person – it keeps you and your past out of it and it enables you to come from a place of curiosity, not judgement.
If the expression of emotion has become un-resourceful and is detracting from the person being able to live their life or do their work (and others) – get them a coach to restrict the times around when they can dedicate thought to that emotion.
Keep them busy and fulfilled in their role doing things they (for the most part) love and are empowered by. Research our 6 Core Needs.
When someone needs to share, always put your phone away and lead with a soft, open question. Just ask.
Conversations are ALWAYS confidential. Never to be repeated to anyone or by anyone again. This creates a feeling of safety.
If, as a leader, you need to offload anything you take-on emotionally, you most importantly need a mentor or coach to help keep you stable for yourself and your team.
When in doubt, say nothing. Sit in awkward silence and hold the space. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
Know the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. If somebody’s sharing a lot of emotion with you and you’re taking it on (feeling it), be careful and make a sound judgement call as to whether you’re the right person to help them. You must be able to hold space to effectively help them.