I Second That Emotion

About two years ago I had the experience of working on the vendor side of an outsourcing engagement of services from Canada to India. Those who know me know I’m not a fan of outsourcing (I’ve worked on multiple sides of it now), and I believe, with some exceptions, the purveyors of such services to be selling snake oil to the foolhardy. But I digress.

Second That EmotionDuring that engagement, I was given some very conventional and on the surface, sensible advice: don’t respond to the client’s feelings…stick to the facts and you’ll be fine. I didn’t believe it then, but I had a job to do so I did it. Having my own shingle gives me certain licenses that I don’t have working for an employer. So I can say without equivocation that feelings tempered with facts are an essential part of communication, and I believe, a more accurate representation of a situation than just facts alone.

I’m going to be honest here and state that these are completely my own opinions. I have no degrees, and I’m sure I’m going to horrify sociologists and salespeople everywhere with what I’m about to say.

I believe that feelings are the fundamental vehicle that unites us. It’s possible for us to hide our feelings, or pretend we feel one way but secretly we feel another, but it takes a lot of effort to do that. For most of us, when we feel something, we show it. On our faces, in our manner, in our tone…our feelings come out. And people on the receiving end of those feelings acknowledge them and form a response. Language on the other hand, is a contrivance. It’s entirely up to us whether we tell the truth or tell a lie. We can spin, stretch and distort the truth, we can omit information or confess fully. From politicians to public relations personnel, people all over the world have been crafting words to achieve specific objectives as long as the human race has spoken. Language is an unreliable indicator of the feelings that lie behind the words.

But there’s an honesty about feelings that can’t be denied. Feelings define boundaries. When we show anger to people, they understand they have pressed a boundary and need to back off. When we show people affection or gratitude, they understand a gate has opened and they are welcome a little further in.

Think of all the verbs we have that try to define nuances in linguistic communication: “I allude, I suggest, I exhort, I lie, I withhold, I agree, i explain…” Now think of all the verbs that define nuances in emotional communication: “I feel, I sense…I emote…” er…I can’t really think of too many more. Now, there’s a zillion adjectives that describe feeling, but for the most part, the verbs are very few. I think that’s because there’s really no question that we are feeling, the question is how we’re feeling. What we do when we communicate verbally seems to require an awful lot more clarification, in addition to what we’re communicating.

When we go back to the advice, “ignore the feelings; just stick to the facts”, we are choosing to ignore a communication we acknowledge at a fundamental level, in favour of a stopgap we hope buys us a little more time. Is there integrity in that act? I don’t know the right answer to that question, but it doesn’t “feel” right.

What I do know, is that when I choose to acknowledge someone’s feelings, and create a response that addresses them, I get that gratitude that opens a small door to me and allows me to pass to the next level, leaving my colleagues out in the cold.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Geoff
    Really good post on a subject that floats my boat (metaphorically speaking). It's fascinating to observe people's behaviour in work then social situations – sometimes it's like Jekyll and Hyde and you wonder if the person you worked with could be the same one you're having a beer with. Do we define our behaviours or do our behaviours define who we are? If you're actively conscious probably a bit of both but something to ponder none the less.
    Deanne

  • derekhuether

    If you are trying to resolve a problem, and you merely stick to the facts, you just prevented yourself from using a very valuable tool in your toolbox. We are all faulted creatures, being human. We don't always remember the facts. They are tainted or highlighted by our emotions, becoming our own reality. So, why not leverage that? If we always stuck to facts we would become replaceable. We would just become drones going through a complicated workflow to interact with others.

    Some people don't want emotions involved, saying it clouds judgment. I don't agree. If emotions weren't important, we wouldn't have been blessed with them in the first place.

    Thank you, Geoff, for a very insightful post!

  • Heya thanks Derek! I sincerely believe that too. It is a good thing being human! I know I've quite enjoyed it! 🙂

    Seriously, I think you're absolutely right. As project managers, one of our biggest responsibilities is to tear down barriers, and projects are a constant, undulating sea of them. They go up, we tear them down…they go up, we tear them down. By and large, with the exceptions of things like regulatory and compliance-based barriers, those we have to contend with involve feelings somehow. If we don't take the time to understand those feelings, and formulate a response that addresses them, how much more work would be involved to get those barriers down?

  • What a great question for a future post! To take it a step further, how do those behaviours shape the work environment? @cybertactix on Twitter turned me on to the guys over at http://www.manager-tools.com who have some fabulous insights.

    Your comment reminds me of what the first guy who hired me all those years ago told me when I started working on a trading floor: “these guys will cuss out your mom and still expect you to go out for beers with them”. That Jekyll and Hyde thing…it makes your head spin sometimes, doesn't it?

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