A week ago I was at the playground with my two children of 11 and 6 years old. While they were having fun playing with other kids, I played one of my favourite games: humans watching. I love observing people because it is from observing and reflecting on my and others’ behaviors that I learn the most about human nature. No book in the world could ever replace what I have the privilege to learn from self-awareness and from the awareness of others’ self-expression in the present time. In fact, if I were somewhere else with my thinking – in the future or in the past – I would not be able to see, hear and feel what is going on in my world. Outside of the present moment, I would not be able to pick up on cues that show me how others think and feel. Ok, enough with the theory!
Let’s go back to the playground with my kids. While they were playing, I was watching a real life movie that I would call ‘the beginning of the end of emotional awareness‘. A little girl of around 5 years old was crying after falling on the ground. It looked like her arm was hurting and she was crying desperately, trying to attract the attention of her dad. She was looking at him in the eyes, and he was looking at her arm and cutting the interaction short by repeating again and again: ‘You are alright, OK? You are alright. Nothing happened.‘ He didn’t give her a hug. He stood exactly where he was, giving no other sign of connection except eye contact and a few words.
What do you notice up to this point? What was actually going on in the scene? Maybe you are just thinking ‘Nothing! I would do exactly the same as he did.‘ It is fine. He was probably motivated by a very good intention. Maybe he wanted to reassure his daughter that what had happened was actually no big deal, right? So, what are we talking about? We are talking about emotional intelligence and, specifically, about emotional expression and empathy. What is the message that the father delivered, when he said that she was alright and nothing had happened? It is hard to say it, but the truth is that the message was ‘I don’t feel what you feel. You should feel alright because I say so.‘ By failing to acknowledge her feelings about the fall and the ‘pain‘ that she experienced, he sent the message that the little girl may have interpreted in the following ways:
- My daddy doesn’t care about me or how I feel. I am not worthy of love. From now on, I am going to keep my feelings for myself and disconnect. Why expressing my emotions if nobody cares?
- My daddy says that I am alright, so it must be true. Then I must ignore and change what I feel. If I do that, he will be happy. From now on, I will be a good girl and smile at every opportunity. Bad emotions are not acceptable.
- My daddy says that I am alright, so it must be true. There must be something wrong with me then, if I feel bad emotions. What if I am a bad girl?
You see, around the age of 5 the prefrontal cortex of our brain is not fully formed. This means that we spend most of our time in a state of consciousness that allows everything to be ‘embossed‘ in our subconscious minds. As little children, we take onboard everything that our parents say and we label those beliefs about the world as the TRUTH. It is the truth about ourselves and about how human relationships work. What does this mean for us all when we were children and for that lovely little girl? It means that we need to be careful when we teach our children about their emotions. Even if we are totally unaware of the consequences, every time that we speak to our children about how they ‘should‘ think and feel, we are teaching them how to deal with their own emotions and with the emotions of other people. Like in the example above, we might end up teaching them something harmful for their human development.
At this point, you might be asking yourself ‘What does this story have to do with leadership?‘ Excellent question, I am grateful that you asked about leadership and empathy. Have you ever had a boss that made you feel like the little girl in the story? Maybe you are working with someone right now, who is disregarding your concerns or your frustration about a project. When you try to express how you are feeling about it, your boss says ‘You are alright, no need to worry. Just go ahead and do your job.‘ Does it sound familiar? Since we learn what we live, we can start by feeling compassion for that manager. Perhaps she learned to suppress her emotions as a child, and now she is applying the same ‘remedy‘ in the workplace. The question is, what would you like to hear instead? What would you need to hear in order to feel understood and empowered in this situation? Even more, how can you help your boss to become more empathic, understanding your ask for support? We are so used to mask our feelings in the workplace, that sometimes it is hard to believe that things can be different; that, regardless of the role, we can help each other to show up as we feel. Why is this important? Since we cannot think bigger than we feel, when we feel distressed we think ‘small‘. From the perspective of our brain, we are in survival mode, trying to protect ourselves from a perceived danger. How can we possibly think with clarity when we are in survival mode? The answer is simple. It is impossible!
So, in the workplace, if we want to help our team members to think big and to find solutions, we need to think better together. We need to acknowledge the role that emotions play in our body-mind and allow ourselves to feel what we feel and say what we feel before being ready to let it go. Being productive and successful is not about disregarding our emotions. Being productive and successful is about being human and supporting each other to learn and grow.