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Friday, 15 March 2013 18:55

The Feelings Conversation, Part 1

We all know what it’s like to NOT want to share our feelings.  We know the vulnerability, imbalance, unpredictability, and wild nature the feelings by themselves often embody.  We know their subjectivity, and the ease with which they may be ridiculed and judged.  We know how challenging they make maintaining strategic control when other important things are also at stake.  And we know that in many cultural contexts, feelings are also taboo as either unprofessional, effeminate , or simply bad taste.  The cards are basically stacked against us putting our feelings on the table.

But it turns out, keeping our feelings out of a difficult conversation is actually more risky, not less, than putting them in it.

Consider the following points:

~ Unexpressed feelings can leak into the conversation through one’s affect, tone of voice, body language, facial expression, withdrawal, distance, sarcasm, impatience, defensiveness, and unpredictability.

~ Unexpressed feelings can burst uncontrolled into conversation once they have built up such intensity that we are unable to contain them any longer.

~ Unexpressed feelings make it difficult to listen because all our psychic energy is consumed in simultaneously keeping them in check and seeking their relief.

~ Unexpressed feelings take a toll on our self-esteem and relationships as you judge yourself for not sticking up for yourself and deny others the opportunity to step up in response to your sharing.

All of these aspects of unexpressed feelings can seriously hurt our chances of achieving a resolution to a conflict that serves our best interests.

In my last blog post, I shared some thoughts about the Identity layer we confront in every difficult conversation: the way feedback we receive in the midst of conflict challenges our own stories about how we live up to the criteria we have adopted for what it means to us to be who we are – as good, competent and lovable beings.

Today and Next Week, I want to discuss the Feelings layer of every difficult conversation and why learning strategies for sharing our feelings with skill and self-possession generally pays off far better than acting as if our feelings just aren’t there.

In their book, Difficult Conversations, the directors of the Harvard Negotiations Project share their understanding of the anatomy of conversations about conflict.  This wisdom was gleaned from thousands of hours in their clinic talking with people about their real-life difficult conversations.  Basic to the difficult conversation anatomy is the understanding that every difficult conversation operates at three different levels.  There is the What Happened conversation or layer, the Feelings conversation or layer, and the Identity conversation or layer.

In their work with thousands of case studies, the authors concluded:

  • “Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings;”
  • “Our failure to acknowledge and discuss feelings derails a startling number of difficult conversations;”  and
  • “In many difficult conversations, it is really only at the level of feelings that the problem can be addressed.”

All too often, however, we conclude that it is best to keep feelings out of the difficult conversation because we assume there is no way to put them in the conversation without losing our cool.  We don’t have enough experience processing our feelings in a methodical way.  We haven’t invested enough time understanding the nature of feelings to appreciate their dignity and power.  And, as we noted at the outset, we’ve been facing a stacked deck. 

The strategy for sharing feelings proposed by Difficult Conversations remedies all of these deficiencies with a simple, practical three step-formula:

1.)  Sort out your feelings for yourself;

2.)  Negotiate with your feelings; and

3.)  Share your feelings without judgment or attribution.

Today, let’s look at step 1, sorting out your feelings.  Next week, we’ll look at steps 2 and 3. 

It is easy to underestimate the complexity of emotions, to say, “I don’t need to sort out my feelings, I know how I feel: I’m pissed off!”  We need to take a moment and recall that one reason we don’t like sharing feelings is we often experience ourselves as somewhat out of control when we do, as lacking calm, cool objectivity.  So before we jump to conclusions about how well we understand ourselves, let’s open up to really looking more closely at what we’re feeling in a more collected way.

It’s also useful to remember that feelings are rarely simple.  They are usually nuanced and complicated.  Some feelings are disguised because they make us too uncomfortable to acknowledge directly.  Sometimes we confuse our judgments with our emotions because our judgments do carry an emotional charge.  The problem is our judgments also can carry a lot of accusatory assumptions that are not feelings, but simply inaccurate defense postures.  Often we hold contradictory emotions that masquerade as a single feeling.  For example, we may only be aware of how embarrassed we are, but underneath this feeling is a mix of frustration, anger, fear, gratitude and pride at having something we cherish about ourselves exposed without our permission in a loving way to a circle of valued friends.  On the surface, we bristle and take flight, but underneath there are real needs being attended to for the very first time.  Life is just not that simple that it all boils down to an easy label: “Pissed off.”

So what can help you sort things out for yourself?

First, open up to the nature of feelings.  The Difficult Conversations authors say that feelings are like arms and legs—they are normal and natural.  That’s true.  But I also think they are like thoughts, hair, cuts and bruises.  By that I mean, they are an outgrowth of the process of living.  We experience-->we think about our experience.  We can’t help it.  The same is true of feelings.  They arise from the act of life like the hair on our heads.  To say that we shouldn’t have feelings is to deny the same relationship that gives us thought; it is to pretend we can will our hair to stop growing.  If we don’t permit ourselves a feeling nature, we must also reject thought and go bald without growing old or using a razor.  Sometimes in the act of life, we get injured and our nerves send signals of pain to our brain.  That’s the nature of life’s cuts and bruises.  Sometimes the injuries are physical and the pain comes through our nerves; other times it’s psychological and the pain comes through our emotions.  You can pretend you don’t feel pain, but the pain is there to alert you to the need to regain balance in your system.  Hiding pain hides the problem, and, left untended, a good number of problems become really serious.

But the main point here is the nature of feelings.  They are part of our natural system.  To sort them out, we have to get quiet and focused enough to hear what is going on in our natural system.  Have you ever heard your heart beat?  Think about what has to happen for you to hear it.  Either you have to use a listening device or your heart has to be pounding really hard or you have to get really quiet and focus your attention on your chest or you have to do some combination of all three.  The noise of the outside world makes it really hard to listen to what’s going on in your own system, even to hear the beating of its most central drum!  So to sort out our emotions, we have to be willing to settle down, perhaps somewhere alone, to focus inwardly and listen to ourselves: What are we feeling? 

Understand that a range of related and sometimes contradictory feelings like to hide behind a single simple label, that hidden feelings block us from experiencing still others, and that feelings shape-shift easily into judgments.  Then try to be patient in your inward emotion-watching-and-listening.  Give your emotions time to surface.  Speak them to yourself and allow the naming and surfacing of these feelings to make room for still others lurking deeper within your system to make their presence known.  Even try speaking them with a friend you trust who makes you feel safe and who you think of as a good listener and perceptive reflector.  Give the time needed according to the situation to really feel some new sense of peace, some new sense of being grounded in clearer self-understanding. 

In addition to carefully observing yourself to understand the emotions you are feeling, it is also helpful to get familiar with your emotional profile or footprint.  That is, think about the family culture in which you grew up and in which you live now.  What roles have you had in your family?  What emotions were permissible and which were not tolerated?  How do your culture, role, and emotional permissions shift from relationship to relationship?  Understanding the parameters imposed upon your experience of emotion will help you understand why some emotions are harder to identify or bear than others and it will help you make room for giving those emotions a more balanced reception.

Also, it is important to separate character from feelings.  Good people can have bad feelings.  It happens all the time.  Rage can strike in mourning and in traffic and both instances can feel highly inappropriate.  Yet that doesn’t mean we have a bad or evil heart.  It simply means that our system is overloaded by pain and powerlessness.  No matter how high up any one of us has climbed on the mountain, we all can meet situations in life where we lack the wisdom and compassion required to keep our system in calm equilibrium.  When this happens, all of us, every one of us, has the opportunity to learn through the system overload we experience as bad emotions.  That is, these emotions do not make us bad, but they can make us better.  So don’t be too hard on yourself; instead grow your compassion starting by having compassion for your own inability to process the deep loss or stressful road conditions, whatever the situation may be.

Finally, your feelings are as important as anybody else’s.  Once you have done the work to know what you are feeling, how your feelings relate to your emotional profile, and how your essential goodness is not diminished by your feelings in any way, it would be a crying shame to label your feelings as selfish or unimportant. 

In the busy world in which we all drive around in our egos trying to compete our way into happiness and wellbeing, we are all slightly prone to act as though our situation is more important that what other people are going through.  We need to be able to stand up to this all-too-human ego-centric bias and make a stand for unapologetically asking others to listen to our feelings.  Doing so does not deny the importance of what other people may be feelings; it simply insists that you will not be intimidated by widespread reactive patterns that imply your emotional equality is an imposition.  If feelings matter, and they do, then your feelings matter too.  So don't let insecurity about the merit of your feelings  keep you from completing even the first step of sorting out exactly what your feelings are!

When you have sorted your feelings out for yourself in this way, you will be ready to negotiate with your feelings, and once you have negotiated with your feelings, you will be ready to share them with judgment or attribution.  I will discuss the negotiation and sharing steps of this process in my next post.

Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching.  If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733.

Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!