Intelligent Emotions – at Work

“Hardwired to connect with each other, we do so through emotions. Our brains, bodies and minds are inseparable from the emotions that animate them. Emotions are at the nexus of thought and action, of self and other, of person and environment.”  Diana Fosha, Daniel Siegel & Marion Solomon, The Healing Power of Emotions

Driven by major advances in neuroscience in the mid –  to late ‘90’s, the concept of emotional intelligence entered the lexicon of the American workplace. Through his ground breaking books on emotional intelligence (and the most requested article to date for the Harvard Business Review) former NYT science writer Daniel Goleman has contributed to a growing understanding  about the practical application of emotions in the workplace. Since that time there have been dozens of books written exploring the topic.  Seminars on development of the “competencies” of emotional intelligence (like our own)  have been offered in hundreds of companies globally.

In our work, development of the skillful use of one’s emotions is foundational. Whether we are talking about leadership, conflict, generational diversity or team building – elevating emotional competency is at the core. Taking an informal tally of our audiences, it seems that about a third has some knowledge or experience with this thing called “emotional intelligence.” It’s also not uncommon for us to encounter some level of skepticism about the role and value of emotional development in the workplace.   These attitudes reflect the larger cultural confusion about the functions and purpose of feelings. Despite greater societal acceptance of psychology and mind-body research, most of us arrive in adulthood with a surprising lack of understanding how and why we feel what we do. Generally much of Western culture still values our rational mind over our emotional mind. Today’s science shows they are more integrated than seperate.

We still see emotions as uncontrollable, unpredictable, sloppy – and even weak.  This is particularly salient in the workplace.  There are many reasons for this, too many to explore in this post, but belief in the myth of the separation between business life – and personal life – is behind a great deal of the misunderstanding. There is a vast difference between acting out emotionally – and consciously expressing what we feel. It takes skill and courage to express what we actually need and want – which is what emotions are conveying. Too many people we encounter actually operate from the erroneous belief that emotions are fixed.  They believe that we are stuck with our limited emotional repertoires.  No wonder we are turned off – and even hostile to our emotional lives.

What would you say if we asked you to name the emotions that most optimize your work?

When we ask people we work with to name the emotions they experience in themselves and others as most prevalent at work – the responses follow a very familiar pattern.








While it isn’t always such a gloomy list (occasionally passion, even happiness  shows up) this list of emotions seem to drive the engine in many of today’s workplaces. No wonder there is so much conflict, mistrust and stress associated with work. Now let’s return to the original question – Which emotions most optimize how you do your work?   How about –patience, optimism, calmness, satisfaction, enthusiasm, encoragement, inspiration, curiosity and determination to name a few?
The bottom line is that we cannot do our work without being emotional – the question is what emotions are we cultivating to do it? The good news is that we are not at the mercy of our emotions.  The science is in – the emotional brain has enormous plasticity.We can channel and shape our feelings in ways that maximize their brilliance and practicality if we learn to retool our early conditioning and beliefs about the nature of emotions.
Our beliefs about emotions can be an enormous obstacle to developing the capability to use our emotions intelligently – and with great purpose. Making a commitment to work with the mind and the heart is the essence of emotional intelligence. Nothing could be more a more practical – or rational business decision.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultant
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  1. Emotions in and out of the workplace are of critical importance. Yet so many of us are unschooled in learning how to have them share them, and hear them from others.
    What feels cirtical to me is that mindfulness, the mid-prefrontal cortex and attuned relationships play an importnat role in learning to hear our feelings and then
    have the freedom to choose.
    Glad you are doing a bunch on this because I feel strongly that conscious awareness of how to have and share and hear emotions is the
    pathway to the evolution of our species.
    Lynda Klau, PHD

  2. Dear Lynda,
    You are so right. Few of us learned (apart from our often unconscious conditioning) the skillful use of working with our emotions. When we learn to integrate our cognitive processes with our feelings, we discover the potential for an entire new world of experience.
    Appreciate your perspective,

  3. I appreciate your expression of this important viewpoint with such clarity. The presence and effect of emotion in the workplace is too often one of the “elephants in the room” – seen by everyone, acknowledged by none.
    The typical postures to promote “professional” behaviour by suppressing emotion is counter-productive. We now know that suppressing feelings and ideas imposes cognitive load and reduces our capacity for conscious thought. What’s worse, it does nothing to resolve the underlying issues.
    One result of this cultural stance seems to be a fundamental inability to discuss emotions in any terms but the broadest. I think a helpful first step is to improve our emotional vocabulary. By recognizing and naming the rich set of emotions we are capable of experiencing can we better recognize and discuss their role in our interactions.
    Emotional literacy is the first important step towards emotional intelligence. Thanks for spreading the words.
    Best regards,

    • Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Emotions are truly the “elephant in the room,” and I’d say in most workplace conversations. Avoidance is the primary strategy – of course, mostly an unsuccessful one.
      You are so right that emotional literacy is a critical skill for overcoming this weak link in our self-awareness and communication.
      Glad you stopped by and added your valuable insights.

  4. It is a disservice to all who read this article to say that many “worship at the altar of rationality.” You leave out as an unformulated premise that “rationality is devoid of feelings,” making the first premise false. If emotions and mind are inseparable then how do emotions become ‘separated’ from mind and body when we “worship at the altar of rationality”? In my view, both rationality and emotions should be balanced in the self and the self’s identity. And so, yes, the trick is to learn about one’s feelings and what they mean. But the trick includes rationality.

    • Hello Louise,
      Appreciate your comments. I just got off the phone with one of my partners, who is doing a seminar with a group of engineers whose highly sensitive work contributes to keeping the public safe. During the discussion on emotional intelligence, some men (it’s mostly men) in the group giggled and made jokes about their “feelings.” When they weren’t doing that they said – “feelings can’t be trusted – we have to rely on our minds.” Of course this is a much larger and deeper conversation, but in our experience, it’s not uncommon. Certainly there is more receptivity, even invitation, to discuss the role of emotions in the workplace, now, than there was 10 years ago. But we still have a long way to go for people to understand, on a fundamental level, how emotions function – and how to manage them. I feel comfortable saying that they are still largely taboo or irrelevant in the business mindset.
      I think there is common agreement in neuroscience that we don’t yet know what “mind” is, yet most people still identify their minds with their thoughts. While I don’t think that “rationality is devoid of feelings,” I think we are just learning which regions of the brain (and physiology) govern emotions.
      You’re right – balance is the key. Thought is the great mitigator to working productively with emotions. And in my experience, at least in working with thousands of people in the corporate sector, thoughts and feelings are still badly out of balance.

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