How to Be Emotional and Smart

I was at a dinner recently for technology entrepreneurs interested in the education industry. Seated next to me was a leading education consultant. We started to discuss the causes of our ailing public education system and I shared with him my theory that a lack of self-awareness training was at the heart of the problem. Our debate continued until he stopped me cold with this, "I can see you're getting emotional."

I was stung. I felt hurt and ashamed. But I had to wonder, what is so wrong with being emotional?

"Being emotional" and emotion have a bad rap in our culture. There's a stigma attached to the word and the open display of it. It may be because, according to Carole Robin, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in organizational behavior, our ability to be in touch with and express our feelings is slowly socialized out of us. She gives the example of a toddler who bumps his head: the mother rushes to him and says, "You're okay. You're okay." We're told to be okay even if we're not.

Then we enter school and we're told to be rational and not emotional. Later in the workplace, we're trained to put on armor. So over time, our ability to even access emotion gets thwarted; in her words, "our emotional muscles atrophy."

Though we're trained to tamp down our emotions, it's an illusion, because emotions don't go away unless addressed. "Human beings are leaky," Dr. Robin adds. Meaning, if you're not aware of your emotions you can't manage them and when you don't manage your emotions they manifest themselves in all manner of unintended results.

Some of which we can see in our country's struggle with obesity, poor student test scores and the escalating number of high school drop outs, and even in adults stuck in jobs for which they are ill-suited or attached to lifestyles that make them miserable.

Research, by scientists like Dr. Daniel Goleman, shows us that learning key emotional skills improves our brains' cognitive capacities, yet after grade school talk about emotions falls off a cliff. As self-awareness (the ability to identify, express and manage our emotions) is a skill, it needs to be practiced. Like speaking a foreign language, you must use it or lose it.

Admittedly, emotions are complex and a term like self-awareness is not easy to digest. Many people dismiss it all as—well, touchy feely. But our discomfort with the word only points to its necessity. If we don't teach vital emotional skills and as a society we don't embrace self-awareness training, we will continue to suffer the hard consequences of devaluing an often derided, "soft" skill.

The reality is my dinner companion saw passion in me and it made him uncomfortable. I can only speculate, but my experience tells me that his discomfort had more to do with him than me. The shame is we didn't address the underlying emotion. I can only imagine how that would have opened up the conversation and possibly, the solutions we were seeking in it.

to understand what you're feeling? See gottaFeeling by Alicia Morga.

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  • Charles H. Green


    You are probably exactly right about your companion's discomfort having more to do with him than with you.

    I wasn't there, but the sense you conveyed of the conversation was that he said it in a tone that was some combination of judgmental, critical, and conversation-stopping. And that's certainly common, and all your comments, I think, are appropriate and accurate.

    Imagine if, on the other hand, he had said words to the effect of, "Wow, you're really getting emotional about this; I can see how meaningful this subject is to you--tell me more!" In that case, he'd have been more emotionally honest, available, and clearly not as emotionally averse as you described.

    In fairness, however, there is one part of it that is still about you, and that is your reaction to his statements. You were stung, hurt and ashamed, to use your terms. That's certainly what he intended, and not surprising at all.

    But the challenge to all of us in those situations is to process that natural reaction very quickly, and get to the place of noticing that indeed, it's about him, not us. We don't have to stay hurt or ashamed. We can wonder how the other person got that way, and try and respond in a way that recognizes their motives and is helpful to them, without getting caught up in our interior noise.

    Thanks for a very real example of being emotional and smart. We shouldn't have to be clinically cold in order to talk about emotions; in fact, it seems rather appropriate that the emotions should be an emotional subject to talk about!