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Your ’emotional whiteboard’ might be confusing coworkers

Talking about your emotions at work is a powerful—and all too rare—thing.

Your ’emotional whiteboard’ might be confusing coworkers
[Source photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images]

One of the things humans are good at is sensing each other’s emotions. Actions, body language, and energy provide clues and context as to how someone is feeling, and we can pick up on it usually within a couple of seconds. Nataly Kogan, author of the upcoming book The Awesome Human Project: Break Free from Daily Burnout, Struggle Less, and Thrive More in Work and Life, says the behaviors we exhibit are like having an emotional whiteboard hanging in front of your chest that has how you feel written on it.

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“But here’s the kicker: Other people see your emotional whiteboard through fuzzy glasses,” she says. “They can kind of tell that Nataly is not as energetic today, or is a little quieter than normal, or seems really tense, but they don’t know why.”

To avoid misunderstandings and wasted energy, it’s important to become aware of what is written on your emotional whiteboard each day. Kogan recommends taking a moment to check in with yourself the same way that you check in with colleagues or friends.

“You probably ask them, ‘How are you today?'” she says. “But we don’t do that with ourselves. The first step is to become aware of what is on your emotional whiteboard.”

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Adding Context to Your Whiteboard

Once you understand how you’re feeling, Kogan suggests asking yourself what information would be helpful for the people that you’re interacting with that day. Is there anything that would be helpful for them to know about your emotional whiteboard, so they don’t have to wonder why you’re acting in certain ways?

“We’ve all been in meetings with your boss who’s usually pretty effusive and friendly, but this time, she’s not smiling,” says Kogan. “The first thought you have is, ‘Oh, my God, what did I do? She’s mad at me.’ Then you’re wasting all that energy trying to figure out what did you did.”

Kogan recommends sharing one sentence from your emotional whiteboard. It doesn’t have to include all the personal details. In fact, Kogan advises against that. “That’s for your best friend,” she says.

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If you’re feeling cranky or have low energy because you didn’t get enough sleep, for example, it might be helpful for colleagues to know. You could shoot an email to a colleague saying, “Just a heads up, I didn’t get enough sleep and I’m totally cranky.” Or you could start a meeting saying, “Hey, I had a tough morning. Nothing to do with you guys. Just want to let you know.”

Changing Your Mindset

While the practice is simple, Kogan says it can be challenging. “In most workplaces, it’s not the norm to talk about emotions,” she says. “But this old idea that we should ‘leave our emotions at the door’ is complete bullshit. It’s not possible. Instead, we need to become more aware of what emotions we’re bringing to different parts of our lives, including work. And then think about what context you want to give colleagues and your team.”

While all members of a team can positively impact other people’s capacity to thrive, Kogan says it’s important for leaders to set the emotion-sharing example.

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“It comes down to creating an atmosphere of psychological safety, where people feel open to talk about their emotional whiteboard,” she says. “And not just fake positive things all the time. The leader must go first, because by doing that, you give permission to other people to do it, especially in teams where there is a hierarchy. We always look to the person who is the highest in the hierarchy. It’s human behavior, and it gives us safety.”

Kogan suggests that leaders share one sentence from their emotional whiteboard at the beginning of every meeting, letting others know what would be helpful to know about how you’re feeling. Then invite the team to participate.

“You don’t have to do it at every meeting,” she says. “It may feel a safer to start with one-on-one meetings and then offer it to the team and talk about the bigger why for this practice. The purpose isn’t just to share emotions, although research shows that when people work in a team where there’s a sense of psychological safety and they can share difficult emotions and not be judged, they perform better and are more satisfied with their work. The purpose is to create more genuine, authentic connections with each other, to build trust, and to actually be able to support each other better.”

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How to Share

You can share a sentence. Author Brené Brown suggests sharing two words about how you’re feeling. Some companies use images, such as green, yellow, and red lights. Kogan cautions that images may not convey enough information. “Feelings are pretty subtle,” she says. “I may be feeling red, but what does that mean? Am I sad, tired, or angry? Just using color coding removes the genuine sharing and connection.”

When employees feel safe sharing their emotions, they don’t have to pretend to feel positive when they don’t, which is called surface acting. “It’s a form of emotional labor,” says Kogan. “It’s exhausting and a cause of burnout.”

How to React

When a colleague shares that they’re feeling challenged or they are struggling, Kogan says it’s not a leader’s job to solve every problem. “The mistake would be to dive in and try to figure out how to help them solve it,” she says. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but there’s a step right before that we often miss as humans and as leaders, and that step is simply to give that person space to share how they’re feeling and listen. We forget how important it is to just have a safe space for someone to just be with their emotions.”

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Listening is a skill of acceptance, learning how to accept our own difficult feelings and learning how to listen when someone else shares a challenge. While leaders can offer to be a sounding board if the employee needs one, it’s important to give people an opportunity to just be open about how they’re feeling without feeling pressure to change.

“That practice of just open acceptance actually helps to shift to what’s one thing that we could figure out how to move forward?” says Kogan. “Research shows when we acknowledge our difficult feelings, we actually get through them in a shorter amount of time and with less intensity.”

Kogan says leaders can’t give what they don’t have. Ignoring your own emotions and focusing only on your team can result in a stressed out, less compassionate, less understanding, and less thoughtful boss.

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“When we don’t feel our own emotional energy and when we don’t practice our own emotional awareness, we can’t give that to others,” says Kogan. “We cannot show up in any kind of meaningful, positive, and supportive way. If you want to be a positive impact on other people’s capacity to thrive—which is how I define leadership—you have to do that for yourself first. It is actually your responsibility as a leader.”

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