The posts over the past few days that focus on behavioral economics prodded me to begin to think about how emotions actually function in a more practical sense in how we work, live and even lead organizations.
I know in my own experience, my emotions for the vast majority of my first 50 years of life were never released, were kept in check, and only paraded out in the most secure settings. An experience with my oldest son watching the series Band of Brothers changed it for me forever.
We were watching the last segment which is a documentary on the men in the unit portrayed in the mini-series where they talked about their experience fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. They described the closeness, the camaraderie, the trust, the bond, the absolute confidence that their fellow soldiers had with one another, and how they never experienced this depth of friendship during the rest of their lives. As these men, of common birth, of no remarkable accomplishments after their war experience, spoke of their relationships with one another, I realized that they had experience what I had desired in my own relationships with people. As that revelation swept over me, I began to cry, no sob, uncontrollably. Once, I got control of my emotions, I turn to my son and told him, "What these men have experienced is what we all long to experience. If during the course of your lifetime, you find relationships with others like these men have had, then consider yourself more than fortunate. You will have experienced the kind of friendship we all long for, and most never, ever experience."
Emotionally it was a turning point for me, and to a certain extent has allowed me the opportunity to grow as a person. How odd that we find that through our emotions we find progress. The question is what exactly does this mean?
As I've reflected on this over time, I've come to a few conclusions that may make some sense.
First, I really don't have a scientific basis for what I'm about to write, but I'll not let the idea succeed or fail on its own merits. I believe that our emotions are connected to the right hemisphere of our brain, and that it is the seat of our ability to create. Pure emotion cannot create lasting good. Establishing a connection to the more analytical left hemisphere is how our best attempts at creativity find success. This is my own interpretation of the many things I've read and heard on brain science. It is my own take. If we want to be effective as creative persons, then we must bring both sides of our brain's life together.
When I was in my twenties, I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of artists. I loved their creativity. I had a real identification with them, but didn't really know how that could work for me. I had no real artistic talent that I could identify. I had taken a number of art history courses in college because visual culture was interesting to me. But, the closest that I ever came to doing with I thought artists did was take photographs.
The banner picture above is one I took this summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It is a several pictures stitched together to create an image that the camera could not produce with one shot, and is not really the picture you see if you stand at this spot in this side channel of the Snake River. There is an emotional connection to this place for our family. It is here just to the right side of the picture where our family has swam with horses, riding bareback through a deep pool where both horse and rider float, and we get wet, and experience a rare moment of real oneness with the horse.
Through the release of the emotions of creativity, new openness and opportunities occur. We must look for them, seek them out, and take advantage of them for them to have any lasting meaning. But they are there none the less. For me the release has meant a greater level of sensitivity to the delicate situations occurring in my work with clients. It isn't simply formulaic analysis and standard set of recommendations. It is rather identifying the unique path that each person or organization must travel through a time of transition. It is where my creative work now occurs.
Second, I've observed that peoples' emotions also serve a validation purpose. In this sense, the emotions serve to defend against the intrusion of ideas and influences that might threaten those beliefs and practices that have come to provide security. It is what connects to others, creates a social bond and provides a real sense of personal identity.
Throughout my life, I have encounter many, many angry people. Why are they angry? There any number of reasons. They feel threatened. They feel a loss of control. They are afraid. They feel misunderstood. They are embarrassed. They are confused. Any number of reasons. They look to their emotions to validate their claim. The emotions become defensive. We've all encountered these emotions in others, and may even feel them ourselves at times.
When we look to our emotions to validate rather than to liberate, we have closed a circle around our lives. We have determine (rationally?) that I no longer need to consider new ideas, new perspectives, new approaches. I know what I need to know, and any outside influence should be viewed as a threat.
If then, as I said earlier that the emotions are the seat of creativity, then what we have done by seeking only emotions that validate is that we have closed off our ability to create, to learn, to grow, and to make the transitions in life that are necessary for happiness and fulfillment. It means it is very difficult to venture across the narrow confines of our comfortable, secure, safe set of relationships in networks of relationships that much to us and we to them, but requires a greater level of personal security because the validation factor has changed.
Why am I going to such lengths to describe emotions in this way? I am because I believe that managing change or transition is as much an emotional process as it is a rational, analytical one. And if Danny Kahnemann and his cohort of behavioral economists are correct, then our emotions lead us, and are not merely a response.
All transitions are emotional. If you take the image here as a guide, you'll see that at these transition points, we can either move up or go into a decline. From an emotional point of view, if we approach these transition points with resistance,looking for validation of how we have been functioning up to that point, then we'll continue to see a flattening of our performance or possible decline.
However, if we approach these transition points with openness to the opportunities that may lie ahead, our emotions will liberate our creative side to bring resources that would be constrained and confined otherwise. We will see that that what brought us to this level of success is not necessarily going to take us to the next level. Which means that we must change. We must stop doing some things and start doing new ones.
So, when you are in a meeting, and you are listening to some one who is angry, ask yourself this question. "What is this person telling me about what they love?" Why this question? Because I'm convinced that at the heart of our emotions is love. And the anger is telling us that this person feels that something they love is being threatened. If you want to move beyond the anger, then identify what it is that they love, and validate it, affirm it, and figure out someway to carry it through the transition with safety.
Do we have a choice in these matters? Can we liberate our emotions to greater creativity and impact? I believe so. But it isn't an analytical process. Rather, it is an expressive one. Go put yourself in the position to be creative. Take a pottery course at the local community college. Join a Toastmasters group. Begin to mentor a underprivileged kid. Start writing a blog. Do something that is not primarily mental, but expresses your creativity in some way. As you do, you'll find greater confidence and insight into who you are. You'll discover aspects of your life that your emotions have kept hidden for a long time.