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Executive Coach Carol Ross on emotional intelligence for effective leadership

Effective leaders know the importance of paying attention to the messages we send without words. Sure, there’s vocal tone, facial expressions, gestures and posture, but emotions send the strongest nonverbal messages in interactions. Executive Education sat down with executive coach, team development consultant and author Carol Ross for tips to increase emotional awareness for more effective communication.

Carol Ross

Photo courtesy: Carol Ross

Executive Education: Can you tell us how emotions show up in workplace communication?

Carol Ross: We all have emotions, but when we’re not aware of our emotions, there are many impacts. When I’m angry and I’m not aware of it, it clouds my thinking. If I’m sad but I haven’t been able to express my grief, people sense that something is off.

It’s common to have limiting beliefs about feeling or expressing emotions. Some people think that emotions are dangerous, but it’s more dangerous when you don’t express your emotion and it comes out sideways when you least expect it. Feeling your emotions actually increases productivity by helping you get unstuck. Others believe that certain emotions make them a bad person, e.g., anger or rage. The truth is, emotions are neither good or bad; they’re part of our humanity.

Giving yourself permission to have your emotions is different from communicating your emotions to others. The goal is to express your emotions to yourself so that you can move through them, then come back to center. During meditation, there’s a feeling of calm and peace you achieve when you let go of clutter and get clear inside. Unexpressed or suppressed emotions affect the heart and mind. As a leader, you cannot be at your best when you are disconnected from yourself.

Fear and anger can be uncomfortable emotions. We naturally want to discharge these, which is what happens when someone snaps at a person who makes an idle comment. Reactions can be out of proportion to the circumstance. Many of us also try to release anxiety by exerting control and using manipulation. I think of this as emotional leaking: when there’s an emotion you haven’t dealt with, rather than feel it, you try to release it in another way. Unfortunately, your co-worker may be the innocent bystander when it leaks. It’s important, especially for leaders, to understand their emotions and how to process them so they don’t harm others.

EE: So is finding your center a way to be true and authentic to your emotions while still communicating productively in a professional setting?

CR: It’s a two-step process. You can’t be productive in your communication unless you have cleared your emotions before the communication. For example, if I’m feeling anxious, and I’m aware of it, before I write an email or go into a meeting, I should have a meeting with myself. I should carve out time and space to feel my anxiety and move through it. I would say that 99 percent of the time, an emotion needs to be expressed to yourself only, not communicated to anyone else.

EE: Even though we’re emotional creatures, we don’t need to communicate our emotions to others?

CR: Let’s talk about the one percent. Sometimes a leader may want to display an emotion to rally the troops. Or a leader might be angry because the team did not prioritize the customer’s needs, so s/he displays that anger during a speech to communicate their expectations to the team. In a case like that, you want people to feel something. That’s an extreme and rare example. Most of the time, it’s more important to understand and process your emotions before interacting with others. If I feel worry, I can move through it. I don’t need to bring worry into a meeting. It’s much better that I bring the resonance of well-being since emotions are contagious.

EE: So even if I’m not saying a word to articulate an emotion, emotions will still come through, and that’s a contagion?

CR: Yes. So it’s not only important to be aware of our own emotions, but to recognize our reactions to someone else’s sadness or anxiety.

EE: I’d like to return to this idea of having a meeting with yourself before going into a professional interaction. Can you explain that more?

CR: There are times when we’ve all been wounded in some way. This can be through a hurtful remark or a traumatic experience. I remember disobeying my father one time as a child and he told me, “if you do not obey me, you do not belong to the family.” As an adult, I’ve been in situations where an authority figure has conveyed messages that I didn’t belong. I was on a conference call once when this happened, and I hung up the phone. Then I asked myself, “what just happened there?” I discovered that it was my inner 5-year-old holding that fear of not belonging. The meeting with yourself is to understand that you could be walking into a contentious conversation and reassuring yourself ahead of time, knowing that certain interactions could be triggering. This is not easy and it can be deep work.

EE: You have a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence. What can you recommend to people who are just starting on this journey? What should that first meeting with myself look and feel like?

CR: It can be simple. Just ask, “What am I feeling?” I use a map of 21 emotions, called the Tiers of Emotion, that is laid out by frequency, with the highest frequency being love and the lowest frequencies being hopelessness and despair. Research says there are health benefits when you can identify your specific emotions. Many people will say, “I’m stressed out,” but stress is not an emotion. Fear is an emotion. Humiliation is an emotion. Awareness brings so much benefit.

Tiers of emotion

Image courtesy: The Lazaris Material

The next step is to figure out how to express it in a safe way. This is important because there are many ways we can express emotions in a not-so-safe way. If I’m feeling shame, I might go to the refrigerator, or worse, to alcohol or drugs. A safer way to express shame is to journal. Sometimes people go to the gym to work off anger, anxiety or fear. Some wring a washcloth. I have clients who squeeze a rubber ball. Another easy technique is conscious complaining. I learned this from the book, “The Language of Emotions.” You pick an inanimate object (like a chair). You first ask permission, then you vent to the chair, then say thank you. Just speaking it out loud can help.

Emotional Fluency is the ability to identify, feel and express a range of emotions without judgment or blame of oneself or others. Leaders who have emotional fluency create workplaces where employees want to come to work. For me, that’s the true bottom line.

To learn more about Carol Ross, visit her website.

If you’d like to learn more about emotional intelligence and emotional fluency in the workplace, please check out our courses in Executive Education.