So Many Feels

I am elated and disgusted, inspired and despondent. I am waking up to the fact that I have been missing out on a huge opportunity. I have been ignoring a large part of the breadth of human communication – now I am realizing how it has hampered my career and the growth of my company. What was I missing?

I just finished an intensive “touchy feely” workshop, led by InnerSpace and FortLight. The main purpose of the workshop is to help startup founders improve their interpersonal communication skills. The primary activity is an exercise called a T-Group, which is famously hard to describe because it has no leaders, no goals, no agenda and the expectation that the conversation remain focused on the present. For us, that meant 16 people sitting together in a living room for four days, each sharing our experiences of sitting in a living room with 15 other people.

T-Group is an emotional laboratory – the participants are simultaneously the researchers, subjects, and reviewers. Each of us arrived with specific goals in mind and discussed experiments that we wanted to try in T-Group. It was disorienting at first – it took me two days to adjust, to feel safe enough to really open up in a vulnerable way. It was also exhausting – trying to stay present with the constantly evolving group dynamics was a lot of work. But the payoff was immense. By the end of the weekend, I felt that I had been truly seen in a way that I have not ever experienced in a group setting before. Something clicked.

One of the most beautiful interpersonal patterns I noticed during the T-Group was the tendency for emotional expressions to have an “opposite impact” on the receiver. For example, a reciprocal compliment causing the recipient to feel more isolated, or a “diss” becoming the first seed of connection. On the surface, this is really confusing. The more I reflected on this pattern of opposite impact, the more I realized that it is an everyday occurrence. How could this be happening all of the time? How come I had never noticed?

My favorite part of the weekend was actually not during the T-Group exercise, but the rapid-fire 1-on-1 finale session on the very last day of the workshop. Here, I had the opportunity to receive direct, individual feedback on my strengths and weaknesses with each of the other participants. At this point, everyone was comfortable enough to be brutally honest with each other – it was during this barrage of praise and criticism that I felt the biggest shift in my experience. There was something about having a dozen people (in a row) tell me that I can work on being more concise that really unlocked a new vector for growth. It was a critical mass of feedback, which pushed me over the tipping point into a new mode of self-reflection. I left with a strong desire to hold myself accountable to continued practice. Clearly, something about the connection we had built in the T-Group unlocked a door. What was it about this environment that helped complete strangers quickly build such a deep level of trust?

Towards the end of the workshop, I started to think a lot about how my interactions within T-Group compare to my everyday interactions. It was an amazing experience to witness others letting down their guards, taking risks to share their unfiltered feelings. This was, frankly, unfamiliar territory for me – the contrast helped me realize that I very rarely use ‘feeling words’ in my work at polySpectra. Even though I have monthly 1-on-1 meetings with my team and we have a regular practice of peer guidance, it hit me during T-Group that the language I have used in these meetings has been almost completely stripped of emotion.

Clearly, there is a ton of emotional filtering that goes into maintaining a level of professionalism in the workplace. Much of this is necessary. However, I realized that my extreme suppression of emotional communication was actually having the inverse of the effect I was seeking. One of my favorite phrases for this is “ruinous harmony”, which Michael Terrell introduced in a podcast where he critiqued the book Radical Candor. The idea is simple: enforcement of a facade of group harmony can be ruinous when it suppresses underlying conflicts, as opposed to addressing them. I was naive to think that I could protect my team (and myself) from discomfort, conflict, and strife.

Finally, the mystery was solved. By filtering out the direct expression of my feelings, I have been inadvertently doing two ruinous things. First, I have been missing out on the opportunity to connect with my employees and colleagues on a deeper human level. Second, I have been modeling the behavior that it is not okay to express feelings in the work environment. My pattern of protecting others from my emotional state has actually been hurting my work relationships, not helping.

Those unexpressed emotions do not just go away. In many of my own moments of frustration, my body language was clearly revealing my internal state, especially if I had just suppressed the direct expression. This discord creates a huge barrier to interpersonal connection. The flipside does not mean flipping out – it just means honest expression.

Feelings First

My reminder rock.

I left the workshop with some simple action items for how I can translate these learnings into my everyday life:

  1. Use feeling words first. It saves time and energy. This emotional ‘band’ of communication is capable of transmitting a lot of information quickly.

  2. Make the extra effort to express emotion in written communications. Emojis work. When so much of our collaboration is text-based, it can be hard to connect at that deeper level.

  3. Be vulnerable. Especially amongst managers, it can be difficult to show any sign of weakness or emotion. If the boss models behavior that strongly filters emotions out, it signals that it is not safe for the team to express their emotions. Feelings don’t just go away because you didn’t express them, which leads to…

  4. Pause to check in with my body throughout the day, especially at work. There is a reason for the expression “getting something off of your chest”.

This intensive weekend workshop was easily the most valuable single experience I have had in my transition from scientist to CEO. It has helped me to tap into emotional resources I did not realize I had. I would like to think that my interpersonal skills have improved as a result, but you will have to ask my team about that. I went into it with very practical goals for solving some of the challenges I was having as a manager - I left realizing that I had been inadvertently filtering out a huge part of the human experience. For me, the simple reminder of the importance of emotional bandwidth has already proven an incredible asset. As they say these days - so many feels.