Bringing Emotion To Process

As a CEO trying to get the best from your team, think of yourself as the coach and your employee as the client. Then try this.

If you are working with process adoption consider how emotions can help you become more effective. Whether you’re a CEO, a team coach or even a parent trying to get your children to clean their room, emotions can be utilized as a means to improve your effectiveness and achieve better results as a process coach.

Human behavior is (strongly) influenced by emotion.

Working with emotion (together with process) is a key differentiator. Why? Well, because people’s behavior is strongly determined by emotion. Consider this quote from an article in Psychology Today by Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D.:

“If your brain comes across something it appraises as a ‘red flag,’ you’ll be sent a general, vague alert in the form of the feelings and thoughts that are created by an emotion. This somewhat imprecise signal alerts you to pay attention. In this way, your emotions serve as a cueing system—an attention directing system associated with physiological changes that can prepare you to take action.”

Consider for a moment a situation where you are recommending a new process to be adopted by a team member. Imagine that after you have detailed your approach and explained the procedure that the team member rejects your recommendation; what happens now?

During such a conversation, a coach can tap into how a client is feeling about the proposed changes as a means of moving the conversation to a dialogue and away from a debate. Often by simply asking how a client is feeling, the coach can move the conversation along towards co-creating a way forward. The coach is fully appreciating the client’s situation, genuinely cares for them (or at least their opinion), and orients towards serving them in their role as a coach. If done correctly, the client knows that the coach feels the emotions they’re going through; I call this sensation the client “feeling felt.” The generic term is empathy.

When you meet resistance

So, what does the coach say or ask of the other person when they resist a proposed change in process? The answer is quite simple but powerful. If you can let your client verbalize their emotions, it can take a lot of the “heat” out of an argument, rapidly build rapport, and take the conversation out of debate. Here is a question to practice when you meet resistance to others adopting your recommendations:

“How are you?”

Now what’s important here is that the client, like most people, is conditioned to respond with an impersonal answer; something like “I’m fine. No problems.” So here’s a suggestion on how to get the honest answer.

“Are you ok?”

Where I live in Australia, it is culturally inappropriate to discuss feelings, especially in the workplace. This has resulted in many charities being established to deal with the resulting mental health problems this causes. One of the charities that’s attempting to help solve this problem has a mission that is useful for us when considering bringing emotions into your process work. What I like about their approach is its simplicity; they recommend you simply ask this question; “Are you okay?” Then, genuinely listen to the answer. I usually add one follow-up question when the person I ask gives a typical Australian answer, such as, “Yeah, no worries. I’m fine.” I ask this follow-up question as I look them in the eye and give them my full attention:

“No, really, <<insert their name here>>, how are you?”

There are many variations of this question; I’ve listed some below, but I encourage you to find one that you feel comfortable asking and then practice.

“How are you feeling?”

“How are you feeling about the proposed changes?”

“How are you doing today?”

Unlearning the emotion-avoidance habit

To say you want to avoid emotions is like saying, “I don’t want to work with humans”—seeing the world as a process to be optimized and dismissing what drives most human behavior.

It is hard to believe that many process coaches I work with struggle to introduce their client’s emotions into a conversation. The habits they’ve formed default to logic, process and tooling as solutions to problems. But fundamentally, all process implementation problems are about people, and every person’s behavior is strongly influenced by their emotions.

By practicing working with emotions, a coach, or CEO, will become more self-aware with regards to their own emotional state and how their clients, or direct reports, feel about a situation. By increasing your level of awareness regarding emotions, you will be able to spot when you are starting to run a habitual routine that aims to avoid an emotional conversation.

Be on the lookout for the habit of emotion-avoidance as you go about your work. It is not a matter of you becoming a psychologist but improving your ability to simply acknowledge and accept that, with any new process implementation, emotional reactions can arise and therefore need to be recognized. Even if you are uncomfortable with emotional situations, you should strive to improve your ability to recognize and acknowledge how others feel when asked to adopt new ways to work.

Niall McShane
Niall McShane has been a coach for decades: he’s worked with elite athletes up the Olympic level; as a professional leadership coach and change management consultant working across numerous industries, and most recently in agile coaching across company-level initiatives for large corporations all the way down to small companies. He is the author of the new book, Responsive Agile Coaching: How to Accelerate Your Coaching Outcomes with Meaningful Conversations (Sept 1, 2020). It is for anyone looking to change the way they work; managers, leaders, change agents as well as agile coaches needing insights and inspiration.