When Things FAIL: What Coaching Teaches us About Conflict (Part 1 of 2)

This 2-post series is taken from my chapter in:

Rooted in Grace: Essays on Dialog Without Division (amazon link)

“Check your emotions at the door.”

We’ve probably all heard this admonition at one point or another. It means we desire to make clear-headed, rational decisions; it means that we do not want to be reactive, or held hostage by fear-mongering, guilt-trips, personal vendettas, or nostalgia. It means we want people to resist getting defensive or taking things personally. It means we want decision-making based on the merits of an idea, not how we feel about the person who suggested it.

This statement is propelled by a core belief that emotions are unpredictable, irrational, fleeting, and typically unreliable for decision-making.

There are only a few minor problems with this tidbit of practical wisdom:

It is built on faulty assumptions. It is impractical, given that it is nearly impossible to remove emotions from the equation or separate them from our thinking. And finally, “checking our emotions at the door,” to the degree that is possible, actually inhibits effective decision-making.

In truth, emotions are highly logical…they just operate on a logic driven by our perceptions, perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. (Which, in the end is what drives all logic.) Emotions are data: they are a function of both intrapersonal and interpersonal communication. Given the sheer amount of input we are exposed to at any given moment, our sanity and survival depend on our conscious mind’s ability to compartmentalize, prioritize, focus, and create various shortcuts and mental models. Emotions can serve as a way to bring attention to stimuli that may or may not have registered in our awareness.

Yes, powerful emotions can and will shut down our capacity for higher-order thinking…even when we are actively ignoring or attempting to suppress those emotions. And this handy trick may well save our lives if we are faced with an unexpected immediate threat.

If a wild animal comes bounding out of cover toward us, we do not want to pause and consider the existential right of the animal to hunt, or brainstorm a list of possible ways to develop lines of communication with the animal kingdom.

The good news is that as soon as our senses detect the presence of a dangerous predator, our brain releases adrenalin and cortisol, and most higher-order thinking (and non-immediately-essential processes like digestion) shuts down in favor of the often maligned, “fight, flight, or freeze” response. That said, this same threat detection area of our brain is not very good at recognizing the difference between an approaching lion and a passive-aggressive comment that seems to be questioning our intelligence.

On the other hand, one of the side effects experienced by people who have had a traumatic injury to the portion of their brain that controls emotions is a diminished ability to make even simple decisions. Why? Because our thoughts and our emotions are inextricably linked. Decision-making involves value judgements…and value judgements rely on emotion.

As we develop greater awareness of our emotional reactions, we discover a valuable source of data. Even when this data is not directly related to the practical merits of an idea, it can help us identify sources of influence or resistance in ourselves and/or others. Without attention and awareness, emotions are still present and still influencing…but they function more like the strings of a puppet-master. Instead of having emotions, our emotions have us.

Emotions do more than just influence our own thoughts and actions. They also play an important role in community and communication between individuals.

As social creatures, our emotions serve the purpose of signaling others in our “pack” about risks and opportunities. Emotions form a nearly-instant communication channel. We read emotions from others, for example by watching faces or hearing tone of voice, and then we use that data.

We don’t have to be aware this is happening. It’s an automatic process. 

There are a variety of factors that make someone more powerful as an “emotional transmitter.” Those with high status and positional authority seem to have a greater emotional influence, as do people with whom we have stronger ties. 

So, in addition to affecting our own thoughts and actions, our emotions are affecting the people around us. Especially those that most look up to us and care about us. 

Just as emotions serve as a feedback loop inside us, they form a feedback loop between us. 

We are wired to connect.[1] 

One of the most important first steps toward effectively engaging difficult conversations with others is to cultivate deeper awareness of our own emotions and our patterns of behavior associated with those emotions.

However, as Facebook “slacktivism” has shown us,[2] awareness alone is insufficient. Awareness doesn’t create positive change or effective communication, however it is an essential starting point that allows for the possibility of both.

Cultivating awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (and how each influence and are influenced by the others) prepares us for intentional engagement. It is vital that we develop skills in navigating our emotions; going beyond identifying what we feel to discern why we feel that way, what that feeling is trying to communicate, what else we are simultaneously feeling, and ultimately how we will choose to respond.

Awareness also allows us to more effectively practice optimism.

I don’t mean manufacturing a cheery disposition and declaring, “everything will be fine!” Optimism is about belief in our own agency. It is the conviction that our decisions can have an impact, that we can find a solution. Practicing optimism keeps us open to possibility. On the other hand, falling into pessimism, despair, and a victim mindset will almost guarantee that even if a solution presents itself, we simply will not be able to recognize it…or if we do, we’ll find that we lack the courage or conviction to pursue it.

Optimism is about belief in our own agency. It is the conviction that our decisions can have an impact, that we can find a solution.

And yes, emotions are contagious. How we show up changes things. If we are going to have any hope of navigating difficult situations and conversations with others, we need to show up expecting that a way forward does exist, and that we can find it together. If we don’t believe it to be so…well, why bother?

This is closely related to one of the fundamental questions that must be confronted by those who hope to be an effective coach. Coaching is a non-directive process that inspires, supports, and challenges people toward greater effectiveness in their personal or professional endeavors. One of the most significant benefits of coaching is that it is completely focused on helping the client refine what they truly want to accomplish, and to move forward based on their individual strengths, passions, and convictions. Coaches rarely give advice because a core conviction of coaching is that no one is better equipped to understand what is needed in a context than the person who is already in that context (aka: The person we’re coaching).

In other words, to be an effective (and ethical) coach, we must truly believe in people. And there isn’t really a way around this one: either we believe in people, we find a way to develop that belief in people, or… well, why bother?

Like optimism in general, the coach’s belief in people doesn’t depend on a naïve outlook, a plastered-on smile, or a refusal to acknowledge the existence of very real challenges. But, like optimism, it does operate from the conviction that a solution can be found. 

Next Up:

The second post in this series will address FAILs (the inner obstacles that so often threaten to derail our progress), and offer some practical advice for dealing with them.

[1] Joshua Freedman. “Practicing Emotional Intelligence,” Ebook. Six Seconds, 2016 – available for free at www.6seconds.org

[2] If you aren’t familiar with this term, it refers to the apparent belief by some that doing things like changing their profile picture on social media in order to “raise awareness” for a cause makes them a social activist.

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