“Can you get in touch with your feelings?”
This is the question I recently put to a group of veterinary team members in a workshop dealing with “Speaking Up.” We were exploring the use of I-messages as an effective communication pattern when one has to confront one’s colleague. My point was that the I-message system wouldn’t be effective without first understanding feelings and how to express them.
The practice session that followed did not come easy. I heard people in the group say that they were taught to hide their feelings, that naming one’s feelings was considered a weakness or that it was better to avoid emotion and express oneself from a superior position of logic only. Some just felt awkward about finding the right word to name the emotion they were feeling.
Clearly, this exercise was difficult. Why? For some it was because of social expectations — one just doesn’t share something so personal as feelings. Others were thinking about their professional roles; they’d been taught to leave their personal life at home, and they thought that meant feelings too. One man said that he’d grown up to maintain a “stiff upper lip”: never look vulnerable, always rational and strong.
Then, we explored an opposite philosophy:
- Is being in touch with one’s feelings (and those of others) important and valuable? Author Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence in 1995, and alerted us all to the importance of using emotional information in our thinking and behavior.
- Dealing with one’s feelings and not being overcome by them is important and vital to our intrapersonal (within ourselves) communication. Do we recognize how we are feeling about certain things?
- Is being sensitive to and understanding feelings important and vital to one’s interpersonal (between ourselves and others) communication? How much richer is our bond with others when we are able to appreciate their feelings.
- Is sending congruent verbal and nonverbal cues (especially tone of voice), more open and honest? Have you ever said, “No, I’m fine,” when you body language says, “I’m feeling miserable?” If the answer is yes, then you know there is work to do on becoming more congruent.
In order to speak up effectively, the I-message is a wonderful communication pattern. By using it, you are speaking for yourself, owning your feelings and concerns. It also means you are automatically avoiding a “You-message,” which can be accusatory or even threatening, as in “You always leave your work area a mess,” or “How can you be so thoughtless!”
We put this concept to work by practicing the I-message pattern and inserting the appropriate feeling word, using these samples:
- “I feel _____when you don’t clean up your work area after you’re finishing working and I have to prep the area.”
- “I feel __________when you criticize my work in front of others.”
- “I feel __________ when you arrive late because we have clients waiting.”
- “I feel __________when you don’t return the supplies you’ve used, because they are not there when I need them.”
Filling the appropriate feeling word is not easy — especially if you’ve been taught to avoid expressing your feelings. Your feeling vocabulary may need a little help. So, we reviewed a list of emotional terms, as outlined on the accompanying chart.
Aided with the right words, participants in the group were able to fill-in-the-blanks and express themselves with their feelings.
In some cases they were even able to be more precise.
- “No, I don’t feel attacked when you don’t clean up your work area. I’m just worried that I will get behind.”
- “No, I don’t feel diminished when you criticize me, but I am embarrassed when others are present.”
- “No, I’m not mad when you are late. I’m concerned that clients will think ill of our practice if they have to wait unnecessarily.”
In other words, we tried to get to the feeling BEHIND the feeling. For example, if you think you are angry, why is that? Are you angry because you’re afraid or because you’re embarrassed or disgusted?
After the class had practiced their newfound way to communicate and were feeling more comfortable (some even giddy) about it, I reviewed why communicating feelings are so important.
- It’s a way for you to openly and honestly share of yourself.
- By naming your feeling you are owning your personal experience
- Expressing your feelings can lead to a trusting relationship.
- It gives you confidence to stand up for yourself (when it is important to speak up), because you know you are not attacking the other person.
- It avoids “gunny-sacking” or bottling up feelings where they might fester forever or explode later.
When the workshop ended, an evaluation sheet was passed around for each participant to complete. It asked the participants to indicate how they felt about what they learned. The following are some of the responses:
- “I feel more authentic about myself and know that many of my feelings are valid.”
- “Given the appropriate time and setting I can express my feelings.”
- “Now, I have a new vocabulary that I can use with confidence to express my feelings.”
- “With feeling words in my mind, I will be more sensitive to ‘hearing the feelings of others.”
Take a look at the feeling chart, choose a low-threat situations, and give it a try. You’ll be surprised!
See how many words you can think of in each of these categories. A few are listed to get you started:
Don’t forget to share positive feelings, too, when the time is right:
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam Books, 1995.
- Carolyn Shadle and John Meyer, Communication Case Studies: Building Interpersonal Skills in the Veterinary Practice, AAHA Press, 2011.
Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication (www.veterinariancommunication.com ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.