On Emotion and Development

I see much emotion on any given day at work. Indeed, the ability to identify, feel, and choose the expression of one’s emotions is critical to leaders becoming authentic, present and non-reactive in their challenging environments (in emotional intelligence parlance, this is the bedrock of self-understanding and self-mastery).

Some of the emotions that rise up during coaching are hugely positive—expansive and full of possibility; celebratory with the thrill of accomplishment; the charge that comes along with a new insight or the deep satisfaction from a shifting perspective; the rich and profound sense of connection and intimacy that can occur in the authentic and courageous relationships that are developed. This type of emotion I relish witnessing day in and day out in the work I am privileged to do.

And then, there’s the other kind of emotion. Those emotions that sting, cause the chest to tighten, the stomach to knot, the jaw to clench, the temples to pulse, the voice to catch, or the tears to flow–from the pain of dreams undefined or set aside; hearing difficult or unwelcomed feedback; profound feelings of being misunderstood or unappreciated; conflicts between values and demands; the discovery of overwhelming emotions that one didn’t even know existed; or relentless high achievement and striving that can come at a very high psychological cost—the drive that just keeps driving. Sometimes, clients are simply allowing themselves, for the first time in a long time, to feel again. In our time together, they find respite from crushing pressure (or boredom) and, in that oasis, can begin to accept that they are both powerful and powerfully vulnerable.

And although I welcome and encourage the emotional range of clients, I still, to this day, after so many years in this work, am surprised by and defend against those less-than-positive emotions when they rise in me. This has become particularly apparent to me in the past year, as I have had several individuals come into my life who push me in ways that I didn’t even know I needed to be pushed. (These are people in addition to my three children who teach me every single day the ways in which I need to grow). These people passionately disagree or relentlessly quibble with me in areas I feel expert; they challenge me to be more as a coach and teacher; they demand me to give more of myself—more vulnerability, more honesty; they give me unvarnished opinions about what they or others see in me.  Most of the time I want to make them wrong, walk away (or hang up), deny, obfuscate, or just go sulk. And, it makes me marvel that my clients don’t do the same with me. But I don’t and they don’t and for that, I’m grateful. We all seem to be willing to go along for the ride.

All of this is to say that every day is an opportunity to grow and expand as professionals and–by extension– human beings. We can’t do that without also developing our ability to be present to our emotional range—whether coach or client. Purposeful development is not for the faint-of-heart. For me, it’s clearly a season of growth—I take these individuals as clear and precious signs of that. We all need people to tell it to us straight when we don’t want to hear it. And, equally important, we all need a place of safety and complete acceptance, as we are present to the difficult emotions when facing certain truths about our selves—no matter how thrilling, ugly, foreign or revelatory. It may not—usually does not—feel good in the here-and-now, but there’s no better gift in the long run.

I just finished a fantastic book related to the topic of emotion and development: Yearnings, Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Irwin Kula. Rabbi Kula’s book shatters the notion that being “buttoned up” is something we should even strive for—our humanity, our wisdom, our beauty and authenticity comes from our messiness, our complexity, our desires and foibles as human beings. He speaks with credibility, humility and vulnerability as he places our struggles in the context of Jewish traditions and wisdom. We are, indeed, marvelously and completely imperfect—a mess of contradictions and vulnerabilities—along with being enormously creative, resourceful, and powerful. Accepting both is a gift indeed.


Power of the Group

I’ve often marveled at the synchronicities of life—especially those seemingly random events that spring from the relationships we foster for mutual support. There is an alchemy present in these relationships—as the understanding of ourselves, each other and our opportunities together transforms into gold over the years.

Much of the work that I do with clients involves “encouraging” this sort of synchronicity—i.e. making sure that they’re in contact with people already doing the things they’re interested in learning or doing, or, perhaps more importantly, people doing interesting things that may not be at all related, but are inspiring nonetheless. Nothing—and I mean nothing—can replace opening up and allowing others to participate in your life and development.  In the corporate realm, this may be something as simple as setting regular development conversations with colleagues (and I’m not talking about appraisal conversations here), or it may be participating in a community of practice that discusses challenging business issues (think Vistage, Aspen Institute, etc). In any realm, one can create an informal group that has as its focus supporting the aspirations of one another—a group focused on cheering and prodding you on, asking you the tough questions, reminding you of your own capacity when it’s so easily forgotten. I participate in one such group formed years ago in my living room and still count it among one of my most important support systems. I often sit in wonder at the relationships created, the lives enriched and the once-far-fetched dreams achieved.

Turns out that the idea of bumping into each other and engaging in supportive, but critical debate about our ideas is not so wrong headed. I was reminded of this while enjoying Jonah Lehrer’s article on “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth.”  Lehrer is a fantastic science writer (and a study in career development in his own right). In this article, he shakes up prevalent notions of how our ideas evolve and how we really create and innovate (hint: it’s less about brainstorming methods ala BBDO/IDEO and more about bumping into one another). Enjoy especially the wisdom of Kellogg faculty in the article.



A Novel View on Coaching

I am a huge fan of Atul Gawande. I picked up his book Better on a whim and loved it. Complications soon followed. Gawande takes his environment (the hospital operating room) and masterfully explains how things go right (and when they go wrong) and, most importantly, how they can improve. It’s gripping. Think Malcom Gladwell or Daniel Pink in their fast-paced, persuasive prose style, but then picture them also being surgeons and winning MacArthur Genius grants. Phew. He’s good.

All this said, you can imagine my absolute delight when Gawande turned his considerable writing talents and formidable intellect on the topic of coaching in the New Yorker. His article chronicles his experience with hiring a coach to follow him into the operating room and how it improved him. It’s a self-study, but also an excellent, more generalized description of how coaching works—from the operating room to the classroom to the boardroom. You’ll find the article here.

Happy reading–