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by John Kinyon


However daunting the process may be, openly sharing emotions in the workplace makes good sense—and may even boost prosperity.


Parameters of “professional behavior” in today’s workplaces vary, but basic ground rules remain. Most rules, implicit or explicit, emphasize self-control. While “on the clock,” we’re expected to stay on-task and distance ourselves from personal feelings or needs. Some workplaces more casual and less hierarchical. “Transparency” is in, yet no matter how laid-back or buttoned up the work culture, sharing emotions—especially intense or “negative” emotions—is usually discouraged among colleagues.


It takes time (and therefore money) to process feelings in the workplace. Throwing resources into a hazy effort to “bring feelings into the open” has uncertain payoff and may even make things worse. Little wonder, then, that many professionals choose to avoid conflict and conceal their emotions (at least while at work). Feeling powerless to resolve a tense situation on the job, they simply focus the best they can to get their own work done.

Despite this tendency, most managers and business owners would probably agree that interpersonal conflict and breakdowns in communication negatively affect the bottom line. However daunting the process may be, openly addressing feelings among colleagues makes good sense, and may boost an organization’s overall prosperity. Candid talk about feelings can help increase productivity, but success often hinges on distinguishing feelings.


One key distinction is the difference between thoughts and feelings. What is the difference between the two? For me, a thought is a belief; a story or mini-story that I reflexively create about others. Identifying and articulating what we feel can be tricky. It is all too easy to mix together thoughts and feelings, or to confuse the two.

For example, after a few interactions with a fictional person I’ll call Joe, I might say to myself, “I feel that Joe is unreliable.” Even though the word “feeling” is in the sentence, it conveys more about my thinking than how I am feeling. I could also say, “I feel betrayed by Joe,” or “I feel let down.” However, these sentences also convey more thought than feeling about Joe.


If I wanted to describe what I would call feelings about Joe, I might say that I am feeling worried and concerned, or perhaps disappointed, saddened or discouraged. Notice that these words point to internal, bodily sensations and experience. Also, the word “unreliable” is an indirect expression of unmet needs. What I am really saying is, “My needs for reliability and trust are not met for me by the behaviors I’ve experienced with Joe or heard about him.” If I wanted to express my feelings to Joe using these distinctions, I could say something like:


“Joe, I noticed that you finished your last two projects a few weeks after their due dates. I am feeling panicked about how we are going to meet our next deadline and also frustrated that our team keeps falling behind schedule. I need to make sure that we can fulfill our promise to our clients and deliver this project next month. Can we talk about ways that you and I can work together to ensure that the project gets finished in time?”


Notice how I describe my feelings separate from thoughts and then link those feelings to needs. Another way to express my feelings to Joe could be, “I feel frustrated because I want to be able to trust that things will get done in our work together.” Connecting my feelings to needs—and making a clear request—can make it easier for Joe to hear me, and less likely that he will get defensive or perceive blame or criticism.


Talking about feelings in the workplace may not always be what you want to do, but there are ways to do it that can make the process much more likely to be successful.


Are you experiencing a conflict with someone at work that you think might be helped if you were able to express your feelings? If so, what are you feeling that is not a thought or “story” about this person? What needs of yours are not being met related to those feelings? How might you express those feelings and needs to this person, and also be clear about what you’d like from them?