As much as we may not want to believe it – it really is beneficial for us as individuals to notice and understand our emotions and to build our emotional literacy. I say that we may not want to believe it because sometimes it feels much more comfortable and efficient to push those pesky feelings aside and get on with things.
But it’s exactly this – pushing emotions aside – that can cause problems for us.
When you are able to identify, process, regulate and express your emotions you can remain present, grounded, and able to run your own show (rather than your emotions running the show unconsciously). Emotional literacy allows you to show up most effectively in your professional and personal life.
What is emotional literacy?
The oldest definition of ‘emotional literacy’ was from French-born American Psychotherapist Claude Steiner in 1979, he said, “To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and the quality of your life and – equally important, the quality of the life of the people around you. Emotional literacy helps your emotions work for you instead of against you.”
How’s that for a benefit?
I grew up thinking there were only three emotions: happy, mad, and sad. Maybe you grew up thinking similarly. And even with the knowledge of those emotions, talking about them, regulating them and expressing them appropriately wasn’t always welcome, encouraged, taught, or modeled.
Just like any other skill, like math or roller skating, emotional literacy takes time to nurture and develop. Yet, it’s not a skill that’s necessarily introduced or taught at home, at school, or in our workplaces. So, for many of us, it’s something we need to commit to learning ourselves as adults.
Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor, and author of Permission to Feel (a fantastic read) is my go-to expert on all things emotions related. Not only does he talk about how to identify and name our emotions – and the benefit of doing so – but also about strategies for regulating and expressing our emotions, which often gets forgotten. In Marc’s words, “expressing [emotion] also is much more than the name implies – it’s more than just how we show our emotions. The skill of expressing our emotions is knowing the most helpful ways to display and share emotions by taking our context into consideration” (note: the italics are my addition).
THIS is the gold nugget in the world of emotional literacy. It’s one thing to name and identify “I’m feeling really angry, frustrated and impatient right now.” It’s another to know when and how to express that anger, frustration and impatience – especially in the workplace.
What does naming emotions look like?
Expressing emotion can happen both intentionally (e.g., you’re aware that you’re expressing it) and unintentionally (e.g., you’re unaware that your body language or facial expression is signaling to others that you’re angry).
So, the first step is to practice noticing and identifying your emotions throughout the day – you can use the Feelings Inventory from the Center for Nonviolent Communication or the Mood Meter app to build your emotional literacy skills. Also, get familiar with how the different emotions express themselves in your body. For example, what are some of the first signs in your body that you are upset, joyful, surprised or nervous? The more you make this a practice, the easier it will become to name and identify.
Once you are aware that an emotion is moving through you and name it, you immediately ground yourself in the present moment, rather than the emotion causing you to react unconsciously. This provides you with the opportunity to self-regulate, pause, consider your environment and those around you, and then determine the most appropriate way to express the emotion.
Why noticing and understanding your emotions is vital in business
When working through 360 feedback with clients, one of the biggest areas of growth is often the appropriate regulation and expression of emotion in the workplace. Now, those aren’t the exact words in the feedback report. Instead, it might say “I know when Joe is mad, and that’s when the demands will become unreasonable” or “Joanne gets really reactive when things don’t go their way.” Joe and Joanne may have no clue that they’re expressing emotions in ways that have an impact on others.
Naming and identifying emotions correctly can help you to process and clear that emotion so that it doesn’t hook you into a reactive response. By learning to identify, self-regulate and express emotion, you’ll find yourself better able to communicate effectively, empathize, problem solve, and resolve conflict.
Leadership note: As a leader, it is exceptionally important to learn to self-regulate and assess the situational appropriateness of when and how you express your emotions. I think developing emotional literacy is truly critical to optimal leadership.
As humans, we are going to feel things – practicing this skill of identifying and naming emotions, and learning to self-regulate and express them appropriately can set you up to manage situations in your professional and personal life with more intention and presence.
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