What to do if you are someone who hates to talk about “feelings”?

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When I was a young man, I rarely talked ”feelings”. For the most part, I didn’t know how to. My feelings avoidance played itself out in different ways. One way was that, at age 21, I bought a guitar, and took to studying flamenco guitar. My internal thoughts were, “I will learn to express how I really feel, and communicate, through this passionate Spanish music.” Oh, how I hated to talk about my feelings.

On one hand, I’m still a prisoner to those I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-feelings times. Old habits die hard. As frustrating as it, from time to time, those old patterns continue to play out.

On the other hand, I’ve adapted. I’ve adopted new habits. I’ve found ways to talk about feelings, mine and others.

The difference between feelings and emotions

At the risk of over-simplification:

Feelings are how we register and interpret our emotions. “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind (in the brain)”, says neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio.

People have lots of different feelings, often at the same time, often conflicting. I know I do. Naming those feelings is a challenge, and skill. Here’s a landscape of those sometimes hard-to-find feelings.

What I’ve learned about my feelings

Here are a few things I’ve learned about my feelings, over time:

If I don’t own acknowledge and work with my feelings, they’ll most definitely find a way to hijack me, later on. “Have your feelings or they’ll have you.”

Dealing with my feelings can be a ‘high’. Maybe not quite the euphoric runner’s high I use to get, in my long-distance running days, yet, a dopamine hit, nevertheless. What can I say? I’m addicted to novelty, even about myself.

Expressing feelings can be a communication opportunity. “I never knew that, about you. Ah, now we have something in common.” To communicate is to “make common”.

Changing feelings about the conflict gives your “evidence” a chance. As a mediator, I’ve observed, all too often, one disputing party telling the other, “Why can’t you see it, why don’t you get it, when the facts are right in front of you?” Bringing feelings into the conversation often serves as foreplay to collaborative problem-solving, and/or getting your message heard.

How we talk is as important as what we talk about. When I feel agitated and want to, “just get on with it”, I can be certain my ‘what’ won’t be heard.

Feelings and relationship interleave. A healthy interpersonal relationship requires touching base, from time to time, about how I/we feel. That’s a particularly tough one, for a feelings avoider. Yet, interleaving is a feature of How We Learn.

It sucks when the person we’re working with/for is only focused on results, not feelings; i.e., they are a “jackass”. Workplace success feels better when its’ 50:50, healthy results and healthy relationships.

What to do if you hate to talk about your feelings yet want to learn how to talk about your feelings?

First of all, welcome to the club. I’m glad you’re here. You are motivated to explore your feelings, alone and/or with others.  Here are three complementary strategies to gain competence and confidence in talking about feelings, yours and others.

  • Increase your self-awareness. Even if you don’t want to openly talk about your feelings, you owe it to yourself, and others, to increase your feelings’ self-awareness. Complete a self-assessment instrument (e.g., Myers-Briggs, Thomas Kilmann, DISC, Conflict Dynamics Profile). Read. Observe. Journal. Meditate. Etc. Diversify your communication portfolio; draw or circle an image of your feeling(s), a feelings conversation (even with yourself) icebreaker.
  • Reach out for help. Don’t go it alone. We’re social beings. Involve a supportive friend, coach, mentor, and/or workplace peer. Work with a clinician: take advantage of your Employee Assistance Plan, if you have one. Another option is to join a mutual support group; one in which safety is non-negotiable. Maybe it’s a workplace peer group, drinking buddies, a virtual community, a community group… Finding an emotional circle of support, a “registered emotional circle plan”, may be the best investment your ever make.
  • Help others. For thousands of years, people have known that the best way to understand a concept is to explain it to someone else. “While we teach, we learn,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca. As you gain understanding around feelings, share your understanding with others. They will appreciate your authenticity and insights. At the same time, you will expose yourself to what you do / don’t know; a win-win. “The objective of learning is to integrate thinking and doing.” (Roger Fisher, in Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge)

The benefits of understanding and talking feelings

As you develop your feelings vocabulary and ability to effectively respond to, and talk, feelings, you will move from a feeling of dissatisfaction to one of satisfaction. Feeling frustrated, needy, suspicious… will be supplanted by feeling enthusiastic, thankful, relieved…

Your increased feelings and emotions competency will improve the quality of your interpersonal interactions and relationships, workplace productivity, and customer service. Emotional intelligence and resilience are key to developing adaptability in the workplace.

Others will notice, be attracted to, your enhanced communication skills.  A more positive, constructive aura will surround you. New opportunities will emerge.

How good would that feel!

[Ben Ziegler is a Conflict Management Specialist serving SMEs, nonprofits and local governments. Contact Ben.]

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