November 13, 2023

Feelings Are Here, Whether You Like it Or Not

I'm in the business of acknowledging that feelings matter.

I received a note from an executive at a few-years-in startup in a hot space a few months ago asking whether I would be interested in coaching the entire executive team for 2024. I love these “Company Coach” engagements, and the company and the person seemed interested.

But when I get an inquiry like this from someone who is not the CEO, my radar gets sensitive. Happily, we both agreed that in order for me to work effectively with the executive team, I would need to have familiarity with and the backing of the CEO. I agreed to do a short 1-1 stint with him to get a sense of whether I could be useful to this team.

Last week, after a lengthy scheduling process, I had the chance to meet the CEO. I loved him. He is smart, open, uncannily focused on winning, and also kind. My favorite type of person. But my radar was activated, so I asked: “What is one reason you really do NOT want to work more with a coach 1-1 or with your executive team?” He’s a thoughtful guy, but this answer took very little time to reach. He delivered it with some energetic punch:

I don’t want to talk about feelings all of the time. I’m worried that if a coach gets involved, all we will do is talk about feelings, and no one will get anything done.

I have heard versions of this protest point; some sense that if we take time for connection, for making clean agreements, for being more “conscious,” or whatever, we will compromise our productivity. Of course, in general, I hold the opposite view: That if you get more present, self-aware, and sensitive to each other’s motivational context, you are way MORE productive, but that’s a leap of faith on moment one. I get that.

I’ve sat with this answer for a week, and I realized that it won’t work for me to coach a leader who has such strong feelings about feelings.

Here’s why:

1. Feelings are here. They’re present. They’re everywhere around us and in us at work and in life. I don’t spend a heap of time in coaching adding EXTRA focus on feelings; I simply help leaders acknowledge when feelings are present as a context so they can find more empathy for each other and a quicker path to alignment. Denying feelings is, to me, like denying math.

2. Feelings are informative. Every feeling carries an important message. If we ignore the feelings, we lose the benefit of the learning we can garner from noticing a feeling is present.

3. The more we deny or ignore or suppress feelings, the greater the invisible force of those feelings becomes. It becomes more – not less – likely that feelings will create a raft of unexpected drama when they are not acknowledged than when they are. When a feeling is present, we can simply acknowledge the presence of it, invite the feeler to feel for about 60 seconds, see if there’s any message or learning for us, and then move on. The alternatives to this real-time facing and welcoming can be concussive and extremely time-consuming.

With all of that said, I’m not giving up on this CEO or his company as a possible relationship. There is so much about him and them that I like. Frankly, his willingness to be so transparent about his feelings about feelings felt open to me. Like an invitation I’m going to take. I’m going to dig in with him in our next meeting and endeavor to understand how, in his history or operating system, feelings became a third rail.

In short, I’m going to try to engage with him even more about his fear or anger around feelings to see whether we can get some learning together that might inform his view of the kind of learning that might emerge more broadly from an inquiry like this. I want to know, beyond productivity, what the real trigger is here.

I also want him to know that we can move nimbly between conversations about quarterly results (a topic that often sparks waves of feelings) and feelings. We don’t have to discuss feelings and then embargo conversations about business content. I LOVE talking and learning about the businesses I get to touch in my work. That “love” is an extremely intense feeling.

We’ll see how it goes.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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