It isn’t enough to simply be aware of how you feel in any given situation. If you are a leader (or a parent/teacher/mentor) then you ought to also be aware of how that feeling looks and feels to others.
Does anger always look angry?
Will happiness always look happy?
Must fear always look afraid?
How we protect ourselves
I remember how I had to learn this lesson in one of my first acting classes in college. To me, when the script says “John enters the room annoyed to find it occupied by his brother” I thought this meant that John enters the room “angry.” I probably stomped around and yelled, only to be asked to do it again, this time “make different choices.”
(What other choices could there be? John is angry. That’s it.)
What I had yet to understand (and I still struggle to recognize) is that the character John is just like the rest of us, he would hide his anger or his annoyance from those in the room.
It’s most likely to protect ourselves.
We’re liars (even to ourselves)
This was probably the biggest lesson I learned from the acting teacher Keith Johnstone when I took a workshop from him back in 2016. One of my favorite gems from that workshop was when I asked him about showing emotions on stage and how he teaches people to do that. He said, “You never show emotion in real life, unless you’re trying to fool somebody. Emotion is automatic.”
Now, what that means to an actor is that the better she can be at hiding her emotions onstage rather than showing them, the deeper her performance will be. The subtlety makes the performance interesting and engaging. We get to see the human being experience the emotions, rather than perform their emotions.
(Just watch some Meryl Streep performances, if you need proof.)
Or, conversely, you could do something like this:
Scared can look scary
I was recently listening to an episode of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast where she shares that when she gets scared, she can appear scary to those around her. In the podcast, she talks about the paradox of how founders of companies are often driven by an internal intensity that can also create a sense of fear when things aren’t going exactly the way they pictured in their heads. This fear can in turn create a fragile or uncertain leadership team.
Why does fear seem scary?
I think it has to do with the ways that we cover up our fear of being vulnerable.
The fear paradox
When you encounter an animal in the wild, you might experience that animal as being aggressive and scary. Experts will tell you that the animal (in most cases) is more afraid of you than you are of it. The problem is that it doesn’t look that way to most of us.
I believe the same is true for leaders. Unless they are really in touch with their emotions, most leaders will try to cover up their fear and uncertainty with a “serious” look or with some form of anger.
Some people try to laugh it off or make jokes, but most, it seems, will take on a role that feels to them as though they were taking charge.
They might ask questions, which are themselves not intimidating, but behind them there is a tone and a facial tightness that can create the impression that someone is doing something wrong, or that someone is in trouble.
In my opinion, this has to do with how we try to control or “get away” from our feelings, in part because we are unaware that other people can see and feel our emotions.
We think we can hide, but we can’t.
A culture of feedback
What if we were all more willing to give and receive feedback about the impact we have on others?
And while we’re at it, what if we were all better at pointing out behaviors that make us uncomfortable, without assigning blame or assuming intentions?
This is something that’s almost impossible to do in a crisis, and some people have difficulty even identifying the emotions that they feel in any given moment. Regardless, it would be amazing if we could all be more honest with ourselves.
Imagine if we could work at an organization where it was okay to say that you were mad, sad, scared or lonely without feeling as though you broke some rule or trust? Imagine if you understood better how you tried to hide from your emotions, so that you could have a better understanding of how others might experience you.
Open your heart and allow yourself to be seen.
The result will be less confusion and a more positive impact on your team.
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