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Episode 7: "Emotional Insights" with Zoe Hawkins

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Without a shadow of doubt, one of the most challenging aspects of navigating change is the range of emotions we experience or find ourselves exposed to. We have been conditioned from childhood to perhaps see displays of negative emotions as bad. This has in effect created an unwritten stigma to being able to discuss our emotions openly - potentially a big problem given the last 18 months.

This week’s guest is, in my view, a master at dissecting human behaviour and in particular helping individuals understand how they can use their emotions to their advantage by understanding their "unmet needs".

Zoe Hawkins is co-founder of In Good Company, an executive coaching organisation dedicated to helping leaders gain a deeper insight to what motivates and drives them.

Zoe and I met many years ago where she ran a session about resilience - something I think we have all had to learn a great deal about in the past 18 months. A few years later I embarked on a coaching course with her and have since utilised that knowledge to not only support my change work but also understand what motivates me too.

It was great getting Zoe into the chair and here are just some of the points we covered:

Data and Insights

Zoe often can be heard saying that emotions are just data. Just information. They don't on their own mean anything - it is what it can tell us that enables us to leverage our emotions.

When we feel a certain way about a situation, those feelings are directing us to what Zoe calls a met or unmet need. For instance when I feel frustrated, it is often because something isn't as “straightforward” as I deem it should be. I have a deep desire to make things easier for people - so when confronted with something less than ideal for myself or others my need is not being met.

It is such a novel way to think about your emotions. If we can tap into seeing our emotions as data, we can further delve into what exactly is or isn't being met. From here we can take more positive steps to address those feelings as opposed to perhaps letting them sit heavy on us and for them to portray to the outside world, here's just another angry / sad / frustrated person unable to "cope" with what has been asked of them.

Accept discomfort

Whether we hear others talk about how they are feeling there is often a judgement and bias clouding our response as listeners. I myself am guilty of this, when we hear someone in pain we just want to make them feel better. In effect we want them to not feel that negative emotion. Zoe reflects we do this in two ways. We either project or we advise. By project we often recount a similar experience and it was survived - demonstrating they can too. Alternatively we can tend to advise and provide solutions. In essence, this makes us feel better. We have shared something we believe should stop the person feeling these emotions. But is that really what the person needs - to stop feeling those emotions or to gain a deeper insight as to why they feel them at all.

Perhaps instead we should sit with the emotion and explore it with the person experiencing it. This is the deep work of a coach but does it have to be reserved for professional coaches or would this response be more liberating for both parties more generally - manager to employee, family member to family member, friend to friend?

One of the most important roles change agents play is in uncovering the thoughts and feelings of those impacted - to understand sources of potential resistance to the change and to define intervention that helps encourage people to engage with change.

But in these discussions, we can uncover emotions which to us are uncomfortable to deal with. Our role is to try to ease the challenge of change on busy people - when we hear someone’s pains, we of course want to solve them. Now that’s great for the change initiative but for the individual, have we really helped them? Probably not as much as perhaps we could have done.

There is a fleeting moment in these situations where we can probe further the feelings people are experiencing and perhaps help them become more aware of their unmet needs, helping them see the world through new eyes and identifying what will help them move through the change initiative. I like this win-win - not only does it serve the aim of the specific organisational change but it also fundamentally changes the individual, it makes resilience and sustainability a real possibility.

We aren't immune

Perhaps being in change and being focused on people sets us up to better handle emotions but don't be fooled that we are in someway immune to allowing our emotions to spill out and ignore the signals and insights. We can be so focused on others that we perhaps forget to seek the space we need to process our own experiences.

Change Management is still quite a lonely profession. Few organisations have more than a handful of practitioners, often they are split across a lot of work and the definition of what constitutes change is worldly different to the theory they may have already or be shown. It’s quite an unsettling environment to try and lead yourself, let alone others.

For this reason perhaps I found my coaching course in the end less about what I had learned as to how to coach others (my aim of doing it) and more about what I need to support myself. Coaching others is a fundamental competency for the change agent but it does pay to give this capability more than the average attention. This work is not about process, it is uncovering the experiences that shape the way people assess information and make decisions. It has to be taken with the seriousness it deserves - are you ready to invest in this competency? If not for others then perhaps even more importantly for yourself.

The last 18 months have been tough and now talk is turning to various forms of returning to the office. The talk is currently about how we take the best of in person and virtual and mash into a new all singing all dancing way of working. What we can't forget is that people will have had experiences they have yet to process. Experiences and "emotional range" they probably have never had to endure and to which sits heavy on them. Leaders and change agents would do well to keep in the back of their heads, not all resistance is equal and that underneath the emotion is data that tells us something about what isn't being met for the individuals. Definitely something worth exploring to help drive sustainable change and more resilient employees and change practitioners. I for one am sold.

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