Therapy for Bosses: Making Space for Emotions in the Workplace

By Talia Filippelli posted 04-15-2020 16:14



Therapy for Bosses: Making Space for Emotions in the Workplace

April 15, 2020

by Talia Filippelli, LCSW, Founder, Starr Therapy,

This month’s virtual therapy session for bosses is all about confronting something we’ve collectively avoided for a long time - our employees’ feelings.
Most employers don’t give this topic much attention. Emotions get checked at the door - this is business. Right? 

Not so fast.

Undervaluing emotions, unfortunately, leads employers to disregard, avoid and ignore their employees’ feelings. There are lots of reasons we, as leaders, do this. 

I don’t have the right skills. 

What if they become emotional? 

What if they cry? 

How will I comfort them? 

The conclusion: don’t get involved.

You can ignore feelings if you want, but the truth remains the same. We are not machines. We do have feelings. And those feelings impact how well we perform.

And trust me, there will be consequences now and after coronavirus is over if we don’t confront this.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are more emotional now than ever. It’s critical that we start acknowledging those emotions so we can mitigate their negative impact on workplace performance and success. As leaders, you’ll also be gaining an undeniably useful skill that resolves your insecurities with these types of conversations, allowing your relationships with employees to flourish.

The secret to addressing emotions is simpler than you think. Dan Siegel, author and innovator of integrating brain science and psychotherapy, coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” Here’s how it works:

The Concept

We can’t change what we don’t notice. Denial and avoidance don’t make our feelings go away or lessen their impact on us.

Naming our emotions tends to lessen their weight and the burden they create. Once we notice and name our emotions, we have a chance to separate ourselves from them. From this distance, we’re no longer emotionally hijacked; we can make choices about what to do with our feelings. Done successfully, we move ourselves from the emotional brain into the rational brain where we feel a greater sense of control and optimism. 

Here’s an example. 

You received an email from an unhappy customer right before going to sleep last night. You wake up feeling “on edge.” Anger is quietly taking the wheel, and hijacking your car (brain) for a joy ride where you’ll spread anger all over town (towards your spouse, kids, employees, etc). Here’s where “name it to tame it” comes into play. Noticing and naming your anger effectively means you get back in the driver’s seat, take the wheel, and get back on your route. Taming your feeling means you decide that your anger is going to make for a bad day. Instead of going straight to work and spreading your bad attitude to others, you decide to put your sneakers on and go for a run so you can diffuse your anger and prevent its negative impact on your day. By the time you arrive at work, your anger has been appropriately managed and you walk in feeling motivated, optimistic, and with a smile on your face. 

How To Use It

Be brave. Disrupt the pattern of keeping work conversations surface and bland by getting people to express what they’re actually feeling. 

Ask your employees (and yourself): How are you really feeling? 

Create an opportunity for you and others to name emotions out loud. The conversation that ensues will allow each person involved to take responsibility for their feelings so they are less likely to spill out at the expense of others throughout the day. You may even notice that your feelings are shared, creating a common bond that strengthens the relationship.

If you experiment with this skill now and in the coming months, you will inevitably hear people expressing a common emotion - grief. COVID-19 and our current quarantined society has triggered feelings of loss in all of us. And there’s no shortage of losses that you and everyone around you could be experiencing. Here are just a few to keep in mind:

  • Loss of normalcy
  • Loss of motivation
  • Loss of predictability
  • Loss of control
  • Loss of purpose
  • Loss of connection
  • Loss of family members, relatives, friends or colleagues
  • Loss of safety and security
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Loss of personal and/or professional identity

It’s our collective grief that unites us. As leaders in our businesses and communities, it’s critical that we are aware of our own losses, as well as the losses experienced by our employees and colleagues since it will undoubtedly impact how we all work. 

The impact of “name it to tame it” will transform your relationships, expand your emotional intelligence skill set, and grow your potential for business success in important ways. When we feel our best, we perform our best. It’s that simple. 

So let’s get out there, get involved, confront our fears, and go deep with our people. You won’t regret it.