Handling Hidden Emotions

A colleague was in a meeting recently with her counterparts from around the state trying to figure out how they might collaborate to improve each of their organizations’ individual performance. As they considered possibilities, one member of the group kept objecting to everything in a harsh tone. Basically the message was, this will never work, don’t even try it. So, on breaks and when the naysayer was not in the room, the group came up with a few ways they wanted to work together. It was exhausting.

This story illustrates of the impact of “secondary process.” All conversations and meetings have three elements:

1.) The content or what is being discussed (e.g., budgets, staffing, project status, problems);

2.) The primary process or how the content is being handled (e.g., discussion, Q & A, presentation, brainstorming); and

3.) The secondary process or how people are reacting to what they are hearing and seeing. This includes the conscious or unconscious thoughts, emotions and body sensations.

The secondary process, or hidden emotions which are usually ignored (“What elephant?”), is what often gets meetings stuck or pushes them off track. For example, if the content or what is being discussed evokes anxiety or anger, the ability of participants to participate constructively will most likely be diminished and the outcomes will be less than satisfactory if the secondary process is not tended to.

How might the meeting have changed if one of the participants made a non-judgmental observation followed by a question? “It seems that each time a new idea is mentioned, Joan, you say it won’t work. I wonder how you are feeling about this meeting, this group, or the conversation as a whole?”

Or, could agreement on an explicit ground rule at the start of the meeting have given permission to one or more of the participants to make the secondary process explicit? One such ground rule might be, “Share early warning signs of ‘secondary process.’” Or, “We let one another know when we are about to be emotionally hijacked!”

Sharing an early warning sign might sound something like, “I am beginning to feel frustrated about this conversation. I can feel my face getting red!” Or, “I can feel my heart start to race. I am getting anxious!” Ideally, the group would pause, take a breath, and check whether others are feeling similarly or differently and explore what might be evoking the similar or differing reactions. The added information about what people are experiencing and why, enables a group to decide how they want to proceed.

Perhaps the pace is too fast or slow; or people are interrupting one another; or the purpose of the conversation isn’t clear. Any of these can be changed. Or the individual might acknowledge that their emotions have nothing to do with the meeting itself but with some problem at home. Often, simply surfacing the secondary process and acknowledging emotions changes them.

Two helpful hints. First, don’t judge or ask yourself or others to justify emotions. It’s not helpful. Judging or justifying usually intensifies the emotions. Second, don’t feed yourself stories that increase their longevity and intensity. For example, spinning a story about the naysayer that she does not want the group to succeed or that she wants to take it over or that she is just an ol’ stick in the mud. The real truth in that meeting was that the naysayer was seriously ill. What might have changed had someone just noted that none of the ideas seemed to appeal to her and ask why that might be the case? She might not have been aware that she was being negative!

When a group gets stuck as a whole or by one or more of the member’s unspoken emotional reactions, check the secondary process. People’s ability to participate effectively is hampered when their feelings are not acknowledged and considered in someway by the individual or by the group.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

2 thoughts on “Handling Hidden Emotions”

  1. Early warning sign–I like the sound of that. It’s would seem easier for people unaccustomed to voicing a feeling in groups to label it an early warning sign. Gives it legitimacy and value, removing it from a whine/bid for attention or whatever detracting spin a person might place on it when reluctant to speak up. Another of your ideas I’m going to steal!

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