EMOTIONS: FRIENDS OR FOE?
When we talk about emotions, people tend to think in one way: the open expression of those emotions, with the image of someone showing emotion by crying, yelling or shouting.
This is not what I´m referring to, when I´m talking about emotions.
A CULTURAL FRAMEWORK
The way we express our emotions has a strong cultural framework, and after having worked in different countries with different cultures, one of the first topics I definitely needed to understand was how local culture accepts the way emotions should be expressed.
For instance, what does the unwritten protocol say about what the first or the following contacts should be?
Body Distance: Some time ago I was giving a full day seminar in the northern part of the UK near York. There were 12 participants, seated at a table in a U shape that was situated between the group and myself. By the end of the day, when we were sharing impressions and conclusions of the seminar, one of the participants, a quite shy young man said: “I didn´t feel comfortable because several times you were too close. I felt that you were invading my space”.
Of course I appreciated his comments and kept this situation quite present in my mind for the rest of the training. The “body distance” culture is very different from country to country and it is very important because it establishes the rules about first impression impact. My culture of origin is Latin American, where to touch and be close is an essential component in any relationship.
Some cultures are louder than others (e.g. Italian vs. Scandinavian). Some are more organized or discreet than others in the way they present ideas, express opinions or behave in a meeting (e.g. German vs. Spanish).
All these characteristics are facts and we need to be very careful about them, because a mistake in any one of them can have impact in a very negative way.
However, from my experience, this represents only the first layer of any emotional communication. When we have the chance to deepen the relationship, we can clearly observe that we share the same basic “package” of emotional behaviours/needs, regardless of cultural differences.
This is not about the expression of emotions, it is about how emotions influence our decisions – making world and work as a key driver of human life, again regardless of the culture.
Who would you trust most in this situation
A friend you’ve known forever and who has always been at your side, helping you, protecting you, keeping you away from danger and threatening situations, to the point thanks to this friend you are still alive? Or a new friend you met just few years ago; one who is showing you new ways to perceive life, new tools to make you feel more comfortable and improve your life in general. But this person has different rules that are not easy to understand. Trust is slower to build when making decisions and facing options with the result doubt is a permanent component of any decision – making process.
Our “emotional brain” has been with us for millions of years. I’m talking here about the emotional brain that we as humans inherited from the most developed animals such as apes or other primates. This brain is the one that helped us to stay alive as a species and helps us to survive in difficult situations; in fact helps us to get closer to whatever was going to be positive or useful for our survival and the development of our tribe.
On the other hand, our “rational brain”, as we know it now, has only been with us for 40,000 years; just yesterday!
In fact our experience on earth connects with this metaphore. In our process of evolution, we didn´t replace brains. We added one brain over the previous one.
This is the concept of the “triune brain” of McLean: in the beginning our most primitive part of our brain, the “reptilian brain”, that we inherited from snakes and crocodiles. The reptilian brain has very basic functions: to sleep or to be awake, to fight or flee, to eat and to make love. In my seminars when I explain this part of our brain, always there is somebody that asks me: do we need more brains? What for?
The second brain is still the pivot of our behaviour. We inherit this second brain from big mammals, such as apes, horses. Named as the limbic system or the “emotional brain”, this brain is the seat of our emotions.
For all these reasons our emotions still play a key role in our behaviour and in our interaction with the external world, with other people or with situations in general.
Based on the latest discoveries, mainly done by Dr Antonio Damasio (Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California), we know our brain needs the involvement/connection with the emotional area for the decision-making loop. I’m not underestimating the importance of our rational brain (located in our prefrontal cortex), as we need it to carry out as much profound rational analysis as we can. However, at the point when we reach a conclusion, the button that allows us to make the final decision is located in our emotional brain.
Dr. Damasio´s famous quote is very clear: “We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think”.
Emotions are the leading tools of our behavior, and repressing them only makes them even stronger and less manageable. “What we resist, persists” (C. Jung). The answer is to accept their importance, understand them and discover their rules. Good leaders have the power of knowing how to control their and others´emotions. They have the capacity to orient emotions in a positive way.