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I see emotions in class as important data, as expressions of deeply held beliefs and the work of leadership as getting in touch with this inner dimension in order to gain greater awareness.

I can only do leadership activities and do this work with emotions in class if I am able to explore and handle emotions myself. Exploring emotions during adaptive change, I have found that the emotion of fear (for example, fear of loss and fear of the unknown) has the greatest significance in corporate, public, and non-profit settings alike. Fear impairs our individual and collective capacity to learn by distracting us and diverting our energy into self-protection.

Triggering negative emotions in my work is a good sign. Trust me here. When a student realizes she had a blind spot, she will most likely feel mortified, angry, or sad. But these emotions indicate learning is occurring. When people face surprising situations, disturbing revelations about their behavior, or an unexpected insight about themselves, they will pause and then react. It is this discomfort that gives people a chance to stop and think. But first I must “stir the pot” a bit. And while I do it, I must:

Be willing to listen and speak from the heart

Listening from the heart means understanding what others are feeling. Speaking from the heart means expressing what I am feeling. This communicates the values at stake and the reasons that make it worthwhile for people to deal with their temporary discomfort and stay in the game. Speaking from the heart requires being in touch with your own values, beliefs, and emotions. When you open yourself in this way, you feel at risk of being out of control. But it is the work of putting yourself out there that enables you to engage your listeners’ heart. When I take myself and others through emotions, I am allowing myself to be moved in the service of moving others. This requires holding my audience and me through the emotions without stopping or repressing feelings. For example, if I talk about something sad and feel the urge to cry, I would not end my talk prematurely or walk out of the room: I would allow myself to feel while also seeing my talk through. By doing this, I let my listeners know that the situation is containable, that I can stay with the emotion, and that therefore they can too.

Allow for silence

Resisting the urge to fill the silence might be one of the most powerful ways to support students’ expression of their feelings. Letting silence do the work may run counter to the way we see our role as instructors. Yet I find no better way, that is gentle and effective at the same time, to invite a class to stay open and listen to their hearts. Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone, states, “Silence is holding a space of care and trust as a person’s brain tries to make sense of what it is learning…. You don’t want to interrupt when a person is processing a question you asked. Silence is more effective than trying to make someone feel better…. If you quickly shift the person from feeling negative to positive, going away from the problem to what is possible…the person might feel ashamed for continuing to feel angry or frustrated during or after the conversation. His or her real needs remain unspoken.” Silence is not a way to manipulate a person to feel differently. Rather, it is a simple way to create space for him to just be and acknowledge those emotions as a sign of a shift in his mental model. This is what the Quaker tradition calls “silent contemplation.” Very much like a muddy pool, simply waiting and doing nothing will clear the waters.

Learn to be comfortable with conflict

I have no problem with a broad range of emotions being expressed in the class.

What would it mean to start teaching, learning or developing teamwork with your heart?