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I recently got certified to administer the EQ-i/EQ360 assessment, which measures our current skill level across 15 emotional intelligence sub dimensions such as empathy, stress tolerance, interpersonal relations, etc.  As part of the training, I completed the self-evaluation and discussed the results with another coach. One surprising outcome was the low score in emotional expression compared to the leaders’ control group.

In the book The EQ Edge, Doctors Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book define emotional expression as openly expressing feelings both verbally and non-verbally.

In my attempt to always appear composed, prepared, capable, etc. I lost the art of expressing emotion including excitement, enthusiasm, concern, etc. I definitely overlooked the importance on how I came across to others.

We mostly learn by mimicking others in the group especially those who are regarded as more senior or experienced. For people in my generation and older, separating our individuality from what was expected of the work persona was rewarded. This was especially true in male-dominated industries where results were king. The unsaid and unwritten message was ‘deal with your emotions at home, the bar, or at the shrink’. 

For me it was part mimicking and part associating low or no emotional expression with credibility. If I get too excited, that means I am too emotional, and that means I am getting too subjective, and that means facts fly out of the window, along with my credibility. Sounds familiar?

Thankfully, this approach is changing with more women and minorities entering the work force and senior leadership ranks. Also, there are many studies showing the importance and positive correlation of emotional intelligence, which includes emotional expression, and bottom-line results.

If you can answer never or almost never to these statements, you have high emotional expression.

  • It’s hard for me to share my feelings with others.
  • It’s hard to express my intimate feelings.
  • I find it difficult to show people how I feel about them.
  • I find it difficult to show affection.
  • It’s hard for me to describe my feelings.
  • It’s hard for me to smile.

And if you can answer always or almost always to these statements, you have high emotional expression.

  • It’s easy for me to express my feelings.
  • When I’m sad, I talk to people about it.

There are many reasons why we may choose to not express our emotions. In my case, it was a combination of wanting to imitate the tribe of ‘successful’ leaders at work and wanting to keep certain distance to emotionally protect myself from being hurt.

Here are some steps I am taking to learn and enhance emotional expression skills.

1) Identify more specific emotions

For better or for worse our emotional vocabulary, at least mine, is limited. We know the basic emotions, sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, and fear, and we have difficulty pinpointing the nuances in these groups.

For example, within sadness there is a range of emotions that go from disappointment to anguish. If I say I am sad, that could mean different things to different people. Instead, if I say I am disappointed, that conveys something very specific related to expectations not being met. I have found this tool very helpful in recognizing more specific emotions.

2) Stop assuming

Most of us tend to think that we are truly clear when communicating with other people including letting them know how we feel. I know I continue to make this mistake over and over.

The reality is that more times than not we say A and the other person understands Z. And this happens with colleagues, close friends and family members, strangers, in the same language, etc.

Being fully present in our conversation, having a smile on my face, and expressing interest by asking questions, may not suffice in letting you know how I am feeling or which specific emotion I would express. I now know that I have to actually say how and what I am feeling.

Of course, the words must match the tone of voice and facial expression. We do not want to look and sound like Droopy, one of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio cartoons famous for keeping the same facial expression and tone of voice regardless of its emotions.

Here is a suggestion you could adapt to multiple situations. Before your next team meeting, revise the agenda items and identify your initial thoughts or emotions about each topic. Are you nervous or anxious about the upcoming client presentation? Are you annoyed or frustrated with the project delay?

3) Express one emotion at a time

When learning or enhancing any type of skill, but especially those associated with behavior or emotional intelligence, we want to take small, manageable, and consistent steps.

I am experimenting with communicating at least one emotion in any given conversation. This is completely doable for me, and it takes me out of my comfort zone without being an overwhelming or unsurmountable task.

As I learn about each distinct emotion, I can be more specific when I express them. For example, I can convey my excitement for you, which is feeling a powerful enthusiasm. Or I can say I am proud of you, which is deep pleasure and satisfaction because of your achievements.

In the prior idea of writing your thoughts or emotions about each agenda item, you can now choose which one you would like to express during the meeting. Are you going to focus on being nervous about the upcoming client presentation or on being annoyed that the project is now delayed?

Similar to the prior suggestion, ensure that your tone of voice and facial expression match what you are communicating. When showing emotion consider focusing your eyes on the camera instead of the screen – this is the video equivalent of looking at people in the eye.

“Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.” Pearl S. Buck

We want to combine this aspect of emotional intelligence with others such as empathy, impulse control, and awareness to have a harmonious balance. Like everything else in life, there is a time and a place for emotional expression.

Expressing our feelings verbally and nonverbally allows us to build authentic and deeper relationships. This increases our ability to inspire our team to go above and beyond expectations. In addition, by expressing our feelings we create an environment where people feel comfortable being open and honest especially when they want to share difficult or sensitive information with us.

How do you go about expressing your emotions? Which suggestion would you try first? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.

My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership positions by creating awareness, increasing emotional intelligence, and unveiling the tools and choices available to them so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.

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