How to talk about your emotions at work

illustration of people talking about different emotions and feelings

When you enter a meeting with a coworker, they might ask “How are you doing?” But do they really want an answer? And how would they react if they got a really honest answer?

Talking about emotions in the workplace used to be widely frowned upon. “For many years, people took the approach of ‘leave your personal life at the door,’” says Amy Eaton, a principal talent management consultant for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “That is simply not possible. We are human, and that includes our emotions.”

Even in today’s less restrictive environment, it’s still a good idea to have some parameters when it comes to sharing your emotions at work so you can do so effectively.

Why sharing your emotions can be a good thing

Amy Eaton: People need connections with each other. Evaluating how honest we’re being in talking with each other helps us contribute to a culture of psychological safety. When we’re honest about our emotions, we model to others that it’s safe for them to also have emotions —and to talk about them.

Feeling safe to process our emotions at work fuels innovation, growth, and creativity. We can even work through conflict, which is a healthy part of progress and change. Yes, there can be difficult conversations. But when we talk through tough emotions, we get a better understanding of others’ views. And sometimes, this can change the trajectory of a project or process.

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How to decide what and when to share

Amy Eaton: Here are a few questions I suggest that you ask yourself when you’re contemplating what to share at work:

  • Why do I want to share?
  • What are the risks or impacts if I don’t share?
  • Could I contribute to a better outcome if I do share?

You might also ask yourself why you don’t want to share, if that’s how you’re feeling. Are you holding back because you’re afraid of conflict? Perhaps you don’t feel safe sharing your feelings, and you’re concerned about the possibility of retaliation. (Note: most companies do have policies against bullying behavior or retaliation.)

If you feel you need to build your skills in this arena before you share, there are resources you can find to help you. For example, the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and its companion blog is intended to help people learn more about participating in productive conversations when the stakes are high and emotions run strong.

5 ways to do a better job of sharing your feelings at work

Amy Eaton: You can improve your ability to share your feelings at work. Here are my five recommendations:

1. Invest in self-awareness and self-management

Personality and behavioral assessments can help you learn more about yourself and discover your own preferences and tendencies. You can learn to check in with yourself and assess how you’re feeling and how that’s affecting your body language and your attitude, too. Armed with this information, you can be more intentional when interacting with your colleagues.

2. Recognize the professional environment

Determine if what you want to share has value in a business setting. Or if it’s better suited to a personal conversation with a close friend or a therapy session. In some circumstances, acknowledging certain feelings may result in an overall positive contribution to the group. It may reassure other team members that their feelings and input matter, too. But if you suspect that sharing your feelings may derail or distract the group from their purpose, you might reconsider. It comes down to a case-by-case basis.

3. Be authentic … but don’t overshare

It can be worthwhile to share some details wisely. If your demeanor could be misinterpreted as something someone has done wrong or as displeasure with the meeting direction, you should authentically share enough to help clarify and prevent misunderstanding. In such an example, it could be helpful to share you’re not yourself today because you received some tough news about a family member (without having to be specific beyond that). By being vulnerable without oversharing, you’re demonstrating it’s safe to be human at work while also maintaining privacy.

4. Give yourself the gift of resources

You may need the space and time to discuss a very personal issue that’s affecting your ability to do your job. And it may be better for you to have that conversation with an unbiased party who’s not focused on their own work-related goals and output. If you don’t have a therapist or counselor, this could be the impetus to seek one out.

5. Learn from experts

If you have a mentor, ask for some guidance about how they approach discussing emotions in the workplace. You might also talk to your therapist or counselor. There are also numerous books, podcasts and TED Talks on addressing emotions in the professional setting that might help you.

Two options: the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Feelings at Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffey, and the Emotion at Work podcast by Phil Willcox. There are also resources to help leaders create an environment that’s more open to sharing.

Authenticity and vulnerability can feel scary in the workplace,” Amy says. “Choosing to be brave and honest may help others also feel safe to process emotions at work professionally, too. Thereby fueling innovation, growth and creativity –and– perhaps a truer sense of belonging.”

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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