How to Be Present with Emotions in a World of Getting Sh!t Done
This past weekend was the first time in my life where I got a glimmer that being present with emotions is more valuable than getting shit done. It was transformational.
I’m good at getting shit done. Give me a good crisis, gnarly problem, or something to tackle and I am in my element. I’ll figure out what needs to happen, break it down into smaller milestones, and kick it off with a team. I keep myself and everyone else inspired and motivated to stay on task. Over the years, I’ve learned a bit— I’ve evolved my process enough to figure out how to build in room for experiments, failure, learning, and celebration.
As part of my coach training at CTI, the co-active model talks about the different types of partnership. One form is the relationship between Being and Doing. As humans, we exist in a balance beam that is often more tipped towards one side than the other.
As a human being, think of all the ways that you are being with your emotions right now. Perhaps you are:
- Jittery from the 2 cups of coffee pounded this morning to get up and going
- Tired from going to sleep too late after binging on Stranger Things
- Cold, and maybe a bit resentful of how hard it is to adjust the heating system
- Sated from that snack of pistachios and a banana
- Grateful that it’s a beautiful October day in San Francisco. Sunny and with a tiny nip of fall.
- Anticipatory of the meeting with your boss this afternoon. She wants to talk about something important. You’re a little scared, excited, and feeling some butterflies in your stomach. Can we just get it over with already?
All of these complex feelings and emotions exist within us at every point in time, often flitting and combining with each other in a dance that’s entirely human. We are human be-ings and emotions are part of us.
How much time do we spend in our days Doing— creating to do lists, checking off each task with satisfaction, and moving onto the next item? Or sometimes doing multiple things at a time because multi-tasking feels so much more efficient? If an emotion comes up, it’s squished to the side. I’ll feel this disappointment later, I can’t cry at work right now. Compare this Doing time to the time that we let ourselves feel and experience a range of emotions. It’s more rare for me to let myself relish how serene and content I currently am. Or to let myself sit in what’s perceived as a negative emotion such as rage or jealousy. Emotions simply are. They aren’t positive or negative. They are a part of our experience, and that makes the emotion right. And until that emotion is fully experienced and allowed to flourish, it’s impossible to let it go.
This world of Doing is familiar to me. Working in fast-paced tech startups and large companies is about how much impact you can make on the world and how many things you can get done in a limited amount of time. At Facebook, we talk about ruthless prioritization, about what we are going to ship in the limited time we have in a 6 month period. It’s about what we do and how we measure that impact.
I spent this past weekend in a world of Being. As part of my coach training, we spent three days learning how to be with emotions and to trust the process of witnessing and seeing another person’s experience. I approached it with trepidation and skepticism. The coaching skills I’d been embracing to-date felt somewhat familiar and akin to what I’d been practicing as a design leader for years— envisioning a dream future, encouraging viewing an issue from multiple perspectives, lovingly challenging people to be their best selves, and creating structures so they can keep themselves accountable. I wasn’t sure of the value of this being present thing. I already do a 2-minute daily meditation, have an evening gratitude practice, and occasionally go to yoga class. I was present enough in this life, thank you very much. And yeah, I suppose it makes sense to have a balance of Being and Doing, but Doing is clearly much more valuable in this world we live in.
“Those who are the most resistant, fall the hardest.”
One of my previous teachers had shared that beautiful quote about his journey into coaching. It resonated with me as a lifelong skeptic. This is how I fell hard for being with emotions:
1. Connect with Metaphor
Metaphor is magical. Metaphor evokes the safety and knowledge of something familiar. The familiarity helps provide a doorway into a new concept which then helps with the click of understanding. One of my front-of-the-room leaders, Susan Carlisle, offered up the metaphor of decadently relishing your favorite dessert. That being with emotions is the dessert of life.
I love dessert. With groups of people, I’ve been known to order “One of every dessert, please!” My superpower is appreciating and relishing every single sweet, crunchy, bitter, subtle bite of glorious dessert I’m digging into. Susan’s metaphor gave me permission to regard being as something delicious & special, rather than an inconvenient skill to practice and master.
2. Embrace Powerful Emotions
I am a person of big emotions. I would regularly receive performance feedback that I can come off as being too intense, sometimes too emotional, which can have a negative impact on others. Years of that feedback had led me to control and lessen my emotions as a way of playing with range and what’s appropriate for different leadership situations. Outside of work, my friends & family know that I can be ridiculously childlike in my enthusiasm for things like splashing through puddles or spontaneously breaking into dance moves.
Big emotions are familiar to me. Yet I’d always embraced the so-called “positive” emotions — joy, compassion, hope, playfulness, curiosity while suppressing and closing off the “negative” emotions — frustration, depression, powerlessness, hurt, jealousy. Through multiple coached sessions spending time being with all my emotions, I learned that all emotions are valid and valuable. There is no “good” or “bad” emotion. Emotions exist and are a reflection of what you feel right now.
A concrete example. The “difficult” emotion I am most uncomfortable with is apathy. I get frustrated when I exist in a state of uncertainty, of not having an opinion, and not immediately knowing what to do. In multiple sessions, I was coached to experience and feel apathy. To imagine & visualize a House of Tutti and to see what it would feel like to walk down a hallway and approach the door to apathy. Parts of this experience were unsettling — I was angry that this ugly door and bland room existed in my beautiful house. And after sitting with anger for a little while, curiosity emerged. Rather than being frustrated, I became curious about why this door existed and excited & anticipatory about what was behind the door. When I walked through the door, I was able to connect with a space of possibility— a playground or blank canvas where I gave myself permission to be messy & patient, to not know what happens next.
I’ve started on a path of honoring emotions, allowing them to be, seeing where they show up in my body, and using visualizations to explore them further… all of these are ways of being with emotions. Humans are naturally creative and resourceful enough to handle the range of powerful emotions.
3. Be Curious about Feelings
In being with apathy, curiosity was my best friend. Once I had given myself permission to embrace a powerful emotion, then I could be curious about it. Why am I so triggered by uncertainty? What does it feel like in my body? What areas tense up? Are there hidden memories that emerge? How could I use my senses to explore the color or smell or taste of apathy. What type of room is it? What’s inside the room and what materials are on the walls?
And eventually… after the exploration and being with, something shifts and a new emotion emerges. A new journey of curiosity begins.
4. Build on What You Know
As I immersed in emotions and we talked about love as the secret to good coaching, I thought about falling in love. I thought back to my value of Family. Of being able to hold my chosen family—children, friends, designers, clients and support them with unconditional love.
As a designer, I first start with people problems. Who am I designing this product for and what problems am I solving for them? Through user research, there is a deep well of empathy to understand who the user is, what emotions they’re struggling with, what their problems are, and how the day-to-day of their lives unfold. The best designers I know will deeply & empathetically understand their users. You could call it being in love with our users.
Another design story. One of the skills we look at when evaluating current and prospective Facebook designers is the skill of Intentionality.
What is the purpose and intention behind the design solution, and did the solution meet that purpose? How deliberate was the designer in selecting the solution? Did it land? In addition to the main definition, I’m intrigued by the philosophy behind the definition of intentionality. It acknowledges that intentionality is grounded in mental states, or emotions. That a design becomes intentional when it honors the designer or the user’s emotions.
And with a final click of building upon what I know, I realized that being with emotions is something that I’ve known how to do all along. When emotions in users are honored, a design becomes intentional. Being with emotions is a familiar concept to design, and a familiar concept to me.
“Those who are the most resistant, fall the hardest.”
And yes, I’ve fallen hard and I’ve fallen fast. I’ve fallen in love with my big emotions and to being with the emotions of my clients.
Ready to take a small action?
So if you’ve read all the way to the end, you might be wondering,
“But how do I do this? How do I be present with my emotions?”
My suggestion is to try an experiment. Pick one of the following two small actions and notice what happens after you do it:
- Path 1: Doing. Think about how you want to show up in your next important meeting. Perhaps you want to be curious, or brave, or confident, or welcoming? Before you enter the meeting room, set that intention. Write it down on a sticky note or in your notebook. Check back in after the meeting.
- Path 2: Being. Each morning when you wake up, notice what emotion you’re feeling and write it down. Each evening before you go to bed, notice what emotion you’re feeling and write it down. How does this feel after a couple of days?
- Because we might not be as familiar with the language of emotion, in the appendix below, I’ve provided a list of different emotions, courtesy of CTI.
If you take an action, I’d love to hear what happened for you. Feel free to reach out directly or comment on all the social mechanisms.
Thank you to Leland and Amara for graciously reading drafts of this post.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching.
I grew up in seven countries on three continents and am settled in San Francisco as my home base. I spend my time parenting two adventurous girls, obsessively reading, and paddling out for the next wave.
If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, learn more about what I do.