What your emotions tell you about other people

In a recent coaching session Melanie* was reflecting on her experiences on different boards throughout the year. Something that she said really stood out to me and a valuable insight was discovered.
"Most of my board experiences have been really rewarding. I felt like I made a real contribution and that my skills were valued. There was only one board experience that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. A couple of times I felt anxious about the value of my contribution and questioned my place in the group. This feeling was a bit unusual for me as I'm usually quite comfortable and confident in this kind of environment. I don't understand why I was second guessing myself."

Melanie had just described the experience of using her feelings and emotions as a way to understand someone else. This is a skill Gestalt Psychologists call using 'Self-as-Instrument' and it refers to our ability to use what we are feeling or sensing in our own bodies as information about what might be going on for other people in the group.
For example, if you are normally quite calm and yet find yourself in a flap every time you work with a particular person or with a certain group or company, chances are that this flustered feeling is a common emotional state for the other person or is part of the group culture and you are just picking up their 'vibes'. This awareness is made possible due to the effect of 'emotional contagion', a psychological term used to describe the tendency of people's emotional states or moods to be contagious or 'caught' by others.

Why was this such a valuable insight for Melanie to have? Because it allowed her to do two things with that knowledge:

1/ Realise that her doubts about her ability were not a reflection of how she was really feeling about herself (it was a sense of insecurity she was picking up from others around the table, which explained the groups' tendency to overcompensate for their own insecurities by acting overly confident and at times brash); and

2/ Better understand some of the below conscious motivations driving the behaviour within the group and adjust her behaviour accordingly.

Next time you find yourself experiencing an unusual emotion or mood, ask yourself:

• What is this feeling?
• Is it really mine or could it be something I'm picking up from others?
• What is this feeling telling me about the other person/group that will help me understand them better?

*Melanie is a real client but her name has been changed. She has provided permission for this story to be published.


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