“You’re not allowed to get angry! No crying!”
Yuck. Those are words from some of my less memorable moments as a parent. As much as I was learning about my own emotions as an adult, learning with others about the value of expression, in parallel I was not always the best at it at home. There are a few of those occasions that I would love to take back. I communicated the exact opposite of what I wished for my children.
Emotions have always been a tricky part of communication for me. From early childhood through helping others with organizational development and health. We all struggle at times with what emotional health looks like in communication.
My earliest memories in church ministry were filled with situations of flare ups, dancing around, and stonewalling. Groups would move from silence to screaming in a matter of seconds, and issues consistently became personal. Some were resolved with mediation, others were allowed to go cold until the next contentious melee. One of the most difficult comments I encountered was often used as a tactic to silence an individual or group.
“I can see you are getting emotional, so we will have to close this discussion for now.”
That, or some form of it, was one of the greatest forms of manipulation I had faced. I once thought it was isolated to only a few people, but as the years have gone by, I realized that this closing statement was a regular occurrence for those wanting to avoid the confrontation. Being a self-proclaimed ‘emotional person’, I found every situation where this was used to be both humiliating and infuriating. Barring none, a statement like this has been used every time a party was trying to save face, and felt they had lost control. Not emotional control, but control of the narrative.
The best part? Most people who call out emotions in a conflict are getting emotional themselves. They simply classified your emotions as the wrong ones.
The red face. The raised tone. The petty comments. The theatrical facial expressions. Those are all forms of emotionality, even if the party displaying them is not owning them. As I matured in my understanding of my own emotions and their basis, especially in conflict, I began to call out the manipulation of the narrative. Not the emotion. We communicate through emotion, and we manipulate the communication through emotion. Maturity is the key. The healthy expression of emotion, is exactly that: Healthy.
One of my favourite passages in the life of Jesus that speaks to allowing permission for emotion in dialogue, is found in the book of John. Jesus has given some very challenging teachings to the various groups before him, and as goes deeper and deeper, more and more people leave him. He continues until it seems to be an intimate group left listening to him speak. His friends.
“You’re not going to leave me too, are you?!”
It is a very literal moment. An emotional moment with Jesus. As I learned the original language for this passage, I learned a new side of Jesus. Yes, he shows emotion in a variety of instances; crying in the garden, anger with the sales people in the Temple; but this was different. This was an actual conversation with his friends. It is an imperative tone he uses, and it demands a response. The dialogue was given to emotion.
Much of my training on healthy communication has the same beginning: The issue. “Stick to the issue” is a common term in mediating a conflict. It can be very helpful to start with the facts and move from there, keeping things from devolving into a ‘he said; she said’. The reality is that most issues carry with them emotion. There is a human element to everything. We may have been hurt. We may feel slighted. We may feel unheard. That is most often where emotion comes into play.
Do you allow emotion in your communication?
Not just laughter to cover the depth of a moment. Not simply anger to force the other side into a position of no reply. Emotionality is felt in a room without it ever being pronounced; it really needs no introduction. There should be no belittling effect or embarrassment attached to emotion within dialogue, yet there so often is. The place of emotion is to help the storyteller portray more than the facts of the issue, but also the impact of the issue. When we allow ourselves to learn our own emotional response, and help the other with theirs, we can deepen the impact of the dialogue.
Becoming comfortable with the expression of emotion within communication, takes a lot more energy than simply gathering the facts. But it is worth it in building community.