Mastering Emotional Dexterity

Emotional dexterity allows others to really think

“Words” said the late Irish poet John O’Donohue “are the bridge between the visible and the invisible.” As we speak, we reveal the hidden roads of our own experiences. Somehow these are evident to the listener who senses a depth and responds to the trust of a speaker willing to show themselves.

The courage to be themselves is perhaps the first thing we should ask of a leader. Such a task is viewed with suspicion in an overly empiric society where objectivity frequently crushes the requirement that we simply be human. I am not asking for an ignorance of science, nor that we become Ballmer-bouncing evangelists, just that we allow ourselves as speakers to reveal a little more of what makes us who we are.

Leaders are under a great deal pressure. They are required to be accountable in an era where information comes in deluges and inboxes bulge with information begging to be digested. To cope with this, they need to organize the way they search and process information and to direct the people that work for them in as they also process information.

Emotions organize reason

Now the brain has its own way of organizing, and this should influence how we communicate as speakers. We are discovering that the outer regions of the brain, the two higher lobes known as the neo-cortex, are unbelievably sophisticated at processing and explaining information but they can only deal with so much information at a time.

At their service the limbic system: an emotional gatekeeper that tells the higher brain faculties what to absorb and what to let pass. As a result the limbic system is the one that needs to be activated in any communication. And it deals with emotions, with fundamental beliefs of life and with values.

What this means is that by allowing emotional content into our communications, we are organizing the intelligence of those around us. Of course the rational faculty must be fully exercised but to make clear the emotional content of our messages and to feel it as we communicate makes for not just entertaining but far more efficient communication. Put simply, our brains prefer it that way.

A remote important region

Now having a facility for emotion is not always easy to do. We often guard away what we do not want to be seen well away from public eye, and understandably. We have been hurt, and often are afraid that exposing ourselves risks further hurt. But by guarding ourselves and holding ourselves back we are losing a greater range of communication tools that audiences will respond to. We are robbing them of a greater ability to process what we present and make it relevant for them.

Having greater emotional facility requires stepping back into yourself, speaking from a place that can easily be hurt but has a far better grasp of the emotional content of our business. It is what William Stafford calls forward when appeals:

 “…to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk.”

To be who we are, and to let this shine though as speakers, can only be a gift to ourselves and the communities we week to change.

At this point I want to observe the modern tendency to be overly vulnerable. A tear moistens in the eye and the speaker heads to poignancy before any message has been properly delivered. Vulnerability does not mean constant public statements of anxiety or hyper-enthusiasm. But it does mean we can allow a situation to be described with human eyes, not as rational machines. “Owls drop dead from wet black branches with such recklessness of perspective” as storyteller Martin Shaw laments.

Communication with awareness requires an uncovering of what we would otherwise prefer not to see. It means our pain no longer limits our awareness and therefore our expression. By communicating these unseen roads that we are prepared to travel, our words will gain more power.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Terence Barry of Flickering Wall who put together the thoughts on emotional brain state. Martin Shaw’s chapter on leadership in “The Branch and the Lightening Tree: Ecstatic Myth and Grace in the Wilderness” supported the thinking behind this article.

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