Making sense of the F word



Have you noticed that people are now using the F word more in public? By that, of course, I mean the word "feel".


Getting in touch with our feelings, particularly for the men, is being put forward as a good thing to do. Men are being encouraged to consider their femininity and the emotional right side of their brains, in contrast to the analytical left side.


Yet in reply to these questions, we often do not get to hear a lot about the respondent’s feelings at all. Rather we are given a lot of data about what the person thinks about the subject under question: words used often do not reflect the emotions in the situation.


Imagine the scene: a UK radio presenter is in the middle of an interview with the country’s prime minister and Sarah George, a nurses’ union representative:


Presenter: "Well, Prime Minister, what do you feel about nurses going on strike today-
PM: "I feel it is totally irresponsible for the nurses to take this action, which puts the lives of so many sick people at risk"
Presenter: "Sarah, from the nurses’ perspective, how do you feel about the situation-
Sarah George: "I feel very angry at the attitude of the government and also sad that they are proposing a 20 percent cut in our salaries"


The prime minister was explaining his thoughts on the matter whereas the nurse was sharing her emotions. Both were using the word feel correctly but in different senses with different results from the listeners’ perspective.


In business there is a preponderance of males at senior levels. When a woman asks a man a question such as "How are you feeling- she is often looking for a response that would tell her something about his emotions in respect to a given situation. However it is likely that he will respond with an answer which tells her more about what he is thinking (left-brain) rather than his emotional state (right-brain). Replace the man with a woman and the reply may well be, "I feel happy / sad /angry".


Chris Lee, director of growth in Community, which has run many personal development programmes, offers another perspective. "In my experience, some women also have trouble expressing their feelings, often because they have never been allowed to within the context of their own upbringing or their existing relationships," she suggests.


We must not forget that feelings are a reality for the person experiencing them. This means that others are not in a position to deny their existence. Feelings occur instinctively when something happens. It’s a bit like the weather when there’s a storm approaching — you don’t seem to have control over them. They may come from the past as baggage or stuck feelings that you get tripped up by. Or they may arise in the present, spontaneous and fluid, coming and going like waves.


However, when we ask a question with the F word in it, there is an underlying, possibly subconscious, enquiry about the other person’s internal well-being. To cite a real case, we were working with a manager involved in a complex business planning exercise. When asked how she was feeling about the difficulties experienced she became upset. When asked why, she explained that using the F word had prompted an emotional response as a result of the intense effort on her part to do the work.


Do we need to be more careful in how we phrase questions with the word "feelings" in it? This sounds a bit like walking on eggshells. Allowing people to express their feelings in an appropriate way should form part of a natural human desire to build lasting relationships. Openness and honesty would be two values that might be brought to bear, as well as active listening to ensure that what is said at all levels is actually heard.


One business leader, Geoffrey Feasey, has taken the distinction between thinking and feeling further in a business context. He has found that an "observe-think-feel" approach to giving feedback on behaviours in business meetings has had beneficial results. This originated from the difficulty that some people, particularly men, have in receiving challenges about what they said (content) and how they said it (tone of voice and body language).


In all relationships, even those in business, authenticity should be a desired aim: "I am behaving as I truly believe". So the Feasey approach is to challenge behaviours in a systematic approach to avoid confrontation: "I observed your behaviour, heard from the tone of your voice and saw from your body language", then, "what were you thinking about at that moment- followed finally by, "how were your feeling at that time- This approach is designed to engage with the issues in a less threatening way by leaving the F word until last.


The skill of "active listening" and discussing feelings can be usefully applied in circumstances where conflict management is needed. Our experience has shown us that simple techniques such as these can be learned by business leaders through the coaching process with positive impacts in difficult situations.


Strong relationships within organisations and between customers and suppliers are the foundation for long-term business success. Personal coaching can help people improve their relationship skills to achieve more effective teams and leadership. This can be achieved by linking feelings with behaviours, acknowledging the importance of managing emotions in oneself and others, and the need for managers and leaders to be more emotionally aware and sensitive.


Perhaps a closer focus on relationship skills within the business world will allow a more meaningful and authentic dialogue between people. This would utilise the learning that has taken place in recent years within the family systems context. If we try and tell each other more about ourselves, we may begin to develop more trusting environments in our workplaces with leadership based less on power domination. There are both business and emotional risks attached to such changes in behaviour. At least we may start to make sense of the F word and use it as we mean to.