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Keeping the Water Clear

Emotional Digestion at the Workplace

November 29, 2023

Indigestion is painful.

Bloated, stuck, and slow. Distracted and preoccupied. Snappy and short-tempered until the discomfort subsides.

When our gastrointestinal system doesn’t digest properly, it’s hard to be fully present.

The same is true of our emotional world.

When we don’t digest our emotional experiences, symptoms arise. Stress accumulates. Resentment builds in our relationships. We start carrying emotional weight that prevents us from meeting the moment as it is.

It’s like a glass of water. When the water is muddy, it’s hard to see clearly in the relationship. The more muddy the water is, the higher the chance that judgement and resentment sets in.

When we do the work to digest our emotional experiences, we keep the water clear. The clearer we are with ourselves and each other about our emotions, the more our relationships flow.

Clearing the water is what it means to be relationally mature.

Unfortunately, this is a message that most organizations don’t want to hear.

When suggesting that organizations can become better at welcoming emotions, I often hear the following responses:

“It’s not professional to bring your emotions to the workplace.”

“It’s not a manager’s or leader’s job to be a therapist”.

“It’s not helpful to give people license to vomit their emotions on everyone else”.

These are telling statements that exemplify just how robotic, inhumane, and emotionally unskilled the modern business world has become.

Emotions and feelings are not only a part of who we are. They are what it means to be a living, breathing being. Take away emotions and you’re left with nothing but a hollow, lifeless shell.

A fundamental principle of our emotional reality is that emotions need to complete themselves in order to move on.

If, for example, you feel anger about someone else’s behavior, suppressing it or ignoring it will lead to an accumulation of tension and stress. You’ll become distracted and curt, which will seep into situations outside of work. Your loved ones will suffer as a result. The tension will linger no matter how hard you try to push it down.

The same is true of any charged emotional experience. When we try to suppress, ignore, numb, or deny what we feel, we create an emotional debt for our future selves. The longer it goes on, the higher the interest payment becomes.

It’s when we don’t digest our emotions that outbursts and tantrums occur. It’s when we don’t give space for our emotions that they eventually become disproportionate to the situation at hand.

Showing emotions doesn’t have to mean uncontrollable tantrums. Listening to people compassionately doesn’t require being a therapist. And if there’s anything that is unprofessional, it’s depriving your organization the chance of becoming a more mature, respectful, and high-performing place to be.

Emotions are valuable radar signals to ourselves about the situations and systems we’re embedded within. They are “warm data”, letting us know when a boundary has been crossed (anger), when we’ve lost something precious (sadness), or when safety is being threatened (fear).

We avoid these signals at our own peril. Without honoring our emotions we become rudderless, left with nothing but the false gods of money, power, and status to orient by.

Relationally mature teams are committed to processing their emotions. They have a set of relational and individual practices that allow them to keep the water clear. This can take several forms.

When inter-personal issues arise, they take ownership for their experience without finger-pointing or blaming others. They understand that while others’s behaviors might have triggered an internal reaction within themselves, they know that they are still responsible for their own experience. They avoid claims like “You are annoying” or “you are irresponsible”. Instead, they distinguish between people’s behaviors and their own emotions: “When you don’t deliver as agreed, I feel disappointed”. They know that sharing their emotions is a vehicle for creating deeper safety and trust. And they know that clearing the water makes the relational space more effective to work within.

They also have a regular frequency of digestion spaces. This can be a weekly session where the team gathers to process the week’s experiences. Or it might be a monthly triad practice, where colleagues meet in small groups of three people to share where they are. The people listening don’t need to answer: they can simple be there, holding space and witnessing the person speaking. Regardless of the format chosen, they have a culture of creating spaces to share, hear, and digest the emotional reality of the organization.

And they commit to individual digestion practices as well. Whether it’s meditation, contemplation, or intermittent breaks, they know the necessity of creating space in a busy day. With back-to-back meetings, it can be easy to lose track of oneself along the way. So they devote time on a regular basis to check-in with their inner world and gauge where they are. By committing to “space practices” individually, they create the conditions to show up with clarity and openness collectively.

These types of practices allow organizations to operate with greater presence. Rather than dealing with the accumulated emotional debt of the past, they can be more fully here, now.

This type of work is a gift to ourselves, our families, our coworkers, and the world at large. So many of the issues in our world stem from unprocessed emotional experiences. To create a different world, we need to give ourselves an honest chance of inviting a better future.

If we don’t digest and process our emotions, the future will simply be a repetition of the past, or worse.

But if we give ourselves the gift of individual and collective digestion practices, then we might just have a chance of inviting a different and clearer future for us all.


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