In western cultures the ‘affects’ – emotions, feelings, moods - are usually understood as subjective; as something private and personal, which ‘colour’ our experience of, but have little to say about, the world we are in. They are often viewed as potential dangerous in their power to disrupt things, as irrational and thereby likely to lead rational thinking astray, and therefore as something to be kept under control. I find that coaches bring these assumptions into their practice. When asked why they did not address the emotion in the room during observed practice sessions, they often speak of an anxiety about what will happen if they do; that something uncontrollable will follow; Pandora’s Box will be opened. It is better to stay with something more highly valued that enables us to really get a grasp of the situation, i.e. out thinking.
There is no doubt that mood and emotion are personal; it is me who is despondent, excited or anxious. At the same time, I am arguing that these feelings are also ‘intelligence’ about the situation. They contain the deeper story of what is happening, and in this way they are not just personal. One way to make sense of this is to view mood and emotion as a ‘field’ rather than something existing solely within the person. All situations and relationships have their emotional ‘field’ which we pick up on. You’ll have experienced this yourself on a daily basis as you move around experiencing the mood of a group, organisation or team, or as the mood shifts when someone new enters the room (particularly if that someone is an authority figure). This experience of picking up the feelings is recognised in the ‘emotional intelligence’ literature and usually understood using words like ‘contagion’, as if, like an illness, something is passed from one person to another. This approach is based in the notion that emotion exist primarily ‘within’ people, but they can somehow ‘jump the gap’ between people and affect them.
The view I’m putting forward is different: we are not closed systems which may emit feelings, but open systems always part of and sharing the emotional field that is always present. Moreover, and this is a primary reason for paying attention to mood and emotion, they carry the deeper story of what is going on. Heidegger argues, and I agree with him, that in fact moods have a deeper understanding of the situation than that available to conscious thinking. In a way conscious thinking goes round familiar tracks and is unlikely, on its own, to get to something new. The deeper story, the something new, comes from tapping into the background mood. Consider this in terms of what is happening in a team, group or organisation. The real story is in the mood you pick up; maybe it’s pensive or anxious. It is finding the words to articulate that background ever-present mood that will give the real understanding.
Understanding that mood and emotion is personal but not just personal has profoundly shifted my practice. As a therapist, and for a number of years as a coach, I worked on the premise emotion was personal; that it was important to understand how emotions are affecting people and make sense of them in terms of an individual’s own life history and how they react to people and situations. If someone was reacting strongly to a colleague or senior person, what was being stirred up in terms of personal history and reactions? This often led to good insight and sometimes some change? Job done! I now realise that there is another step to take: what does that feeling say about the situation that is not just personal to you; what are you picking up that is in the ‘atmosphere’, in ‘the field’, that is shared with others, and most importantly, what does that say about what is going on for us all
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior