_Article written for National World published in Yorkshire Post _
Is Collective Grief Blocking Emotional Intelligence At Work? Why Leaders Need to Understand Trauma
All unfelt emotions compromise not only our emotional intelligence and our capacity to relate, empathise and listen, but also diminish the clarity of our critical thinking faculties.
I cannot recall a single CEO or senior leader client who has not realised through our work that whole parts of the way they lead, usually the less well-functioning parts, are rooted in their childhood and/or intergenerational trauma.
I will begin with some definitions of trauma, and then develop the understanding of the territory and why the title of this article is so important.
Although many events are obviously ‘traumatic’, it is more important to understand what happens inside us in the face of difficult events, from the most extreme to what may seem quite innocuous scenarios.
A young child feels frightened – what could be more natural? In healthy scenarios, one of the primary caretakers metaphorically and/or literally embraces the child, lets them know that fear is natural, and supports them to feel it within a context of warm, supportive presence. The fear moves through the child’s nervous system, fades, and the child naturally moves on. There has been no need for any internal contraction. There is no ‘after effect’.
But mostly, in one way or another the child does not feel supported. Perhaps the parents are busy, perhaps they are themselves caught up in their own traumas and unable to be warm and present for their child. Perhaps they try to explain rationally why there is no need to be afraid. They may even make the child feel stupid for being frightened.
Whichever of these, the child has only one option – s/he has to stop or at the very least reduce the intensity of emotional energy inside them because they cannot contain it on their own. This is a survival function. We know instinctively how to do this, it’s in fact quite a remarkable innate intelligence. We basically close down our body, through tension and restriction of the breath. We often also find refuge in thinking. In cases of violence or abuse, people report that they literally leave their body. All of these are essential survival, self-protection strategies.
And so we do survive, but at what cost? Because each time we did this – and most of us did it over and over – a part of our life force closed down, went offline as it were. We also started the movement away from the home base of our body in the pelvis. To be grounded, open and rooted was simply too painful.
The move way from full embodiment is then supported by our education system which increasingly prioritises data and rational thinking over play and sensuality. As this happens, our overall capacity to feel, and therefore empathise for instance also gradually closes down. Thinking becomes our dominant function, and we forget that thinking by itself does not feel or indeed have any experience of life.
And so, 30 to 40 years later, despite all our functional success, as someone rise up the leadership ladder to the point where their humanity and Presence become easily as important as their knowledge, they start getting 360’s telling us that people don’t trust them, that they don’t listen well, that they are perceived as cold, distant and so on. And however much they try to learn new behaviours, these are in the end just band aid until they address the underlying roots.
We are all carrying the imprints of unaddressed trauma from our childhoods and from our lineages, often far more subtlely than in the obvious cases of Holocaust or African American descendants, or inhabitants of countries ravaged by war or natural disasters - the fathers who could not express their grief, who were isolated and lonely inside, the mothers who were seething with unexpressed anger, frozen in their sexuality, and so on. I have lost count of how often a client will suddenly see that ‘Oh my goodness, a whole part of how I feel is how my father felt….”, or will realise that much of the way they lead has been shaped by their experience as a five year old. Hence the very unfortunate and dangerous truth that all too often, boardroom behaviour is that of five year olds in the school yard.
Working with trauma requires skilled facilitation. It does not need months of therapy if the client is willing. Safe and unconditional space must be generated, so that feelings can be felt without any attempt to manage, fix or change them, and so that the constant escape into narrative, to talking about can be restricted. The work has to move from the cognitive to the experiential for it to bring healing. Everything has to happen first in the body, not the mind. The healing unlocks multiple dimensions of ourselves, including much higher levels of critical thinking.
When the word ‘collective’ is used as in the title, the principles remain the same, though we address a wider and bigger systemic field. I believe that the primary collective emotion being experienced now is varying degrees of anxiety. This can relate to everything from personal professional and financial insecurity to the state of one’s country, to the growing global instability, the fact that it is too late to avoid catastrophic climate events, and that we are now constantly on the edge of a war whose progress, including the nuclear possibility, is completely uncertain.
Anyone who does not recognise the anxiety levels inside them is basically deeply numb. A senior leader who is emotionally intelligent however is first of all comfortable with their own emotions. Secondly s/he legitimises the emotions of those around. This can be very simple – in a meeting for instance, pausing to acknowledge the anxiety levels in the room, with Presence and empathy, and the owning of their own emotions. “I’m not sleeping well at present, I guess some of you may be feeling the same.” This is what I call robust vulnerability, one of the deepest and most impactful qualities of leadership. When a leader does this, the effect is one of huge relaxation within the individual and group nervous system.
I have seen time and time again that, following a moment of such emotional intelligence, new ideas usually start flowing into and through a group in a remarkable way, because the channels are open. Insights, new ideas and new solutions arrive effortlessly – the very epitome of collective ‘flow state’.
Conversely, when a leader and a team plough on without stopping to acknowledge emotion, be it grief or fear, it’s as if big boulders are impeding the flow of the river. People remain contracted inside in order not to feel, they think far less clearly, and they very likely leave such meetings feeling more depleted than when they went in.
I believe that the growing awareness of trauma in the way I have defined it here, as well as the radical understanding that no emotions are negative, and no emotions need healing, fixing or transforming – that this happens naturally when they are felt and acknowledged in a supportive environment – is a game-changer in corporate culture. It liberates huge amounts of life-energy, and therefore intelligence. Our critical faculties, and our relational connectedness work at their very best when our bodies and hearts are less and less burdened by the contraction of stored, unaddressed emotion.
Nicholas Janni | August 2023