Talking About Our Feelings—Potentially Awkward, Definitely Important

Last week, I described how to do the observation step of Focused Conversation without having to talk about all the details. At this point, many facilitators would naturally want to guide the group through interpreting the data. But the Focused Conversation method prescribes another step in between: reflection.

Reflection is about our internal state towards the data. In other words, feelings. Now, you may be thinking, “You want me to ask about feelings with my team of engineers?!?”

Emotions can be hard to talk about at work. But they’re still in the room, whether you talk about them or not. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Instead, they simmer below the surface…and then sometimes boil over. Have you ever had the experience of someone being strangely emotional over what you perceived as a neutral, objective topic? “I know you’ve had trouble with the build server, but why are you yelling right now?” Reflection makes these emotions part of the data so you can include them in your interpretation.

But how do you get this data in a safe way with a group that doesn’t naturally talk about their feelings?

The easiest way to do reflection in a work conversation is to talk about energy and motivation. For example, I was once facilitating an annual retrospective for a 75 person IT department. We started by making a big timeline of all the things that happened in and to that department over the year (observation). Then, I invited each participant to place 6 dots on the timeline. They had 3 green dots to place where they were most motivated or energized and 3 red dots for the opposite (reflection). This gave us another form of data to include in our interpretation.

In fact, it revealed a critical, previously-hidden issue with this group. Most of the votes were what you’d expect. But there was one place with a large cluster of both green and red dots. As we dug into that later, we discovered there was a big handoff in their process that felt like finishing to one group, while another group just felt overwhelmed with new work.

In a sprint retrospective, you might ask questions like:

  • When were you most motivated during the sprint?
  • When were you least motivated?
  • What are you most proud of? What would you most want to tell someone outside our team about?
  • When were you frustrated or discouraged?
  • What made you say to yourself, “I wish it was always like this!”?

Be careful how you phrase these questions. It’s critical during the reflection phase that people talk about their own internal state. They shouldn’t be making claims for the whole team. The answers shouldn’t be debatable. “No, that’s not true,” shouldn’t make sense as a response to someone’s answer.

A slightly more advanced way to do reflection on your team is to provide a vocabulary. Most of us aren’t very articulate when it comes to our emotions. This is part of what makes them difficult to talk about.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication has a useful list of feeling words. You can make this available to your team, and then ask them to fill in the blanks in a statement like, “When [something described during the observation part of the discussion] happened, I felt [feeling word].”

You don’t need to belabor the reflection part of the conversation, but don’t skip it. You might generate useful data. And you’re almost guaranteed to end up with a closer team who trusts each other more.

What else have you used to include emotion in your discussions in a healthy way?

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