Emotions Are Like Road Signs
“I want to explore work-life balance. I’m feeling stressed all the time.” This is a pretty typical client request. While it’s essential to explore our session agreement and outcome expectation, it’s also important to explore the experience that goes with “feeling stressed,” or another emotion, when stated during a session.
I operate on the idea that all emotions fall on a spectrum from safety to threat. When we feel safe, we feel positive emotions. When we feel threatened, negative emotions surface. The threat could be to our person, ideas, opinions, sense of self, values or deeply held beliefs. Threats typically generate a defensive response, and those responses can be directed at ourselves or towards others. Being curious about all emotions is fundamental to having self-awareness, experiencing aha! moments and, ultimately, making new, purposeful choices.
So, let’s consider a specific scenario.
Our client is stressed, and we can use this as a doorway to underlying concerns that the client is wrangling with. When we ask questions that shift our client’s attention out of the feelings and into the situation, we miss an opportunity to dive inward and support emerging wisdom. This approach supports inside-out versus outside-in coaching. Outside-in questions often support the status quo rather than move toward maximizing potential.
Questions that shift the conversation outside in:
- What would you like work-life balance to look like?
- What about the situation needs to change?
- What could you be doing differently?
These aren’t bad questions, and depending on your timing, they can be powerful. When asked too early in the inquiry, though, these questions shift attention out of the exploration of the emotional narrative. Since all clients and conversations are unique, we might eventually get to the underlying issue. Yet, what would open up your client’s curiosity more immediately?
Emotional intelligence allows us to be with other peoples’ emotions. If we pass over emotions, we may unwittingly communicate that “emotions are too messy,” or aren’t important, or that we are uncomfortable with what showed up in the space. Even emotions like stress can send coaches running to “fix” the feeling with solutions like exercises and lists. That’s fine, but without your willingness to dig below the surface, your clients don’t have the opportunity to understand themselves with greater clarity.
So, what if we shift our relationship to emotions and see them as road signs? Driving down the road, you see many road signs like “No right on red,” “School Crossing,” or “Speed Limit 45.” These signs signal something useful, just as emotions tell us useful information. They are a doorway into deepening awareness.
Emotions don’t evaporate. We may squelch them or soothe them for a time, but emotions continue to bubble to the surface each time we feel them in a similar situation. Only through exploration below the surface level of the emotion will clients discover alternative, more satisfying ways to experience the situation.
Remember, if your clients had solved the deeper experience of particular feelings, they wouldn’t bring the topic to a coaching session. You hold the space for inquiry. Clients get attached to situations that cause negative emotions. It’s common to find yourself listening to the surface stories of who did what to whom. Take the time to listen for the buried treasure. Ask questions that explore the client’s emotional waters. There is an assumption of trust and intimacy; diving into the deep end of the pool requires safety.
Let’s re-examine the earlier scenario of a client who says, “I’m feeling stressed all the time.” Questions that invite your client to explore the emotion, and not the situation, ultimately give your client the internal tools to navigate same or similar feelings the next time they pop up.
Questions that invite inside-out exploration:
- If your emotion had a voice, what do you think it is trying to tell you?
- What would work-life balance feel like?
- Say more about your relationship to stress?
In the example, I hear two threads: the external story of work-life balance and the internal-emotional story below that. What is the stress attempting to tell you?
Questions that invite deeper exploration:
- Where is the emotion sitting in your body? Breathe into it; what new awareness bubbles up?
- How might you use this internal wisdom?
- What does this feeling indicate for you?
- What is the value of this emotion in this situation?
These questions support clients to inquire into their experience through the clear lens of emotion instead of through the swirl of the surface story. Asking questions like, “How is the emotion serving you?” can get to the root of unconscious motivations. You may expose feelings of being controlled or having boundaries crossed, or you may expose disrespect, compromised value(s) or integrity dissonance. The underlying experiences tend to bubble into strong emotions.
By diving into conscious curiosity around emotions, you offer your clients a powerful gift. Feelings are useful—not scary. Clients can use their inquiry and awareness to examine situations and expand their internal wisdom. And, that my friend is a forever tool.