Lowering our ‘emotional guard’ and helping others do it…

Economy, Industry News, People, Work Place Competencies

It’s all very simple. You don’t have to choose between being kind to yourself and others. It’s one and the same.” – Piero Ferucci

A few weeks back I was travelling out of Delhi and was at the IGI Airport early in the morning. Having checked in, I was in a long line at the security check, waiting to go through the part I dislike the most. That is when we have to remove all the electronic items from our bags, put them in a tray, put the tray on the security machine belt and then line up to get frisked.

As usual, everyone was in a hurry, subdued impatience, pushing each other gently, giving wry looks to those who were holding up the line. I was one of them, slightly flustered and pushing away. I saw a man holding a tray carrying his laptop but not really going anywhere, simply waiting near the belt and looking confused. I felt he was not sure where to go, so politely (and helpfully) gestured to him “You need to go to the other line”…smiling in a friendly manner.

I was expecting a ‘thank you’ but was surprised by a curt ‘I am fine’!….I was taken aback and wondered  what did I do wrong. As I went through the security check and finally seated myself in the aircraft, the hurt refused to go away. I was curious why was I bothered about a curt response from a total stranger. Many times I am in an altercation or argument with friends/colleagues, and hear worse stuff, but I forget it later. This brief encounter had a ‘stickiness’ to it which reveals an interesting aspect of human nature.

When we enter an argument or an altercation, we put up our ‘emotional guard’, prepared to take an attack and give back in equal measure. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and lower our ‘emotional guard’, any negative response goes ‘straight to the heart’ and sometimes can stick for life.

Interestingly, this happens in the most unexpected moments and usually with people whom we trust or love and with whom we have ‘bared our soul’.  Such instances, when repeated in a relationship, usually build up to become serious issues, even leading to separation.

Recollect instances where you were truly hurt by someone’s words or action, and it would usually be one where you had least expected it or had ‘opened up’ your heart. These ‘emotional bruises’ happen to us all the time, or we ‘inflict’ them on others, unaware or deliberately.

  1. A wife plans a surprise birthday party for her spouse, but gets an indifferent response from him.
  2. A student is excited to show his academic work to his professor and gets a curt comment.
  3. An employee makes a special effort to acquire an order, eagerly looking for appreciation and is ignored by his boss during a sales meeting.
  4. A son wants to share his feelings about an alternative career path with his father, and gets a rude reply.

 So what happens when we experience such emotional setbacks?

When I was at the airport a few days later, I noticed myself avoid engaging with co passengers, unlike my usual self (though this eventually wore off).

When we are repeatedly rebuffed, we hold up our ‘emotional guard’ all the time. Interestingly, we see this malaise in marriages, parent child, sibling or professional relationships, where social or work commitments keep two people together while they continue to hurt each other. So, wife and husband are ‘hitting out’ at each other or the father and son have a cold, distant relationship.

As an executive coach, I sometimes see relationships degrading to the point where people look out for an opportunity to hurt the other person when they are vulnerable, to ‘get back’ at them.

What can we do about it?

We can only change ourselves, not others. Some pointers that could possibly help are:

  1. We should watch for our own ‘emotional guards’ as they deprive us the joy of engaging deeply, openly and with trust. When we open up more frequently and deeply with people, we also learn to be aware of their gestures of trust and love, and reciprocate in equal measure of trust and openness.
  2. Be aware of moments when someone is reaching out or engaging with you in a state of emotional vulnerability, seeking to ‘open up’. It could be your spouse, best friend, child, parent, colleague etc. Be delicate in handling those situations.Step back and move into a ‘listening’ mode. Ask questions and empathize.Any rebuff or casual behavior may ‘stick with them’ and impact your relationship
  3. If your relationship is already challenged, with previous instances of hurting  each other, resist the temptation to ‘get back’ at that person. It will only  destroy the relationship.
  4. If someone close is repeatedly ‘hitting at you’, give them time without  responding negatively. Respect their moments of vulnerability, and build an environment of trust.
  5. For instances with strangers or casual acquaintances (like it happened with me at the airport), just forgive and move on.

Whenever someone responds appropriately to our moments of ‘love, emotion and trust’, they leave a beautiful memory with us. It’s like a ‘memorable gift’ and more valuable than a physical object.

In the corporate world, an important trait of good leaders is the ability to sense when an employee or team member is emotionally vulnerable and respond appropriately, setting aside time despite work pressure or deadlines. They truly win the trust and commitment of their team members.

Any comments are welcome!

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