When I moved from working in the theatre to working in an office, I was astounded by the difference in attitudes and norms. My new organization and the workplaces of my clients seemed filled with unhappiness and dysfunction. Could I use my theatre training to help transform the malaise I saw everywhere?
While my clients constantly sought to improve their competitive advantage, I was amazed to see that they often ignored the most glaring personnel challenges. Companies were spending thousands of dollars streamlining their processes through Six Sigma or Lean programs. They analyzed their shop floor data and hunted for the slightest area to refine. But the most vital data—the continuous signals coming from their staff—was often ignored.
At her desk, Jayne scowls. Her co-workers may gossip, “That’s just Jayne.” But why is she scowling? What message is Jayne sending (or trying to hide)?
In the theatre, we paid close attention to all types of communication. We recognized that each verbal or nonverbal expression was filled with important information. Our work centered on sending clear messages and decoding nonverbal signals. Why were companies ignoring these crucial skills?
At work, we disregard the scowl. We say, “It’s none of our business.” We don’t want to insult Jayne. Maybe she’s just having a bad day. Anyway, what could we say?
When we ignore nonverbals, we miss clues that reveal levels of engagement in a project or team. We miss feedback about effective or ineffective procedures. We miss developing our teams and building trust or even community.
If Ann’s anger at Marge is never resolved (or even acknowledged), it doesn’t disappear. Our emotional upsets will emerge later in team meetings, office gossip, or mysterious difficulties that spontaneously erupt. Mislaid papers, misunderstandings that lead to team confusion, and even (seemingly) outside obstacles can result from communication failures from unresolved emotions.
Why don’t we acknowledge the large emotional elephant in the cubicle? Because we don’t know what to say or do. Too many of us are afraid of emotions and convinced that there is no way to communicate safely and effectively when emotions are acknowledged.
But there are proven best practices to ensure safe, effective communication, even when emotions are powerfully in play. These techniques include “I statements,” active listening, and understanding the difference between assertive vs. aggressive dialogue.
Armed with these methods, we can courageously observe and acknowledge any anger or unhappiness in our coworkers or ourselves. Observing our emotions is the first critical step. Once acknowledged, we can decipher the message of our feelings. We can then begin to compassionately admit the emotional undercurrent (subtext) of our daily interactions. We can use this ready source of feedback to make our workplaces happier and healthier.