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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Karla McLaren. Karla is someone I’ve had the pleasure of working with for almost two decades. She is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and an expert in emotions and empathy. Her work focuses on her grand unified theory of emotions, which values even the most quote/unquote “negative” emotions and opens startling new pathways into self-awareness, effective communication, and healthy empathy. With Sounds True, Karla has written the landmark book The Language of Emotions, a book on The Art of Empathy, and a new book called The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace. What Karla McLaren makes clear is that the contemporary workplace, most of them, expect us to leave at least some of our emotions behind when we come to work. Listen to Karla about why that doesn’t serve us, and how it actually creates unregulated social structures that we’re stepping into in organizations, and how instead we need to access the vital intelligence of all of our emotions, that intelligence that makes us human, and informs our very best thinking. Here’s my conversation with Karla McLaren.
Karla, I’ve learned so much from you about emotions and emotions as intelligent messengers, and now you’ve applied your work with the language of emotions to the workplace. What happened? What happened in your own life? What evolution did you go through where you said, “I want to apply the intelligence of emotions to work”?
Karla McLaren: I went to work, and I saw just how awful the workplace is. I thought it was I’m just an unusual person, or I’m in unusual places, and I prefer to run my own businesses—which is a dangerous thing, right? You don’t have any support. You don’t have any benefits. You don’t have retirement, right? It’s its own danger, but I much prefer doing that to working in just the nonfunctional social spaces that I saw at work. I just wondered why is it so bad? Why is the workplace so bad? I began to work with emotions, and people would call me out of the blue and ask me about things that were going on at work, so I went into any number of workplaces, and I went, “Oh, it wasn’t just me. It’s bad. Workplaces are bad,” and so I actually went to school, and majored in sociology of occupations to kind of understand the history of work.
I got certified as a human resource administrator. I got certified as a career guidance counselor. I just wanted to look at the whole problem. I wanted to go all the way around and see what happened here. One of my ideas was that the human resource administration department in every business, they’re the people who manage and make sure that the emotional world of the business is healthy. I was disabused of that notion pretty much right away because I realized that HR—Human Resources—is primarily a paralegal. They handle hiring, firing, leave, really important stuff, pregnancy leave, illness, all kinds of paralegal things. They don’t have time to work with the emotions of people, unless someone in HR decides they will do that, but also, they work for the business. They don’t work for the workers, so what I’ve heard from a lot of workplace consultants is, “HR is not your friend. Don’t go to HR.” That is something I looked at in my research as well, is people don’t go to HR.
The only people in the workplace who are set up to help people with their emotional and social lives actually aren’t set up at all. There’s no setup for supporting people in a human way in the workplace. I don’t know. Well, Sounds True is one of the healthier workplaces I’ve ever been in. Do you have any mechanism? Do you have a social and emotional place that people can go? What did you create?
TS: Sure, well, you’re turning the tables on me early in the conversation, Karla, and we will get there. But one thing you said that got my attention is this whole notion of what’s good for the organization and good for, quote/unquote, “the workers” is being different, and that the HR department is supposed to work for the people who run the business, who don’t care about the welfare of the employees.
TS: I would take issue with that. I don’t believe in that. I believe what’s good for all the employees at the business is good for the company, and we need to hold that in our view, and that our HR department is tasked with employee happiness, and thriving as part of their goals, but OK. You write in The Power of Emotions at Work, “The workplace is a social and emotional disaster area. It’s a five-alarm fire.” You’re really pointing out this fallacy that we think we can somehow exile our emotions, we can leave our emotions at the door, and we can come to work and be these kind of productivity machines. I’m wondering, what happened in your research, and in looking at the evolution of the contemporary workplace, what happened such that we started to think emotions aren’t welcome here? How did that come to be?
KM: I think it was a part of the entire process of industrialization, where people were moved off of their own land, and then it became that the only place you could get work was cities, and it was generally cities where the workers were expected to provide cheap labor for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Your needs as an individual—you need to eat, to be treated well, to have a reasonable eight-hour day, to not be a child worker—those weren’t even a thing. I think shutting down the workplace in the Industrial Revolution, as people were moving away from caring for themselves and their communities and actually have to leave their farms, and leave their villages, and go to the city where the work had moved. I think that would have been the beginning of it because you couldn’t—Henry Ford, he couldn’t take the time for people to be having trouble, because you were a cog in the machine of Henry Ford’s world.
He’s just one guy I’m thinking of right now, but I think it was a part of the kind of capitalist shift away from an agrarian or more village- and community-minded place, where people made their own clothes, and made their own food, and they didn’t have a lot of prepared and industrialized objects, right? When that shifted, so did the need for emotions to shut up at work. Just shut up and get your work done, and that has stayed with us to this very day, where people say, “Your emotions don’t belong at work,” and I’m thinking, “What? They’re here. They’re everywhere. What are you even talking about?”
TS: Well, interestingly, I think in most workplaces, some of your emotions belong, like, “We want your enthusiasm.”
TS: “We want your positivity.”
TS: “We want your excitement. We want your problem-solving skills.”
TS: “What we don’t want is this other set of emotions. You know, we don’t really have time for your sadness, or grief. This isn’t the place for that.”
TS: There’s a lot of things that work isn’t the place for, but share with me your view of that notion, like, “You can bring some of your emotions, the ones that help us function well, and make more money, but these other ones that are really time-consuming, go talk to a friend about that after work.”
KM: Yes. Well, I call that in the book a toxic positivity bias, […] and I call it a dangerously mistaken belief that the allegedly positive emotions—happiness, contentment, joy, enthusiasm—are the only emotions that should be felt or shared. But what this bias does—and you would think, “Well, if it’s all just happiness, then everyone’s going to be happy; it’s very good”—but it ends up causing extensive suffering as people suppress all their forbidden emotions, most of which are the problem-solving emotions, and they lose their emotional awareness and skills and they become unable to address serious problems, because they can’t access their emotions, and so much research shows this.
In one study, 85% of workers did not communicate important workplace problems upward. They didn’t, and these were workplace problems that were going to impact productivity. They were going to impact everything, and they refused, and they asked them why, and they’re like, “Well, why should I? No one’s going to listen. They only want to hear the happy stuff,” you know? Or “Nothing will happen. Nobody’s going to want to change.” What that tells me is the emotions of change, the emotions of awareness, and the emotions of problem-solving have been mistakenly pushed out the window.
TS: Well, help me understand which emotions relate to our problem-solving abilities.
KM: Well, they all do. I saw a funny meme the other day that said, “You can have all emotions or none. Those are your choices, all or none,” and someone’s like, “Um, uh”—they couldn’t decide, because they didn’t want the supposedly negative ones. But the emotions of problem-solving, anger would help you understand when there are boundaries being crossed and rules being broken. Shame would help you understand when your behavior or some process is breaking the boundaries of others and creating like a work slowdown. Fear is your instincts and your intuition. It would tell you if there’s some change or novelty happening that requires your presence, and your awareness, and anxiety is a beautiful emotion that helps you understand that there’s tasks and deadlines coming up, and you need to be prepared for them.
All of the emotions are just these wonderful, brilliant—like a kaleidoscopic rainbow of awareness and capacity, and most of them are unwelcome, so you get the modern workplace. You get the modern workplace, a dysfunctional, psychologically unhealthy space for most people. Now, 15 to I think 27% of workplaces, people say that they’re functional, but that leaves a lot of workplaces that aren’t.
TS: Just for a moment, let’s describe a truly functional, healthy, emotionally wise workplace, emotionally wise workplace environment. What would it be like?
KM: Well, there’s something that I’ve seen when I go into workplaces which is that there’s silos, where marketing is separate from art, is separate from production, is separate from shipping, right? There are silos, and if you’re not careful, those silos become kingdoms that don’t have anybody going across, right? In an emotionally well-regulated workplace, we would realize we need this silo, but there is a danger to silos, and so we would listen for the anger and the sadness. We would listen for the jealousy and envy coming up, and if it was up, we would all be aware what those emotions did, and we would say, “OK, there’s a problem in the flow here, and our emotions are telling us something is wrong, so what do we need to do as intelligent people who have emotions to listen to these emotions and support them, and figure out what happens next, because something’s not working.” If we have a toxic positivity bias, everybody knows it’s not working, but they literally don’t have the language they need to speak of it. They can’t because they can’t access the emotions that help them identify problems.
TS: Now, you used an interesting phrase: “an emotionally well-regulated workplace.” What does that mean, “well-regulated”?
KM: It’s a term I came up with as I was writing this book. No, I think I wrote about it in The Art of Empathy. It was somewhere, and I was looking at what are the features that exist in a place where your emotions are welcome, and you are safe to have, and feel, and share emotions? What does that look like? I created a nine-part list of what would it look like—for instance, mistakes and conflicts are addressed without avoidance, hostility, or blaming. (I don’t know many workplaces where that happens, right?) You and your emotions and sensitivities are noticed and respected. Nobody tells you to “cowboy up, stop crying,” or whatever. “Get over yourself.” That people have the space for you to be an emotional human being.
TS: OK. Those are a couple examples. I know one thing that you teach in The Power of Emotions at Work is something that you call “conscious complaining,” and here you are, you’re talking about people who have an issue, there’s something wrong, and I’ve heard it said, “If you’re going to complain, that’s OK, but bring a solution with you. Don’t just complain.” I wonder what you think about that, and what makes conscious complaining different than just complaining—which, people come to me all the time and are complaining. I have to say, I’m not sure how emotionally well-regulated I think I’ll be. I’ll just be receiving all these complaints. So what’s conscious complaining?
KM: Yes, most of us have experienced unconscious complaining, where people just come and they just lay it out, and they just load us up with their unprocessed complaints. Conscious complaining is a different process than this because it uses some of the functions of ritual. One, you set your intention. Two, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. Three, you are aware what you’re doing, right? You bring awareness to a process. You bring consciousness to it. What I find with conscious complaining as an individual is that I think a lot of us [have] been trained since birth, or before, to avoid the supposedly allegedly negative emotions.
Even though I’ve been doing this work for, I don’t know, 40, 50 years, I still will sometimes avoid the allegedly negative emotions, and I’ll just power through. Conscious complaining gives me a chance to catch up with my emotions, and say, “No, this is just freaking hard. This is hard”—and this is me talking to myself—“and I’m overworked, and there’s no one to help me,” and saying those things out loud brings me to emotional congruence. It tells me what’s true, and then, though I started with complaining, what I realize underneath is I also have a great deal of grief, because I’m alone, and I forgot to ask for help, and all those things. You come to this awareness. Conscious complaining with a partner, which I teach in the book, is a way to help people be in the presence of other people’s complaints without fixing it, or without needing to go into those complaints with them.
I think that’s one of the problems with complaining without consciousness, is that it’s a cry for help. People may take time away from work that they don’t have to take away from work to help you deal with your complaining, with whatever’s troubling you. In an emotionally unregulated workspace, that’s pretty much what’s going to happen all day, if you don’t just avoid people, because you’re like, “Um, talk to the hand, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get this thing out by 3:00,” and so all this emotional truth, all this reality, is silenced in that place. Conscious complaining with a partner—it’s a silly, three-minute process where you complain, and the other person listens, not as kind of a dead rock, but the person isn’t supposed to give any […] advice. There’s no solution. You just sit there, and you go, “Yes, of course,” you know? You just create a space for the complaining, and in so doing you break some of the emotional suppression that lives within us every day and around us every day, and then you get to trade places.
Here, my applied work is called dynamic emotional integration, or DEI. Here in the DEI community, we’ll text each other and go, “Do you have time for a CC, conscious complaining? Do you have time?” We’ll just get on the phone, or Zoom, and we’ll just complain, and the other person will complain, and we’ll go about our day, and we will have found out what was true underneath all that social conditioning that represses our emotions.
TS: I don’t want to repress people’s emotions or suppress people’s emotions. At the same time, I’m imagining someone coming to me with a complaint, and I can certainly imagine listening, and just listening and taking it in, but then after that’s over, I want to solve the problem. I want to solve the problem because I want the company to work better. Is that a problem for any reason? I mean, that seems pretty natural to me.
KM: It does. My husband, Tino, is a major problem-solver, and I have learned to say to him, “Tino, I don’t need a solution. I just need to complain,” and so to know which it is, right? At your level, I don’t think you would be doing conscious complaining in this way at work, because you’re the boss. I think people would need to do their conscious complaining before they came to you, and bring you something that needs a solution, because in an emotionally well-regulated workplace, they would see you as an individual with your own emotions and sensitivities, rather than treating you like someone who doesn’t go to solution, right? They would know, “If I want to go to solution, I’ll go to Tami. If I want to complain, I’ll go to Andrew, and then he and I will trade or something,” right?
KM: Yes, so your way of being in the world would be respected, and people wouldn’t take your time to do this internal, I don’t know, housekeeping of emotion.
TS: Right, that makes sense to me.
KM: Yes, yes.
TS: Now, you know, Karla, I do hear a lot about emotional intelligence at work. I also hear a lot about the power and the importance of psychological safety at work, and this has become its own buzzword, “psychological safety,” and it’s now been shown if you want to have a high-performing team—this is research that came out of Google with their Aristotle Project—you have to have psychological safety. That’s the number-one factor on the team. I see people who want to create high-functional teams, at least saying they value the creation of psychological safety. I’m curious what you think helps from your work with the power of emotions of work create genuine psychological safety on teams. What does it?
KM: I would say it’s certainly those nine aspects of an emotionally well-regulated social structure. Did I give you two?
TS: You offered two of those aspects. Yes, maybe you could share the other ones as well, since that seems key.
KM: OK. Let me go look at the list. It’s a list, and I need to find the list. There we go. Number one: emotions are spoken of openly, and people have workable emotional vocabularies. Two: mistakes and conflicts are addressed without avoidance, hostility, or blaming. Three: you can be honest about mistakes and difficulties without being blamed or shunned. Four: your emotions and sensitivities are noticed and respected. Five: you notice and respect the emotions and sensitivities of others. Six: your emotional awareness and skills are openly requested and respected—and this is really important, because if someone’s a really good listener, they become the unconscious complaining shrine, and they may lose their capacity to do their work, because everyone needs to come to them with their complaints, right?
Seven: you openly request and respect the emotional awareness and skills of others. You don’t unconsciously complain to anybody either. You realize that that person is an undiscovered country. They are not the garbage can of your emotions. Eight: you and others feel safe enough and supported enough to speak the truth, even if it might destabilize relationships or processes. That’s a hard one. Nine: the social structure welcomes you, nourishes you, and revitalizes you.
I haven’t looked into this concept of psychological safety. I wonder what the features of it are. I think it might not be at that level, at that base level of emotion. I think it might be kind of like a higher-level language, rather than you get to be who you are and feel how you feel, and people are going to respect that.
TS: I can imagine a businessperson, not unlike me, but maybe less familiar with the value of high sensitivity, saying, “Look, I want emotions to be present, but we have some really serious HSPs—highly sensitive people—who work in our company, and I don’t have the time for that. I don’t have the space. And, you know, we have to respect their sensitivity—it’s too much for me. We will slow down. We will become kumbaya central, and we will not get our work done, so can we find some middle ground here?” Like, “Yes some level of emotions are welcome, but I can’t go into that deep space with you. That’s not what the workplace is for.” What would you say to that?
KM: Well, one of the things I notice about the highly sensitive person, empath, whatever nonsense, is that these are generally people with not very good emotional skills, and not very good boundaries. One of the reasons they’re sensitive is that they don’t have good boundaries, and so we can understand that they would, from the DEI perspective, that they need to begin to learn how to work with anger. They need to begin to learn how to work with thresholds and boundaries, and how to organize their sensitivities, so making everything into like a soft pillow–strewn place I don’t think is going to be emotionally respectful for the people who don’t need that. In an emotionally well-regulated structure, these people without boundaries would understand who and what they are […] because though it’s not good for them, people without boundaries do a great deal of emotion work and emotional labor and empathy work within a social structure. I don’t want them to, but they do.
If everybody understands emotions, if everybody understands the rules or the guidelines of an emotionally well-regulated social structure, then that’s not going to be a problem anymore, because these boundary-impaired people are no longer going to be expected to do the emotion work of other bodies. They will be respected and able to function without so much […] burden, so much emotional burden placed on them.
TS: What if they’re taking that burden on, that’s what they like to do?
KM: That’s what they like to do, that’s what they like to do, and that’s a part of creating an emotionally well-regulated social structure, is to know that in a poorly regulated structure, people like that are going to have to arise. I call them keystones.
A keystone is a stone—when you build an arch, you start from the bottom of either side, and you come up and you arch at the top, and there’s a stone at the very top in the middle of the two arches coming together, and it’s called a keystone, and the keystone is put on last, and it is what makes the structure strong.
In an emotionally unregulated workplace, the keystones hold up the building. They hold up the social structure, and it’s tiring, and it’s not something people should have to do, but when emotions are not allowed, this kind of work is essential. You can’t not have them, and so entering into an agreement as a social group to get everybody’s feet on the ground, and everybody’s emotional awareness raised up, means that those keystones are going to stop being stones in a structure, and they are going to start being functional human beings again who are respected rather than relied upon because the structure doesn’t work without them. Yes.
TS: OK, so you teach in the book about four different types of keystones, ambassadors, connectors, peacemakers, and agitators, and I recognized all four. I wonder if you could just give a couple sentences about each of them, just as a way of introducing it, and then I have a follow-up question for you, but what is an ambassador? What’s their role?
KM: Think of someone who welcomes everybody. “Welcome to the Grand Hotel, welcome.” Ambassadors are people who take on the usually unpaid task of welcoming and training new people when the social structure doesn’t have an appropriate training program, and so many workplaces don’t. They especially don’t have an appropriate training program about what are the rules of the existing social structure, because nobody knows. Nobody could tell you, because emotions are again shoved under the carpet and thrown out the window, and they are how we function as humans, so if we don’t have access to our emotions, these ambassadors are going to be necessary because nobody knows how to welcome people into a social structure that they don’t even understand verbally themselves. One of the ways you tell if you’ve broken rules in the social structure like this is silence, dirty looks, throat clearing, because people don’t know how to say, “We don’t speak that way to this person before 9:00 AM in the morning because coffee,” right? We know in our bodies, but we don’t know, because everything again is in the area of the unconscious. Ambassadors will have to arise in that kind of a place.
TS: OK. Next, we have connectors.
KM: Connectors, when I talked about things silo-ing, like marketing being siloed away from the art department, or something along those lines, if the social structure is unregulated, they are going to get turfy, and they will stop being able to understand each other. Marketing needs something tomorrow, and the art department is used to taking six weeks, right? There’s going to be a tremendous conflict. A connector is someone who’s going to be able to go from the art department to marketing and back, right? Yes.
TS: OK. My understanding, and see if I have this correctly, is that these keystones, these roles would not be necessary, people would not come in and animate these roles, if the social structure was quote, “regulated,” unquote. There might be people who are kind of connect-y, because that’s just how they are—
KM: Yes, that’s who they are.
TS: —or welcoming, but you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, this person is the connector at our company,” because it would be built into the organization in some way?
KM: Yes, and it wouldn’t be that if that person was gone that day, you’re screwed, because the silos are so rigid that you cannot get stuff done if she’s out that day, or he’s out that day, so that’s when you see. Also, in hierarchies. Hierarchies are very rigid structures where you’ve got the board, and the boss, and the managers, and the workers, and they’re very separate entities, right? A connector will probably be able to go across that artificial fragmentation and be able to talk to a number of people. Assistants, assistants of the more powerful people tend to be connectors, because they have to be.
TS: OK. Then you have peacemakers and agitators.
TS: Just give us a little bit on each of these last two types of keystones.
KM: Peacemakers are like connectors. They would do the emotion work and the empathy work necessary to keep the art department and the marketing department speaking to each other, so they would know, but they tend to be more specific. Whereas a connector sort of does it all, a peacemaker will be drawn toward areas of conflict, and they would want to solve them, right? They would hold that position of solving, and usually you’ll find peacemakers in families. They come from families where that was a role they learned, how to get between mom and dad, or sister and sister. Yes.
TS: And the agitators?
KM: The agitator’s my favorite. No. The agitators would also be called the assholes. They act out whichever emotions are not welcome in the workplace. They’re the shadow workers. “We all agree that no one is angry in this workplace, and it’s like why don’t you just put a sign out in front of your workplace saying, ‘Please, angry people, come and work here,’ because they will come. Everybody will project their anger shadow onto them, but they are acting as balancers of an unbalanced workplace.
TS: Again, just to make sure I understand this, in this mythic regulated social structure, this regulated workplace—I say “mythic” because it’s hard to find individuals, let alone couples, let alone small groups of people, let alone a whole workplace that’s regulated—but let’s just say that it exists.
KM: Let’s just say this could exist.
TS: Yes. You would not find agitators. You wouldn’t find connectors. Is that your hypothesis here?
KM: You would not find unidentified and unpaid people doing these jobs, and doing this work, and burning themselves out behind it. You would not find people in this work in essentially an abusive way. You would have connectors, and ambassadors, and peacemakers, but they get paid for it, and they would maybe even have that title on their door, and you would have an agitator. At DEI we do have this. It’s not mythic. We have it here at emotiondynamics.com, or whatever, but there are people who are really good with grief, and people who are really good with anxiety, and people who are really good with anger, and I will go to them, and go, “I’m thinking of doing this—what do you think?” They’re like, “No,” but we know that’s who they are. We know that’s what they can do.
They have other job descriptions, and they do all sorts of things, but there are people that I’ll go to when I have a problem in my own psyche. I tend to be very positive. I tend to be extremely optimistic. It’s a very bad way to be, and I have people here who were drawn to this social structure to fill out my problems just like I fill out their problems when they need optimism, right? But we know we’re doing it. We’re trading.
TS: Now, you said something kind of in passing, that “I’m very optimistic and that’s a very bad way to be.” I think most people think it’s a good way to be—
KM: I know.
TS: —especially a good way to be in business, so that’s provocative in and of itself.
KM: Yes. I understand what a toxic positivity bias is. For some reason, I have an extremely high positive outlook, sort of absurdly so, and what that means is I will agree to things that maybe I can’t do, maybe nobody could do, but I’ll be like, “That would be awesome.” I will look ahead, and I will think, “Trends are going up. It’ll never change.” That is a tendency of my neurology, that’s just a tendency. It works out—it’s 50/50 in my own personal life—but in terms of a business, somebody like me who doesn’t see the problems coming is just like a baby with a loaded handgun.
I have learned that I need to check in with people who have a naturally more negative outlook, and say, “What do you think of this? Is this good?” And they’ll be like, “No,” and so I’ve learned how to develop a more negative outlook because I have these people in my life who are mentors for me, my neurological mentor, and I am mentors for them; because if my friend, my coworker with a very negative outlook starts going on, “This is never going to work,” and I can say, “Hold on. Let’s look and see what can work and how do we plow ahead?” We find ways to balance each other rather than I’m just this boss going off on a rainbow-traipsing journey of unicorns and pulling everybody with me, or my workers are just cranky-ass bastards all day long, and they’re managing me unconsciously, and I’m living unconsciously. Does that make sense?
TS: Well, it’s interesting to me. What I hear you saying is a welcoming of all of the different emotional perspectives that there could be, and that they all have value. Yet, I’ve had people on this podcast, relatively recently, who have shared about how important having a positive outlook is in terms of the results that you create at work, that it’s actually a skill. It’s something to cultivate, and so anyway, so to be honest with you, at the moment, I’m holding both in a kind of questioning way inside myself, and yes, I’m wondering what you have to say about that.
KM: I’ve really become very interested in how and why we shut down the emotions, and how and why we develop this absurd and dysfunctional idea of positive and negative emotions. What I’ve realized is that the so-called negative emotions shake up the status quo, and the so-called positive emotions go along. In a capitalist, sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic world, these negative emotions would stand up and say, “This is some shit, and we need to change it, and we need to change it every day, and it’s not OK. It’s not OK. It’s not OK.” I think that turning emotions into negative and positive—which was a terrible idea—is a way to maintain social control, and keep a kind of death cult going. I think the so-called positive emotions, happiness, contentment, and joy, they’re beautiful. They’re lovely. They’re wonderful, and they belong with their friends, all of the other emotions.
I notice that when people believe there are negative emotions, they don’t develop any skills with them, but when they believe there are positive emotions, they become abusive toward those emotions. They strap them on, and they try to keep them with them at every possible time, and happiness, contentment, and joy are like, “I’ll do what you ask, but my god, I need my friends. I need my anger to set boundaries. I need my shame to help me figure out what’s going on. I need my grief to see what has died. I need my depression. I need my suicidal urge. I need my fear, and my anxiety, and my panic.”
TS: OK, I’m sure people at that moment when you said that “I need my suicidal urge,” said, “OK, what the heck is happening here on Insights at the Edge,” so you’re going to have to explain that, Karla.
KM: Now, in DEI, the rule about the suicidal urge is my human body or your human body, that’s off the table. That is off the table. The suicidal urge does not come to kill us, although because it’s one of the most negative emotions, we don’t develop skills in it in any way, shape, or form. What I notice about suicidal urge and its very close friend depression: depression comes forward to pull our energy away when the way we are going and the things we are doing are not going to work. They are not going to work, and if you look at your depression and talk to your depression, you’ll see within just a few seconds what that thing is. Depression pulls your energy away.
Suicidal urge is a stronger emotion that comes forward when the difference between who you are in your soul and what you have become in this world of expedience, and lies, and emotional repression is not just unlivable, but it’s going to kill you eventually. I’ve learned throughout my life to trust the suicidal urge completely, and also to understand how to identify it, when it is in a very soft and subtle place, so that I can work with it then. I experienced early childhood assault for a number of years. This is not good, and often people will develop a depressive disorder, which I did. My first suicidal urge came upon me when I was 10 years old, and I grew up with suicide, so it’s a path I have walked, with my friend suicide, and when the suicidal urge comes up now in its soft place, it’s what I call the “dead, flat no.”—“No, I refuse.”
There’s a power behind that “no.” It can’t be moved. That is where I come to with a suicidal urge, but when it’s more intense and there’s that death urge, what we’ve learned to do with it in DEI is turn it away from our bodies, away from our life, and turn it toward what it is; and if you ask your suicidal urge, “What needs to die? It’s not me, suicidal urge. What needs to die? It will point it out—this poverty, this loneliness, this shitty family, this racism, right? It is one of the most life-affirming emotions there is, but if you believe in positive and negative emotions, which is a terrible idea, then you will miss some of the most beautiful emotions in the entire emotional realm, and you’ll just be over with the ones that think everything’s OK.
TS: OK, let’s talk a little bit more about the power of emotions in the workplace, and specifically this notion that you have ,that positivity isn’t necessarily better than a critical assessment of how everything could go wrong. I’ll say one thing, Karla, if I have to work on a team with people, I could say, “Would you like to work with this angry, depressed, negative person? Or you could work with this positive, well-resourced, optimistic, can-do person. Who do you want to work with, Tami?” It’s not a hard question for me to answer. I want to work with the person who sees the possibilities in the situation. I mean, that’s what’s going to lift me up. That’s what’s going to help me, so I’m challenging you on this, because I want to welcome the full range of people’s emotions. At the same, I love working with people who see possibilities and are positive. I love it.
KM: Well, I think everybody does, and I think there’s an attribution error there that’s happening that a person who is feeling emotions of anger, or depression, or rage must therefore be acting them out and taking their whole psyche and putting them into the house of anger, and rage, and depression. Then that way, that person could not be optimistic, and that is again, that slicing of emotions into those two unnatural and untrue categories of positive and negative. I’m an extremely optimistic person, and I work harder than most people could even imagine, and I have learned that when my panic comes up, something’s dangerous—“Stop.” I’ve learned that when that dead, flat “no” comes up, that’s the rule: don’t go any further. I know that when my anger comes up, something’s going on, when my fear, my anxiety, with any emotion, when my happiness, when my joy, when my contentment [comes up].
To be fully resourced as an emotional person, as an emotionally well-regulated person, is not to sit in one emotion in the way that I do with my optimism, which is very toxic. To be just optimistic and not intelligently optimistic, meaning you see the problems, you see the issues, you call them out, you’re just going to traipse forward into silly land, and you’re going to make something that people who are better with their other emotions are going to have to come fix for you, because you didn’t consider all of the options, because you didn’t have access to all of your emotions, which are […] aspects of your cognition and your genius. If you don’t have access to your emotions, you simply do not have full access to your entire psyche.
TS: That’s helpful. That’s clarifying. Now, I have another question to ask you about hard emotions in the workplace, and this is something that I haven’t been clear on—the best way to deal with it, how to work with grief when it comes up, and it always comes up once you have more than a few people working with you. Someone is having something happen in their personal life, their mother or grandmother, their friend, major suffering, death of a pet, on and on, and what is—I’m not sure if “appropriate” is the right word—but what’s skillful in terms of how the workplace responds when someone’s grieving? Sometimes people can grieve for months.
KM: Yes. It’s really important. I have that in an area called […] emotionally agile transitions, [which] is—what do you do when someone dies? What do you do when there’s illness or trauma, the death of a worker or a family member? Grief rituals. You do some form of a grief ritual, and in a place where there’s not a great deal of understanding of rituals, you would have a remembrance wall. You would check in on the person. You wouldn’t pretend like it’s business as usual. If the workplace has more of a ritual awareness, then there might be a whole wall—what would you call it in a spiritual tradition? It would be a whole tribute wall. It would be a shrine, right? You would do what humans do when there is grief. There’s no reason that the workplace cannot make space for what humans do when there is grief, which is grief rituals.
TS: OK, now you talked about the possibility of something like a wall of remembrance, and I thought one of the really interesting sections of your new book had to do with this whole topic of empathetic design. If we were to bring our care and our empathy to our physical environment at work, what would that ask of us in terms of our physical environment? How do we design with empathy in mind? I wonder if you could give us some of the most important things we need to look at in terms of physical workspaces.
KM: The most important things are a space to rest, privacy, and break times. Sadly, here in the United States, break times are mandated at 15 minutes every four hours, and one 30-minute to 60-minute lunch break if you work more than four hours. That is simply not enough break time, and you will find workers creating break times even though there’s not a break time; so it’s really important to understand, whatever the mandate is in the US workplace, throw that out and help people find what their natural break time is. One of the ways you find out is if you start getting distracted or if you start getting bored, and those are signs, or fidgety, that you need to get up and walk away from your workplace.
That would mean there’s places for you to go. That would mean there’s private spaces. I talk about what I call the devil’s floor plan, which is the open office, which you don’t get privacy. You don’t get privacy from sound. You don’t get visual privacy, and there’s really no place to go, so there’s no way to get away from work, and you’ll find people beginning to browse. You find them browsing on the computers, because it’s the only way that they can get any kind of time to themselves, so privacy, rest, and break times are crucial for mental health, and for cognition.
TS: How much break time do you think people need, because you said 15 minutes every four hours, that’s not enough?
KM: That’s definitely not enough. Well, there’s been a lot of studies that show that for most people, there’s a place, there’s a sweet spot, and it can depend on how tired you are and what else is going on, but it’s between 50 and 90 minutes that you can work straight through for that long and then you’ve got to take a five or 10-minute get out and away, so if you’re working and you’re writing, and you find yourself getting distracted, don’t go on social media. Get up and get out, and go, and have an actual walk away from work. This is especially important for people doing high specificity work, like art, or building, or manufacturing. They need to get away from that. If people go past that natural place, that’s when mistakes happen. If you want a better, more productive workplace, you’ve got to let people rest. It’s crucial. It seems backward.
TS: You have this notion—you call it “repair stations.” I thought that was an interesting, clever phrasing. What’s a repair station at work?
KM: A repair station is from sociologist Erving Goffman’s work, and basically, it’s a backstage place where you can speak the truth. I think you’ve been to Esalen, and it’s a big—or it used to be, because I don’t know if Esalen’s going to open back up—but it’s a big, famous retreat center, and I’m always fascinated to go to retreat centers, because of the stressors that are placed on the workers. People come there, and it takes them a long time to get there, and they come there to have their peaceful time, but that peaceful time can sometimes mean that they act like jerks to the workers, if the workers don’t do everything perfectly, so I gave a workshop there, especially about the front desk workers, and it’s completely open; it was open on two sides, where you come in and you check in.
I was fascinated. I just stood there and watched them dealing with people who were late, people who were frazzled. I was like, “Where do they go? How do they function if they’re always supposed to be the smiling, open, peaceful space of ‘I’m the Esalen person?’” I did a workshop with them, and I asked them. I said, “What emotions do people come to you with?” And they had a sheet of emotions that I had given them. “What happens if you are just overwhelmed, and you need to get out? You can’t say anything, because you’re out in the open, so how do you go into the back office?”
They said, “We have an eye movement we do with each other, and we just learned it. That means, ‘If one more person comes up to me, I’m going to go off.’” So they would go back, and then someone else would come forward, and you would never know, because they’re all with their peaceful, pastel energy of Esalen colors.
I asked her, “What emotions are people coming to you with when they come up?” I thought, “They’re coming there to have a peaceful time, right? It’d be happiness, contentment, and joy.” She goes, “Um, um, let’s see, anxiety, suicide, depression, and anger.” And I looked at the others, and I said, “Do you agree?” They said, “Yes, and grief.” People are coming and they’re dumping off all of these supposedly negative emotions so they can have their Esalen experience, but they are dumping it on the staff. And yes, they need breaks. They need a repair station where they can go and talk, right? If they don’t have that, you’re going to burn that staff out, and you’re going to have so much turnover.
TS: Now, in terms of empathic design and physical spaces, I think you’ve given some good insights here on what’s essential, now a lot of people are working from home, of course.
TS: We’ve entered the remote—and it’s interesting that you say, “Yay,” because what I was curious is what your view is of our emotional regulation, and an emotionally regulated workforce when people are working from home?
KM: That is harder. Now, my workforce at Emotion Dynamics is there’s only one person here in California with me. Everybody else who works for me is on Zoom. Everybody. It means creating that on Zoom. It means having time together. It’s quite a bit of community building when people are separate from each other, and it’s really helpful to have things like conscious complaining with a partner so people can stay together. I also have a practice called “ethical empathic gossip,” so that people can do the natural social bonding that they do when they gossip, but we add ethics and empathy into it, so it’s not mean-spirited, unethical gossip.
TS: Let’s talk about that for a moment, because at Sounds True, we really encourage people to go direct if they have an issue, not to go to someone else who can’t solve their problem, but go to the person that you have the issue with, and the idea being that when you’re engaging in a lot of gossip or talking to someone who can’t actually solve the problem, has nothing to do with it, it can create a lot of drama.
TS: And it can take a lot of energy out of the work, so what is ethical empathic gossip? How is it constructive gossip, not draining gossip?
KM: Well, gossip is understood anthropologically to be important in every culture, at every age, in all genders, that there will always be gossip. What gossip is—it’s informal communication that is not sanctioned. The sanctioned communication in a workplace might be the memo goes here, and this happens, and this is the text, and this is when we’re meeting, and we take notes, and we do “Robert’s Rules of Order.” The unsanctioned communication is, “Did you know that Mary’s dad just died?” Right? There is no sanctioned way for Mary to say that within the structure of that workplace. If you don’t know that, if you don’t know that unsanctioned, informal information, you could make a terrible faux pas, or you could put a bunch of work on to Mary that she literally cannot do, right? That is what gossip does. It gives us informal communication. In an emotionally unregulated social structure, gossip is ugly. It tends to be unempathic. It tends to be jockeying for position. We’ve all been gossiped about in that way, in an unempathic and unethical way, but that doesn’t change the need for gossip and informal communication.
When we know it’s time for an ethical empathic gossip session with somebody that we trust, it’s because we’ve tried what we can with this person. We find ourselves gossiping about them in an unhealthy way. We find ourselves sniping and griping, and just being a jerk. That’s when we call for ethical empathic gossip, and we tell the story. We generally take 13 minutes. That’s the sweet spot, we’ve found. Each person does it, and we call it EEG, and we’ll also text each other, and we’ll go on our Facebook Groups—“Does anybody have time for an EEG?”—and we’ll just jump on Zoom. It keeps us connected, but it also helps us trust, so you find someone you trust, and you say, “Look, I’ve been just in such a bad state about David, and here’s what’s going on. Do you have time?” The person who is the partner in ethical empathic gossip listens, asks, “What have you tried,” and gives input and feedback so that the person can go back to David having worked it out with someone they trust.
If I am riled up with David, and I don’t do this ethical empathic gossip first, and get somebody’s opinions and input that I require—because, remember, we’re a social species. We regulate each other emotionally. Other people are crucial to our emotional functioning, and if I go there and I am still riled up, and I’m still anti-David, and I go and try to talk to him, I’m probably just going to tear into him, you know? I’m just probably going to be like, “Well, David, here’s what’s going on. You do your thing, and we’ll just agree to disagree.” You won’t have any skills, so it’s so crucial to be able to go to that third party, figure it out, as long as they agree, and they get to do theirs with you, or they owe it to you at a later time, or you owe it to them. Then you can go to David and try a different way. Usually my empathic gossip partners are people who know the party that I’m having trouble with.
TS: Sure. What’s the ethical part, Karla? What’s the ethical guidebook?
KM: It’s ethical because the rule is I must go back and work with David in a new way.
TS: [Yes.] OK.
KM: It’s not just gossip. It’s action-focused. It helps me develop a stronger relationship with my partner, but also with David, because now it’s a triangulation that’s not toxic. I don’t know. I grew up in a big family, and they did toxic, unethical, unempathic, triangulated gossip all the time, so I built this for them.
TS: It’s helpful. Thank you for the clarification. Now, we’ve been talking a lot about unregulated social structures at work, what most of us have walked into, and the idea that we could possibly take all of this knowledge, and acceptance, and intelligence of our emotions and start to create regulated social structures. My question to you is, what’s the role of just regulated human beings? I think it’s great that in your work you’re focusing on the social structures; like don’t just put it all on the person to have their mindfulness practice, and their dance class before work; it’s not all on the person—because they’re stepping into these truly dysfunctional emotional environments. I get that, but now let’s just for a moment talk about what responsibility does a person have as they enter the environment for their own self-regulation, in your view?
KM: To have a functional emotional vocabulary, to understand the importance of emotions, to understand how crucial our—I guess, to your point—how crucial my capacity to function, and be grounded in the present, and engage, and [be] empathic is to the health of everyone. If I’m not together, and it’s time for me to go do a presentation or a meeting in the DEI community, I will tell them, “I did not sleep last night, and so”—and I’ll be honest and say—“I’m not at my best right now, and if somebody asks a question, and you see me struggling, would you please step in?” I know myself well enough to know where my holes are in my psyche, and in so doing and being honest about it as the leader of DEI, everyone else is developing in that way as well, right? As a leader in an emotionally well-regulated social structure, you really have to take an equal and egalitarian position as a human being, and then show the beautiful parts of it, and show the crappy parts of it so that it’s OK to not always be at your best, you know?
TS: You know, Karla, I have to say, every time I talk to you I learn stuff, and I learn also, and challengingly, the ways that I have biases towards this or that. Some part of me is not wholly accepting of this difficult aspect of emotional life, so you always help point that out to me in a way that I think is very growthful, so thank you.
KM: It’s so growthful.
TS: It is. It is. I was thinking, you are an agitator, but you’re living at a time when our entire society is so dysfunctional that of course we need agitators. So, as a final question, what do you think about that?
KM: “What do you think about that, you agitator?” I would like to give up that job and have everybody—please, Lord, learn how to work with your emotions, OK? One of the things I say is if you know how you feel, you’ll know who you are. I also noticed in this last period of the President who shall not be named, is that if you don’t know how to work your emotions, someone’s going to come along and work them for you, and what I saw in the tremendous breakdown of our country and also the UK, and these very, very troubled leaders, and that people were fooled, and manipulated, and had their emotions and their empathy manipulated. It’s like if you do not understand your emotions, you are not in control of your life. You do not know who you are, and you are prey for people who can manipulate you.
This is true everywhere, so I’m an agitator for the soul. You have these brilliant emotions inside you. They’ve been talking to you from the moment you were born, and probably before then. They know what’s going on. They tell the truth. They always do. They may not be fun, but sometimes truth isn’t fun.
TS: An agitator for the soul. I’ve been talking with Karla McLaren with Sounds True. She’s written a new book, The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace. She’s also written the landmark book The Language of Emotions, The Art of Empathy, and a book on Embracing Anxiety. Karla, great to be with you, as always. Thank you.
KM: Thank you.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.