The Importance of Being Emotional

Have you ever been criticized for being “too emotional”? And told that this may be hindering your chances of enhancing your career, or advised that “great leaders know how to keep their emotions at bay”? I have. And for a while there, it made me think that, to succeed, I need to strip myself of feelings, or at least to become an A-list actor at hiding them well. Unsurprisingly, this was not an easy task.

But then, I started wondering. Why? Why emotions have to be so bad? And do I have any chances at all to thrive in life then, but to reserve my softness and compassion?
Well, let’s see what wise men have unearthed.

Emotions and decision-making don’t bond well together, we are often told. In fact, to reach good-quality outcomes—ones that we won’t later regret—we’d better take our feelings out of the equation. That is, we have to “keep our heads cool.” Same is true in business dealings—logic, hard facts and data are often the winners when it comes to strategy, negotiations or planning.

Emotions make us appear too human, too warm, perhaps even weak, “irrational” or defocused.
They are good for things as romance, parenting, friendships, but not when we need to make the real, big life choices—as regarding what to go to college for, or what salary to accept to work for, or whether to buy the house or the car we want. These, we tend to believe, are decisions that require the whole logic we can summon—our own, our family’s, our friends’.

We certainly can’t let how we feel get in the way of successfully closing off an important personal or professional deal. The “real” world, for most part, is driven by things as reason, logic, and interests—be it personal, financial or political. We surely can’t, for instance, expect the bank to lend us money just because we really need it, or because we are a really nice and honest fella. We need a solid case, based on tangible and provable facts.

That is, we’ve been historically conditioned to think, emotionality (compared to cognition) doesn’t make for strong convincer, nor is a negotiation-winner, nor a part of the lending criteria of our bank for that matter.

More importantly, however, emotions and respect from others tend to be perceived as rather polar notions. They, more often than not, get in our way of arriving at good decisions; may devalue our brand, or make us come across as the “too mushy” or the “teddy-bear”-ish type. To be respected, one has to be reserved, in control of their feelings, serious, focused, and even egotistical.

Admittedly, the above revelations sound quite trivial and too apparent even. “Tell me something I don’t know,” many are probably thinking here.
Well, here it is.

On the surface, common wisdom dictates that we have to keep our feelings locked away when we face serious choices, have to make important decisions, or want a successful outcome. Who doesn’t know that, right?
In fact, though, it’s quite the opposite.

Emotions are part of the decision-making process, want it or not

In 1994, a Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California— Antonio Damasio, came up with a rather stimulating theory, which he called The Somatic Marker Hypothesis (1994). It’s based on what some deem a revolutionary idea—that emotions are helpful and needed for us to make rational decisions, especially in situations when we must make a snap choice, or under high uncertainty.

Generally, science tells us, when we attempt to reach a resolution, we rely on either cognition (reasoning, logic) or emotions. When we navigate in a complex environment, however, our cognitive capacity may reach its limit and overheat. In such situations, emotions are the one that take over and guide our decision-making process and our behavior.

Emotions are not the same as feelings, though, prof. Damasio claims, although in everyday life, they are used synonymously. Emotions are signals in our bodies, as elevated pulse and heartrate, contracting muscles, for instance, which are sent to our brains for interpretation, and based on past stored information in our minds, we experience the subsequent feeling (fear). In this sense, feelings actually follow emotions.

What’s rather intriguing, however, is that prof. Damasio’s research is based on observation of patients with damage to the frontal part of the brain, responsible for emotions (called ventromedial prefrontal cortex, VMPFC). Such individuals, although many high in intelligence, had serious problems functioning normally in their everyday lives. They couldn’t make good and suitable decisions, especially when it came to avoiding risks—a condition, which adversely affected their finances and relationships and many other aspects of their lives.

Therefore, it appears that emotions are not the bad influencer in our reasoning process. On the contrary, they are the ones, which let us to make the right choices, to distinguish between good and bad (not only in the abstract), and help us accumulate wisdom over time, which comes from “cultivating knowledge about how our emotions behaved and what we learned from it.”

Acting out “on emotion”

Thin-slicing is a term, which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” in 2005. But the original idea goes back to 1992 when two professors of psychology—Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal published a paper, documenting how quick observations—usually under 5 minutes (some of the later tests were done for 2,5 or 10 seconds), yielded high-accuracy outcomes. That is, higher than 50%– the rate, which can be attributed to chance.

Such “predictions” or opinions about the characters of people we meet, are not necessarily logical. They are based on our “intuition” and cues we read about others—mostly visual, as gesture, posture, facial expressions. But the “thin slicing,” or the limited and fast evaluations we draw on others, has been shown to correctly reveal information about their personality, sexuality, inner states and moral behaviors (as confidence, honestly, professionalism or optimism). The technique has been recognized to work in various settings and circumstances—from first impressions, to speed-dating, to the choices, which medical professionals, firefighters, policemen have to make in splits of a second.

Labelled “gut feelings” or “sixth sense,” the phenomenon confirms what each of us largely suspects to be true—that our “feeling”-side of the brain is more important that just as a manifestation of our artisticity. It is actually a snap compass to aid us in navigating in the world, in getting to know others, or in making on-the-spot decisions when needed. All this, with a scarily great dose of accuracy too.

Not bad for a mushy inner sensation, which generally contradicts all the logic and cognition we frequently equate with the great decision-making—the ones that are supposed to leads us to success and riches.

Warmth vs Strength

Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy, along with fellows Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, has pondered on this question for a while—that is, to be a good leader, should one come across as warm, empathetic, humane, or as competent, authoritative and perhaps even cold?

When we meet people for the first time. prof. Cuddy claims, there are two things that we quickly weigh on—can we trust the person and can we respect them? The former is the so-called “warmth” dimension, while the latter is linked to competence. And although many of us consider that gaining others’ respect is the first step for a new leader to establish authority, it’s not quite the case.

The most important thing in relationships, including business, is to build trust. It is warmth, not competence that does this. Warmth, prof. Cuddy tells us, can be demonstrated as being empathetic, understanding, listening to others, or smiling. Hence, it is based on creating a personal and emotional connection to others.

To be a successful leader, a person must ensure that they come across as warm first before they demonstrate their competence. “If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative,” prof. Cuddy elaborates.

Therefore, to thrive best in our personal and professional arenas, we should become more “feeling” individuals, rather than less. Being temperamental and sentimental are not signs of weakness but of smarts; it means we are perceptive enough to realize that showing emotions and warmth toward others is the right path to building trust and lasting connections, and is also an integral part of being a role model others want to follow.

So, next time, when faced with a big decision to make, or have a “feeling” about someone you just met, or if you want to earn respect from colleagues and friends, just remember—don’t try to reign in your emotions.

Instead, feel away, I tell myself every day now.


Evelyn Marinoff is a Canadian, currently living in Dublin, Ireland. I am a blogger, a social introvert, an MBA, a passionate reader and a writer in the making. I hold a degree in Finance and Marketing, and I spend my free time reading, writing and researching new and intriguing ideas in psychology, leadership, well-being and self-improvement. You can also find her on Twitter at @Evelyn_Marinoff, or read her blog at mind-chatters.com