Learning to listen and learning to care for people hasn’t always been my forte. I’ve always read the data: the expressions, the fleeting emotion crossing someone’s face, the tic which tells all. But for much of my life I tended to routinely discard it. At work, for well over a decade, I pretty much thought emotions were to be ignored or surpressed – in favour of a pseudo-objective norm of ‘professional workplace behaviour’.
In the private sector this was a good protection mechanism against loss, and having to do bad things to people. People all around me were regularly ‘fed to the huskies’ in round after round of redundancies in in the late 1990s and I had to do some of it. Later in the Civil Service, you were always one honest comment away from a newspaper headline or a grievance procedure, so wise to stick to the party line.
Latterly, helped by a bit more more experience, some professional advice and two lovely children, I’ve learnt that my emotions and feelings – and my assumptions about those of others – condition nearly everything that happens to and around me. Best start using that data then.
So now I very much do. And through practice and a certain amount of inner calm, I can read and help people with their problems. It used to take me a huge mental effort – a short ‘emoting’ session would leave me shattered. I’ve got better at it now. A few techniques help. But also tuning in to my own emotions, rather than using my head to respond, gets a far better result for much less effort.
The problem is I’ve become so good at it, that I’m now in demand. A steady stream of people regularly check in with me to unburden themselves, complain of injustices or moan about the world going to the dogs. Of course it’s nice to help. It’s also flattering to think I can. But sometimes I give too much. And sometimes to the wrong people.
This week a friend and I discussed emotional intelligence and a penny dropped – it’s time to redraw some boundaries with people I work with. I’m at work to get a job done and my emotional energy is the most precious resource I have. Sometimes helping people emotionally doesn’t help get the job done. And it takes it out of me. I need to spend my emotional energy more wisely at work and use it sparingly where it is most needed – to make a difference.
But more importantly I need to save more of it for me – to invest it where it pays the richest return – in my friends and family. And that means redrawing some lines.