Following on from last week’s post How You Feeling Today? in which the importance of a good vocabulary for feelings underpins good communication, this post is about context: why feelings matter, but only to a point.

Let’s frame it as a question: “How important are feelings?”

We know they are important for communication, self-knowledge, motivation and even survival. You can read a neat summary of that here.

Perhaps the most important role of feelings, especially in a business context, is how our feelings affect our decision making – whether that is as individuals or as teams.

And this raises the question of the degree of control we have over the influence of our feelings in decision making.

Just in case you’re tempted to dismiss the importance of feelings, take note of the numerous studies that have examined the role of emotional state on human judgement, like this one reported on in the Guardian, which showed how judges were more lenient in the morning or after short breaks. These are individuals whose careers are built on impartiality and practised objectivity!

Feelings are important, but we need guard rails to limit the influence of our emotions especially when navigating complex choices. This is why we have checks and balance built into our systems and why we need to constantly examine the evidence of how effective these systems are at guiding human decisions.

But what about the individual?

Can you as a business leader or conscientious employee be sure you are able to understand and check your own emotional state?

Let’s start by acknowledging how adaptable and pliant the human emotional system is.

Feelings can change fast.

Even huge, raw and overwhelming emotions can be put aside, buried, postponed or transformed. Think of the numerous examples of people whose terrible trauma is suppressed out of necessity only to resurface years later at the bidding of an evocative smell.

Perhaps you can recall a time you and your significant other were having an intense argument and were interrupted by a knock on the door or other surprise visit? How quickly were you able to park your anger and hurt and switch to a welcoming smile?

While complete control of our emotional selves is probably unrealistic, it is possible to exert greater influence over our emotions through practice, hence the popularity of mindfulness at the moment.

Gaining control of our feelings actually starts with being well versed in knowing our feelings, Hence, the practice of emotional literacy mentioned in the previous post.

The next step is understanding where a feeling is coming from: what’s its purpose?

Almost always there is an underlying need that makes a feeling pop. In simple terms, needs that are met generate likeable emotions such as satisfaction, pleasure, joy; while unmet needs generate emotions we generally don’t enjoy such as anger, frustration, hurt, revolt, fear.

Business psychologist, Owen Fitzpatrick, talks about “triggers” or “anchors” to our feelings and finding constructive ways to achieve meeting our needs in order to “collapse” the triggers. Read more about that here.

Not all feelings are easily changed.

And some feelings we may not want to change – even if they are not wholly desirable. For instance, our sadness at the passing of a loved one is not something we can or want to get rid of. But even a great sadness – a memorial to a great love – needs its place in the context of our whole lives.

If it is (mostly) possible to contain our big emotions in an appropriate context, it is possible to do the same for everyday feelings – it just takes practice.