I was so impressed by the movie “Inside Out” that I became a little pushy about getting people to see it.

Have you seen it? Consider this a push…

The movie started in the imagination of Pete Docter as a result of watching his daughter mature and marveling at her mind. To help understand the nature of feelings, 2 psychologists were consulted during production: Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner. Ekman is a pioneer in the study of facial expressions and emotions and in the 1990’s proposed a list of basic emotions common to almost all cultures.

Docter used this thesis to develop the five main characters in the movie:

  1. Sadness,
  2. Joy,
  3. Disgust,
  4. Anger, and
  5. Fear

The 5 characters are the personifications of emotions in the mind of Riley, a girl who faces major change in her life.

I love this movie for many reasons, but the main one is that it helps communicate the idea of emotional literacy – something I find is sorely lacking in society, but particularly in the corporate world.

People make good theatre of “emotional intelligence” as an important “soft skill” but demonstrate a frustrating degree of incompetence in expressing feelings in ways that are actually helpful (and I include myself in that observation).

Emotional literacy is simply the ability to express meaningfully our inner emotional lives in ways that are appropriate to context and helpful in making connections with others.

Let’s start with the basics: vocabulary.

People often use the idea of “feelings” in a way that is meant to carry the moral weight of their subjective experience without actually dealing with their true feelings.

Ironically, most times the word “feeling” comes up in day-to-day conversation it is used to hide rather than illuminate feelings. Here are some examples:

  • “Fine, thank you.” – in answer to the question, “How you feeling today?” is a perfectly acceptable way to not say how you are feeling ☺
  • “It’s just how I feel.” – said after expressing an opinion. An opinion is not a feeling.
  • “I’m really upset!” – is an unhelpfully vague wave in the direction of unspecified feelings.
  • “Don’t you care about how I feel?” – is an accusation most often leveled at people who have never been told what those feelings are.
  • “I feel you don’t understand the problem.” – is a judgement. A judgement is not a feeling.
  • “I’m feeling a little irritated.” – is almost always untrue. The qualifier, “a little” is meant to make the real feeling more palatable. The real feeling is “irritated” but without the qualifier the feeling seems too raw. The qualifier offers plausible deniability should the target be offended by my feelings.

And so on…

A feeling is best described by a single word, with no qualification. See how many feeling words you can write down in 10 seconds, excluding the 5 characters from the Inside Out movie…

I bet it wasn’t as easy as you thought to come up with feeling words. Here’s a list of a bunch more. As you read through the list, there is unlikely to be a single one that does not have meaning for you, yet these words are elusive in daily conversation. That is especially true when we think about describing our inner life.

A good vocabulary is the basis for understanding more complex feelings and therefore understanding people. Check out the matrix created by Christophe Haubursin, in which the 5 basic emotions from the movie interact to form more complex emotions.

Read this Fast Company article about how feeling vocabulary can be useful in your work interactions.

Or try this to practice becoming aware of your own feelings:

  1. Decide on a random event as a trigger, for instance, “every time I make myself a cup of coffee”
  2. Pause at the event and be conscious of 2 or 3 feelings you’re currently experiencing
  3. Express each feeling separately, starting with “I’m feeling…”
  4. Remember, a feeling needs only one word, no qualifications or descriptions

You’ll benefit from a more intimate sense of self even if you do that only once a day. And what may surprise you is that it doesn’t take long before you start noticing other people’s feelings more accurately too.