A Coaching Power Tool Created by Taaka Awori
(Leadership Coach, GHANA)
Being a Gracious Host to Difficult Emotions
Managing difficult emotions is one of the hardest things we have to learn in our lives. It is not something that we are taught as children yet it is fundamental to our well-being. In this context, difficult emotions include all those feelings we consider uncomfortable or painful such as frustration, anger, sadness or jealousy. For some, the feelings that cause discomfort are those of joy, gratitude or hope.
At the onset of a difficult emotion, we may suppress what we are feeling and refuse to accept it is even there. Or we may become totally overwhelmed by the emotion and act on it in ways that are not helpful to ourselves or others. Rumi’s poem the Guest House provides a beautiful metaphor for an alternative, more empowering way of managing these feelings. This power tool is inspired by the poem.
The purpose of the power tool is to support ourselves and ultimately our clients to learn how to use difficult emotions to grow in self- awareness. The hope is that the more self-aware we are, the more opportunities we have to create joy and peace in our lives.
The principles underpinning this power tool are:
- Emotions are neither good nor bad, what is important is how we use them.
- What you resist, persists. When you suppress difficult emotions, they don’t go away, they just go beneath your consciousness to brew and re-emerge when you least expect it.
- Taking a step back from difficult emotions, particularly those that feel overwhelming, enables sufficient detachment to work with and manage the feelings.
As with all power tools the place to start is with one’s self. The process of self- application also provides a useful way to explain how to use the tool. Keeping in mind Rumi’s poem and the principles shared in the introduction, these are the steps I would take in applying this tool to myself:
- Become aware of the knock on the door. Rumi’s poem begins “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.” I would first become aware of the uncomfortable feeling as it arises. If I can, I would pause in the activity I am doing. I would also let go of the story around the emotion for a moment. For example I would let go of thoughts such as: “I can’t believe he just said that. How arrogant. Why does he always treat me that way?” In other words, just for the moment, I would put aside all the drama around the event that triggered the emotion. There will be times when the feeling is too overwhelming or I can’t pause in the activity. In this case I will continue the steps later and simply reflect back on what was happening. So while the following steps should ideally be done real time, it doesn’t have to happen that way for it be of use in our growth.
- Become aware of what the Guest is doing in your house. I would then notice how the feeling moves through my body. I would observe which parts of my body are affected by the feeling. For example, is there a feeling of tightness in my chest? Is there tension in my shoulders? Is there a loss of physical energy? As Rumi states, some feelings will “violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.” By paying attention to what is happening in my body, I begin to allow in a sliver of detachment from which I can then manage and eventually learning from the feeling.
- Ask the Guest who he/she is. I would then name the emotion I am feeling. Is it anxiety, irritation, sadness, jealousy, disappointment or anger? The value of doing this, as in the previous step, is to achieve some detachment so that the feeling is not so overwhelming. Equally important, naming the feeling increases the awareness around the feeling and its different nuances.
- Let the Guest Be. Then I let the feeling move through me thoroughly without resistance or judgement. This is important because in order to learn from the feeling, I have to let go of the resistance and simply accept that it is there.
- Surround myself with Compassion. As I feel the emotions and all the discomfort that comes along with it, I simultaneously provide myself with compassion. I imagine I am comforting a beloved friend who has shared with me the difficult emotions s/he is experiencing.
- Invite the Guest to share His/Her message. Once I have followed the preceding steps, I invite the feeling, as Rumi counsels, to share the message it has brought from beyond. For example, if anger was my guest, some of the questions I may gently ask myself include:
- What am I so angry about?
- What about this makes me so angry?
- What belief about this situation has me so angry?
- What has led me to believe that?
- What might happen if I didn’t believe that?
- What might happen if I was not so angry?
All of this may not bring absolute clarity in that moment. In other words I may not immediately receive the message from beyond. If this is the case, I consciously leave the door open to receive it when it does come. The importance is the growth in self-awareness that the questions invite.
- Say Thank You and Lead the Guest Out. After posing questions and listening for what emerges from within, I say thank you to the feeling and then let it go, gently seeing it out the door. This step is important because the idea is not for these emotions to be permanent residents in my emotional house.
Even though the preceding steps have been presented in a logical sequence, reality doesn’t quite happen this way often. Thus it is important to remember that becoming a gracious host to difficult emotions is rarely a logical, straightforward or easy process.
There are a number of ways in which one can use this tool to support coaching clients. Not all clients would welcome this form of exploration of their emotional landscape, so trusting your instinct on when and with which client to use this tool is essential.
Probably the time to use this tool with a client is when they became aware (often with the support of the coach) that their response to uncomfortable emotions is getting in the way of the goals they want to achieve. Or it may be when the client becomes aware that changing their response to painful emotions will enable better achievement of that goal. These goals may be a way of being or it might be something they have to do. Ultimately, the time is right when the client has a good reason and incentive for going on this emotional journey because the journey may not always be easy. The tool then becomes a means for them to navigate this terrain.
Begin by asking the client to think back on the situation in which they felt they could have managed their difficult emotions differently. Following on the same steps used in self-application, the coaching questions may include the following:
- Tell me what happened?
As they tell the story, we empathise and show compassion in a way that meets the client where he or she is at the moment.
- What was is it you were feeling at the moment? Can you give a name to it?
Encourage the client to resist the temptation to justify the feeling by recounting the story again. They are just to name the feeling.
- Can you recall how it felt in your body? What was happening in your body?
Even though a client may not remember, this question triggers them to pay attention to what is happening in their body next time it arises.
The next series of questions are to support the client to make meaning of what they were experiencing and to explore how the feeling is serving “as a guide from beyond” to use Rumi’s language. They need not be followed in exact order. You as the coach should take cues from the client and the conversation as to which questions will elicit deeper self- awareness.
- What about this situation had you feeling so ______(insert emotion)?
- What belief about this situation has me so_________________( insert emotion)?
- What has led me to believe that?
- What might happen if I didn’t believe that?
- What might happen if I did not feel ______________?
- If that emotion had brought you a message to guide you in your growth, what do you think it might be?
As in the self- application process, the deeper meaning or self- awareness for the client may not surface immediately. The questions simply open a door for greater awareness to emerge when the timing is right and the client is ready. Additionally, with the support of a coach, one hopes that once a client has reflected on a situation that occurred in the past, they can practice it in real time when the difficult emotions arise in the future.
Inviting difficult emotions into our inner guest house is not always easy. Yet when we gather the courage to be gracious hosts to those who violently sweep our hearts and empty it of laughter, we may hear the whisper of wisdom from beyond. As we continue to practice this, we are better able to support our clients not as guides or experts but as kindred spirits on the path to greater self- awareness.