When my clients are feeling stuck, confused, or lost, I ask them to close their eyes and tell me what they see.
High-performing entrepreneurs and executives are usually experts at understanding the needs of their teams, clients, and customers. They’re often not, though, experts at understanding their own needs.
When it comes to connecting with what they truly want or uncovering what their emotions are trying to tell them, many of them fall short. In these moments, I often find success with a surprising, powerful tool: leaning on images, not words, to reveal what’s important. This tool of visual metaphor and visualization allows these executives to merge their rational, analytical selves with their intuitive selves.
“A rainbow of ideas and perspectives”
My client, Mariana, is a thoughtful, passionate, and expressive leader. Her team and peers appreciate that she wears her emotions on her sleeve — because she’s so transparent, she’s easy to trust. This means, though, that she lacks a “poker face.” She can’t help but portray how she feels about an idea — good or bad — even when her intention is to hide her opinion.
Her team quickly picked up on this. If Mariana is enthusiastic about an idea, she’ll lean forward in her seat, as if to listen more closely. If she doesn’t like an idea, she’ll do the opposite and lean away from the speaker. Mariana didn’t realize she was doing this until a colleague pointed it out. And she was grateful for the feedback: As a senior leader, she was inadvertently making people feel judged, discouraging them from expressing their ideas and points of view. As soon as the lean back started, people tended to stop talking.
Mariana was distraught. She wanted to create an environment of psychological safety for her team. I asked Mariana to close her eyes and envision the kind of culture she wanted to cultivate. After a few moments, she responded.
“A rainbow,” she said. “It has multiple colors, which represent a wide range of ideas and perspectives. And it’s circular. Those perspectives are all together and inclusive. It feels like you’re pointing to the future, high in the sky.”
As Mariana described this image, her body language changed. Her shoulders relaxed, her face softened, and her arms pulled away from her body, expanding into an open posture. When represented by a visual metaphor, it was easy for Mariana to describe the culture she wanted for her team. Not only that, but summoning the image in her mind caused her body language to deliver a message that aligned with her values as a leader. From now on, when she listens to her team’s ideas, she will recall the image of the rainbow in her mind. This way, no matter the idea, her body language would always communicate that she is open and accepting.
“A badminton shuttlecock”
Carl, my client, was in a very difficult position at this stage of his career. He was working in a toxic environment and dealing with burnout and prolonged stress. The anxiety was causing his performance — and mental health — to suffer.
I asked Carl to close his eyes and picture his current state. What image came to mind?
“A tennis ball,” he said. “But it’s not yellow. It’s covered in dirt and it’s filled with dirt. It’s so heavy it can’t bounce.”
I then asked Carl to picture his ideal state of mind. What does that look like?
“A badminton shuttlecock,” he replied. “The wind blows and everything just passes through. It’s light, airy, and carefree. That’s what I want to be.”
We discussed the realistic steps he could take to get to that state. He realized he needed to let go of the things that were beyond his control but he still felt he needed to hold onto. If he finds himself ruminating on those things, he will picture the shuttlecock and let those things “pass through” him.
“I can still get to where I want to go in my role without all of that weighing me down,” he said.
Carl had been feeling his emotions, but he was unable to unearth what they were trying to tell him. Emotions are data, not directives, according to Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, a leading thinker on emotional agility. They are the mind’s way of letting us know that something in our lives is unaligned with our deepest needs, wants, and values. For Carl, visualizing his emotional state provided the key to unlocking the data his emotions held. From there, he was able to use that data to clarify his goals and make decisions to get him closer to meeting them.
If you are having trouble articulating a goal, deciphering what your emotions mean, or understanding your needs and wants, try exploring a visual metaphor. It can help you connect your rational side to your intuitive self — and it’s a resource you can always have with you.
My book, Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, illustrates how we can honor face to create positive first impressions, avoid causing others to lose face, and, most importantly, help others save face to build trust and lasting relationships inside and outside the workplace.
This article was originally posted on Inc.com