Understanding emotions

It is easy to believe that there is no place for emotion in business. Decision making should be dispassionate and rational and free from the inevitable distortion that emotions may bring.

While it is true that business decisions should be logical and not made in the heat of the moment, it is incorrect to assume that emotions play no part.

The reality is more complex and to understand how emotions are important to successful business, we need to first understand what they are.

I have asked hundreds of people to define an emotion and the question is almost invariably met with some confusion. The most common response is to say, ‘an emotion is a feeling’. This is true, but then when faced with the inevitable follow up question, ‘what is a feeling?’, the conversation tends to dry up.

The technical definition of an emotion is a physiological response created by neuro transmitters that are stimulated by an internal or external event. For example, if someone puts a gun in your face and demands your wallet, an external stimulus tells your brain that the situation is dangerous and you feel fear. Your brain then sends a message to various parts of your nervous system which in turn releases a chemical – adrenaline – into your body. This process prepares your body for fight or flight. At this point the stomach clenches up and ceases to function. The heart rate increases pushing energy to either the leg muscles – for flight – or arm muscles to fight.

Put simply, an emotion – in this case fear – is a change in one’s physical body created by a chemical.

Now we need to know why we feel emotions. In the example above the emotion of fear protects us in dangerous situations. But fear is not the only emotion humans experience, so we need to look more deeply into why we feel the things we do.


In answering this question, we can look to evolution. The oldest creatures on earth are the reptiles. The relatives of the dinosaurs are certainly of huge importance, yet in evolutionary terms they lag the mammals. The reptile’s offspring are born able to survive in the world without too much parental guidance. The reptile brain is encoded through genetics with enough information to manage its digestion, breathing, and other basic functions.

The mammals on the other hand have a much more complex brain; one which experiences an array of emotions not known to the reptile. For example all mammals feel fear, love, anger and sadness.

Recent footage of a mother orca pushing her dead calf for seventeen days has led scientists to believe that these whales experience grief which they express through extended mourning. 

The fact that mammals experience emotions gives them superiority in the evolutionary spectrum since these feelings are feedback which instruct behaviour designed to improve our chances of survival.

If one understands a situation to be dangerous, we listen to the feedback and respond accordingly, as explained in the earlier example of being faced with a gun.

However, the reason humans are the top of the evolutionary scale is the ability to not only acknowledge emotions but then to rationalise our response to them.

For example, when faced with having to walk across a glass bridge, instinctively one should feel that it is not safe and refuse to cross. Yet we can rationalise that the bridge has been constructed from reinforced glass and is perfectly safe, allowing us to cross.

In business, then, the successful CEO is one who can acknowledge their feelings, process them and act rationally.

This emotional intelligence is critical since all elements of business relate to human interaction where a whole host of feelings must be processed. Whether one is selling, buying or managing, one must work effectively with others. This means understanding how we and others are feeling.

All too often one fails to acknowledge an emotion or is unable to process it effectively, the outcome of which can be detrimental in business. For example, a CEO who is feeling anger when challenged by the media, could react in a way which damages their own and the business’ reputation irreparably.

Body scan

Understanding emotions is a skill and like any skill it can be practised or improved. There are simple ways to better understand, hear and respond to emotions which can be repeated several times a day.

The body scan is an effective way to get in touch with emotions.

The process involves turning off all devices and removing all distractions and focusing on ones senses.

The first step is to concentrate on hearing; what noises are around? Next is smell, then taste, followed by feeling and then sight.

The final stage is to recognise one’s sixth sense which is the experience of the internal organs; the sensations the lungs, internal muscles and most importantly the stomach.

All emotions change one’s internality and the sixth sense relates to this important sensation. The sixth sense is often called ‘gut intuition’ because the stomach is second only to the brain in responding to emotions. Indeed the stomach is often referred to as the ‘second brain’ since it has more than 200 million neurons; more than the spinal cord, peripheral nervous system or heart.

If one conducts a body scan several times a day one becomes more aware of one’s feelings. By focusing on the physical changes in the body and the sensations one feels, one can be more attuned to emotions and learn to respond appropriately.

In understanding that emotions are ‘feelings in motion’ and that they are a way of helping one to respond to situations, one can learn to manage them.

It takes skill, however, to do so effectively. While ignoring our emotions is damaging, so too is responding impulsively.

The best business people know that emotions should not control them, but they also know how to recognise what they are being told and take the best course of action.

Effective CEOs are in touch with emotions, they can hear and experience the critical and feed that information into the decision-making process.

The more one can understand emotions and the more skilfully we can control them (as we will explore in the next article), the better a CEO one will become.

How to understand emotions

Emotions create a physical change in the body which stimulate a response to a situation:

  • Emotions are important in helping one to react positively, but they can also be destructive
  • It is important to listen emotions and learn how to process them to prevent damaging behaviour
  • Understanding emotions means taking time to listen to them
  • Like all skills, listening to emotions must be practised and perfected

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