‘Sleight of mouth’ suppresses our emotions

I’ve recently been asked by workshop participants to help out with articulating emotions, so thought it was well worth updating this post. (And thank you for the inspiration – you know who you are 🙂  )

Have you ever heard yourself – or someone else – say this: “I feel it’s…”? What normally comes next? “I feel it’s not right”? “I feel it’s the wrong thing to do”? “I feel it’s unfair”? If this is sounding familiar to you, a) you’re not alone and b) you’re probably a Brit. Now there’s nothing seriously wrong with this common pattern of speech, but we do need to be much more aware of what we’re doing here.

Culture plays a big role
All language is culturally constructed – or in plain English, it’s a product of the culture. We all know the apocryphal line that Inuit (the language of Eskimos) has dozens of words for snow. Hawaiians have dozens of words for fishing nets. Speech patterns as well as vocabulary can reveal traits too. Take this one: in English ‘half seven’ means half-past seven, 7.30. In German ‘halb sieben’ means half an hour to seven, 6.30. That really tickles me.

Articulating emotion
As someone who trains and coaches people, I like to have a range of tools in the kit to draw upon. A cognitive behavioural approach gets us looking at thoughts and feelings, and how each influences the other. Back when I first encountered this we were asked to notice how hard the group found it to construct “I feel…” sentences where the word ‘feel’ was followed by an emotion. Most of us were lapsing into “I feel it’s…” – and what followed was not a feeling, but a thought. It was striking: us native English speakers were all committing this ‘sleight of mouth’, keeping the emotions out of it, stiff upper lip and all that. For others, it was less of a struggle.

Expanding our emotion vocabulary
Worse, when we were prodded to find emotion words to complete the sentence most of us ran out of steam after four or five words: happy, sad, angry, happy… Not very emotionally intelligent. Those with high EQ are aware of their emotions in the moment, the better to use them as sat-nav and to manage them when appropriate. We can all get better at this, with practice.

To clarify, here are some examples of ‘sleight of mouth’ vs being honest about our feelings:

Sleight of mouth vs Honest about feelings
“I feel it will work out well.” vs “I feel delighted with this decision.”
“I feel it’s difficult for us to progress.” vs “I feel worried about the lack of progress.”
“I feel it’s not fair that I don’t go to meetings.” vs “I feel frustrated that I don’t go to meetings.”
“I feel it’s a good idea to go ahead with this.” vs “I feel confident we should go ahead with this.”
“I feel it’s the wrong thing to do…” vs “I feel really uncomfortable about this.”

So here’s your homework:

  • Check in with yourself a few times today and just notice how you’re feeling – emotionally. Stuck for words? Pick some out of this word cloud. See if you can make this a habit; maybe a  check in each day?
  • Starting with your nearest and dearest, at the end of each day share how you’re feeling.
  • Notice how often you’re saying “I feel it’s…” vs “I feel happy/sad/joyful/emotion”.

And don’t get me started on “He/She/It makes me…” – now that’s another post…



You may also find this blog post useful: ‘How well do you handle setbacks?’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’



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