Finding yourself

Memo to Chinese worldwide: Your feelings matter

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My older daughter Pip, brimming with big feelings

Have you ever met someone who’s really popular? A woman who’s like a man-magnet, exerting an irresistible pull on all the men? Or someone who’s always at the center of all the fun parties? Or someone who floats up into management while everyone else is stuck in the trenches?

Then you’ve met someone who’s great at the skill called “empathy,” the capacity to recognize and share someone else’s feelings.

Wanted:  More Chinese leaders

Each year, Fortune 500 companies proclaim their intention to “nationalize” their China leadership posts, appointing local Chinese to roles such as President, Chief Marketing Officer or CFO of China.

And yet, each year, they continue to bring in foreigners, ensconcing them in foreigner housing complexes and educating their children in expensive foreign schools.  I myself have spent years helping them do this, when I led international China recruiting assignments for global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

Why do global companies spend so much money importing outside talent when there are so many smart and ambitious young people in China already?

I’ve discussed this question at length with my clients, CEOs and HR directors of the world’s largest companies. Despite their public pronouncements, they confide privately that they consider their in-China talent “not promotable.”

Meanwhile, statistics show that in the United States, Chinese-Americans also are relegated to the “worker-bee” posts at the lower and middle rungs of big companies.

Are Chinese people not promotable?

Why are highly-educated Chinese people worldwide not getting promoted?  Company executives point to a lack of what they call “soft skills.” At the core of these soft skills is empathy.

I have a theory that this is because of how we’ve been raised.  We grew up in a Chinese culture in which we’re overly defined by our achievements. We never learned to really connect with ourselves, much less to others. And so, our careers have languished at the junior and mid-management levels where soft skills start to really matter.

Like Tiger Mom Amy Chua, our parents, sincere in their rush to help us excel, exhorted us to work first and play later. As a result, we learned to thinkacademically at least, but not to feel. We took away the message that how well we perform is more important than who we are.

And so, as children, many of us grew emotionally numb, strangers to our own selves. We never learned to express ourselves. It’s no surprise, then, that as adults, we have a harder time with empathy than people who grew up in cultures emphasizing lifelong emotional development.

Feelings matter

The fact that I’m trying to raise my girls differently is not because I’m smarter or better than other Chinese parents, or that I love my children more. Rather, it’s because I’ve had an unusual life filled with diverse influences – including having read many parenting books – that my husband and I are trying to nurture in our girls all that makes them special – their feelings, ideas, talents and interests.

For little ones, big feelings can be scary. Our older daughter Pip is now in her “Terrible Twos.” One moment she’s playing happily with her sister, and then suddenly her little face reddens, screwing up into a gigantic scowl. Her lower lip juts out, she takes a huge inhale…. and she blows, a little volcano spewing a big mashup of anger, frustration and fear.

Rather than say, “It’s OK! Don’t cry!” we try to help her identify her feelings. We ask, “What is it? You seem mad. Are you mad? I think I know why. Is it because 妹妹 grabbed the toy away?”

Helping her give words to her feelings has the effect of turning a giant release valve on the side of her volcano. Her little shoulders relax and she starts to calm down. In the fascinating New York Times bestseller Brain Rules for Baby, neurologist John Medina describes the physiological effects that such soothing strategies have on a baby’s brain.

Dr. Medina shows how parenting that helps a baby identify her emotions actually helps her neural architecture to develop, toward lifelong emotional stability. A baby parented this way will become an adult with better self-control, fewer incidences of depression and anxiety disorders, greater empathy, deeper and richer friendships, and many more friends.

By contrast, some adults never grow up, remaining stuck emotionally in their Terrible Twos. They go through life as if in a trance, closed, confused and easily overwhelmed. They’re limited in their ability to function as managers, spouses, parents, or even as friends. Their feelings, undifferentiated and unexpressed, become a fiery stew of anxiety, continuously building pressure until finally they explode in sudden jolts of anger.  More than an average 2-year-old’s, however, their tantrums can have debilitating effects on those around them.

(Here I feel I must add that, worldwide, up to 70% of women experience violence during their lifetimes, the majority from men they know. If you ever find yourself in an abusive relationship, please seek help right away.)

How to get in touch with your feelings

Being able to identify and express our feelings is a baseline tool for dealing with life. That’s because feelings dictate our reality by dictating how we look at the world. It’s only when we we’re aware of our feelings that we can honestly express ourselves in a straightforward and appropriate way to the people around us.

Herein lies the 矛盾 (contradiction):  Feelings matter. The more we acknowledge them, the better we can manage them.  In fact, it’s when we ignore them, and they become repressed, that they become exaggerated, and bad things happen.

Feel and think before you speak or do

A woman friend who’s a top executive recently shared with me this management lesson: “If it feels good, don’t say it.” In short, do not ever react emotionally.

The key is to shift from being emotionally reactive to emotionally responsive. When you’re in a stressful or emotional situation, hit “Pause.” Before reacting, make the time to:

1. Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Identify the feeling and verbalize it.

2. Postpone your comments, actions or decisions until you’ve had a chance to sort things through.

Don’t just feel about a situation, or just think about a situation, but take the time to do both. Remember: Feel and think before you speak or do.

I can’t tell you how useful that “Pause” button has been to me over the years. I think back to every time that I lost my temper, or I said something, or did something that I was embarrassed about later, and wish I’d paused first to process the situation. I think back to every time I did pause a negotiation, or an argument, with “Mind if we talk about this tomorrow?” and see how I ended up making better decisions.

As we learn to integrate our feeling with our thinking, we learn to speak calmly and act appropriately. Shifting from reacting to responding takes time and practice. But becoming good at this has wonderful benefits, both for us and for the people in our lives. We make better decisions, accomplish more and earn other people’s respect.

Memo to Chinese culture-makers

To manage others, we must first manage ourselves. And the first step to managing ourselves is to identify and acknowledge our feelings.

Can Chinese societies benefit from a broader emphasis on empathy, on understanding the importance of feelings? I believe yes. As we all push toward better integrating our thinking with our feeling, we’ll all become better leaders, lovers, and parents.

The positive benefits will carry through to Chinese people everywhere.


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