YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 20, 2012

Kick Me Again

Peter Bregman

The Harvard Business Review has distributed this blog http://tinyurl.com/87xxvjl  by management consultant Peter Bregman, “Do You Know What You Are Feeling?” urging businessmen to get in touch with their feelings, even to confide them to persons who make them feel angry, resentful, or insecure. Bregman begins the story in a rural setting: he and his wife Eleanor are mulling over whether their yoga practice, meditation, and continued inspection of their personal feelings are merely “navel gazing.”  He then describes their differing reactions to a group of younger men on a deck, noisily partying. Bregman is delighted by the outcome of his confiding his feelings to his wife: he will not [regress] to childish clinging to a mother surrogate (Eleanor), out of jealousy or some other negative emotion, because each has “communicated” with the other.

We then learn how dangerous it is to repress anger:

[Bregman:] “Simply being able to feel is a feat in itself. We often spend considerable unconscious effort ignoring what we feel because it can be painful. Who wants to be afraid or jealous or insecure? So we stifle the feelings, argue ourselves out of them, or distract ourselves with busy work or small talk.

But just because we don’t recognize a feeling doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not feeling something guarantees that it won’t go away.

Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.” [end, Bregman quote]

(Bregman’s image of anger as “coiled” is instructive: Is anger a coiled serpent, unseen and ready to strike, or is Bregman a jack-in-the box, his body coiled as a child’s toy that once represented a boxed devil might be? Perhaps both. In any case, Bregman’s image suggests that anger is demonic, and perhaps associated with Eve who succumbed to the serpent’s wiles. What it is not is a materialist account of the effects of cortisol on the immune system and/or the social structures and irreconcilable antagonisms that impel us to have the feelings we think we have. Hence, lacking this understanding of hierarchies and what can or cannot be said to another, we are stuck in the Middle Ages. Bregman is giving advice to a would-be Good King or Platonic Guardian, empathic with the People under his care, and alert to preventing factions that could topple his regime, reducing King to clown.)

Jack in the Box toy

In his essay on the (restored) value of navel-gazing, Bregman then switches to another scene. In the midst of one of his management talks, a woman with whom he works interrupts him, expresses dissatisfaction with his presentation and directs him into another path. He is angry at this interruption (though the revised talk goes well), and in a subsequent email exchange with the froward (not a typo) female, he communicates his hurt and vulnerability, which brings her to an apology and a happy ending to their troubling interchange. [Bregman:] And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away.” So it was the anger-serpent after all, and Bregman’s technique of what he takes to be full disclosure has beaten the devil within.

Cole Porter Can-Can scene

I have written about touchiness and touch before on this website, see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/, that begins by criticizing a demagogue (Rick Santorum) who adopts the identity of his coal-mining grandfather to persuade an audience of miners that he is indeed in touch with their feelings, of which of course, he is fully aware.

I could go on and on, reflecting upon how middle management feels about subordination to CEOs or other superiors, be these government bureaucrats, school principals, legislators, party bosses, husbands, abusive, negligent parents of either gender, older siblings (but add your own authoritarian figure). Bregman imagines that the unnamed woman (presumably a member of a management team with whom he consults) is not deferring to him out of fear, but is telling the truth; she is really sincere. He has not grappled with the truism that illegitimate, irrational hierarchies breed deceit. But in the New Age in which we find ourselves, truisms, like truth itself, have gone the way of all flesh. Kick me again. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/, or this one: http://clarespark.com/2010/11/18/harvards-alpha-dogs/.)

Are hierarchies inevitable? How can they be made rational? How do we know when our feelings are our own, or conversely, were they put there by other persons, acting out of their own needs to dominate, to compensate for past injuries? What a terrible thing that Freud’s materialism and family history-inflected self-examination  has been discarded in favor of New Age mysticism and the abnegation of self. And most pointedly, why do we give our love to unworthy objects, to those who “obviously don’t adore us”?

[Music outro: Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1T6SG0t9jfQ&feature=share), or if you don't like Ethel Merman's tempo, try Patti LuPone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC12OelJYQU. The LuPone video is especially interesting: the "fabulous face" belongs first to her, and then to the audience at the end. Singer and audience become one "fabulous" entity.]

Peter Blume The Eternal City

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7 Comments »

  1. Your post brought back memories of my best, albeit most stressful, experiences in the mid-1980s with execs who had worked together in NYC for a major American corporation (household name).

    They had a tradition of storytelling — perhaps Jewish (certainly not universally Mediterranean, from what I have experienced here in Europe from my ‘Christian’ managers). If you had a problem and approached them, they would relate a personal anecdote of their own — involving themselves as a then-subordinate — which helped to clarify everything. Sometimes they (as then-subordinates) were in the right, other times they had something to add to their knowledge repository — and mine.

    The point is that those anecdotes went a long way to resolving a variety of conflicts — not only between the senior and the junior (the storyteller and the listener ['receiver of information', if you will]) — but among others in the office. I do not believe I have forgotten one of their stories or the lessons therein.

    I was blessed with the opportunity to try this out on a junior who was reporting to me 15 years later. She said, ‘Wow, you’re actually addressing my concerns in an indirect way — something no one else has done! Thanks so much!’ Within a few days, I could see her start to think differently and act more proactively.

    My apologies to your younger readers — and I do not intend this to be an ageist apologetic — however, many Gen X and Gen Y managers do not relate to their subordinates properly. Many have lost, or have not acquired, the instructive art of storytelling.

    To close the loop on your post, yes, it would help greatly if ‘senior’ 40+ execs could loosen up a bit and show some vulnerabilty. Having worked for some of them, they could do with a bit of … storytelling. This would be of benefit not only to them but to their subordinates. I also believe storytelling can indirectly relieve stress (letting bad memories out) whilst enlightening a less-experienced employee.

    Comment by churchmouse — July 5, 2012 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  2. > illegitimate, irrational hierarchies breed deceit

    That’s one of the copybook headings that is periodically forgotten, alas.

    Clare (if I may), I came across your blog just recently, and have had that feeling of simultaneous delight and disorientation one has when coming across a library of reference books on a favorite topic that are just a bit beyond one’s current reading level. I looking forward to spending more time and orienting myself better.

    Since you’re the only Moby-Dick scholar I now know, may I ask a minor question:

    When we first hear about Ahab we are told that he’s “been in colleges, as well as ‘mong the cannibals.” Is there any literary commentary on Ahab-in-college? From his own later description of his life, it doesn’t seem to me that the chronology quite works. But I find it an entertaining thing to speculate about. Did he attend Bowdoin for a year and drop out to go to sea? Did he perform a reverse-Mapple, training first for the ministry and then deciding to be a whaler instead? Surely somewhere in the vast Melville literature this has been discussed, but I’d be curious to know if you’ve thought about it as a matter of characterization.

    Many thanks.

    Comment by rjohara — May 23, 2012 @ 12:21 am | Reply

    • I have never seen any commentary on Ahab’s education, and am glad you pointed out that passage. I had been more focused on Ishmael’s self-description as an autodidact, schooled by his experience on whalers. In my book on the Melville Revival, I suggest that the characters Ahab and Ishmael are interpenetrating, which adds to the confusion of the reader, but can be seen as a kind of literary cubism. I will think about your question and see what I can dig up.
      A quick google search suggests that Ahab is introduced as broadly experienced, familiar with non-whites. I am more interested in Ahab as “fighting Quaker,” and a possible stand-in for peace activist and antislavery man Charles Sumner, who was elected to the Senate while HM was in the midst of writing MD. Many Melvilleans believe that he drastically changed the characterization of Ahab, but either attribute it to meeting Hawthorne, or they ignore the problem altogether. I propose that HM might have been foregrounding Ahab after Sumner’s election, which was seen by Sumner’s enemies (Lemuel Shaw?) as a move toward Civil War.

      Comment by clarespark — May 23, 2012 @ 12:30 am | Reply

  3. Scientists and researchers since the Greeks will attest that they are mere midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. When it comes to emotions however, recent generations have been reluctant to take an empirical approach in trying to find the path to emotional serenity. The traditional aspect of this quest seems to have been abandoned. Individuality (which has benefited our society in many ways) has lead us to believe that our personal feelings have a sacrosanct quality regardless of what drives them. While I applaud the efforts and candidness of Bregman, reading the article made me wonder how it ever got to this. How can an adult still be struggling with pubescent macho/ego insecurities?! I’m sure that both he and Eleanor are more than decent people. The crux of the issue is that I would still be trying to rub two stones together had I not been exposed to 5 millennia of progress. There is a tradition when it comes to emotions. The challenge is that emotional principles are passed on orally through the mother, father, siblings, friends etc…. Compassion, patience, emotional courage to name a few are not easily conveyed in a blog or a book. Combined with today’s evolved social structure, the oral tradition of “feeling” can empower people to the point where Bregman would have resolved his issues 30 years ago…… had he been exposed to a principle based emotional tradition and not had to re-invent the heart.

    Comment by Steve Chocron — May 21, 2012 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  4. Hypothesis 1: Hierarchies are inevitable. Contention: Some are also desirable (although others are utterly repulsive).

    Hypothesis 2: A society based on sincerity alone is impossible. Question: When was the last time you said something to someone because you thought that that was what they wanted to hear, or because that was what the situation seemed to call for (considerations that brush sincerity to one side)?

    Hypothesis 3: The idea of a society in which people are utterly sincere assumes an untenable social atomism.

    Thought in connection with the discussion of managerial feelings: There is something ridiculous about people trying to get in touch with their feelings while representing a system that has the sensitivity of a sledge hammer. Question: Can a system feel? Contention: Yes it could, if it had the means to respond to the joys and sufferings of those it affected.

    Comment by Torn Halves — May 21, 2012 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  5. Good grief….these people take themselves way too seriously.

    Uber-intelligent people need to get a life, they’re not important in the scheme of things and the sooner they realize this the better the prospect for a decent happy life.

    Comment by David Williams — May 20, 2012 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

    • The persons to whom my blog was directed do indeed wield, or wish to wield, benign power in their own eyes. They are seeking less stress and a happier life on earth. I don’t blame them, rather I suggest forcefully that they have been misled by false messiahs.

      Comment by clarespark — May 20, 2012 @ 9:10 pm | Reply


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