Default Emotional Vocabulary

For a long while now I’ve worked on close-knit teams that need to be high functioning in order to stay productive and deliver work at the pace employers and customers expect.

In my view, a big part of being high-functioning is understanding where other people on the team are at, so that I can enjoy the best possible interactions with them.

Sometimes, emotions are involved.

Emotions are something I don’t feel especially well equipped to handle. Speaking frankly, they’re something that I kind of suck at. And, I suspect I may be speaking for much of the male species when I say this.

Emotionally Unequipped

I’m gonna go out on a limb in fact, and hypothesise that most guys don’t get the emotions of other members of the teams they’re working with.

Probably they don’t understand their own emotions either. And I can think of some reasons why this might be the case. It’s because:

A) emotions just aren’t that interesting to them.
B) they were never taught or learned to really understand their own emotions, and so have extreme difficulty empathising with the emotions of other people.
C) as a result of A & B, they don’t have an emotional vocabulary they can apply to the full range of their own and others emotions.

I’m realising this might be important (shocker!) because here’s the result: when I don’t have a range of emotional vocabulary with which to identify what it is I’m really feeling, I default to a much more limited range and have to pigeonhole my emotion into a very limited set of categories. For example, as far as I’m concerned, I’m feeling basically one of five things:

  1. Happy
  2. Sad
  3. Angry
  4. Tired
  5. Excited

And that’s it.

Versus the potential full range of human emotions, labels and vocabulary for which can be found e.g. here: The ABCs of Feeling Words

Why am I even talking about this? Well it’s because I was doing some meditation earlier and it occurred to me that meditation (mindfulness or Vipissana meditation in particular) gives me a kind of superpower…

Bullet Time

One of the benefits of meditation, when practiced regularly, is that you increase the space between stimulus and response. Which is to say, that if I find myself in some kind of situation to which I’m likely to respond, for the sake of argument, in a negative fashion; then by virtue of having practiced a form of mindfulness meditation on a regular basis, I can slow down time for a brief period while considering my response.

In Matrix-like fashion, I will have given myself some bullet time, during which I have an opportunity to inspect what’s actually happening to me – psychologically, physiologically, or both – while considering my response.

This happens because the whole purpose of meditation is to observe what’s going on very closely. And as you practice, and become more familiar with the observation techniques, it becomes a kind of muscle memory.

What this basically means is, when someone does something to piss me off, I can actually see the pissed-off-ness coming; in slow motion. Which should, in theory, give me the opportunity to respond in a more positive manner.

But there’s a problem.

Default Emotional Vocabulary

If I don’t have a good vocabulary for understanding what’s going on inside myself at a given moment (better than “I’m feeling pissed off!”) – there’s going to be an inherent limitation of my range of possible responses.

To expand my response range, I need to expand my emotional vocabulary range. But how do I do that?

Non-Violent Communication [NVC] is a toolkit I’ve played around with (and even spoken about) in the past. Perhaps it’s time I revisit it.

Probably there’s other options too; but I’m not sure what they are.

If anyone reading this has some suggestions or recommendations for me, I’d be very happy to hear about them!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.



  • Robert Day says:

    Two thoughts:
    1) I find good old British understatement is a way into talking about emotions. Your point about having five descriptors for your emotional state (a bit like the – slightly sexist? – meme about men only being able to see the colours of the rainbow whereas women have instant access to the whole 256 colour palette and more!) could be thought of as a starting point. From there, it’s possible to advance to qualifying your basic five states – “I’m less than happy with that”. You’re staying within your own comfort zone in terms of the language you are using, and the person you are communicating with is less likely to react adversely to a muted expression of unhappiness.

    From there, you can expand your repertoire of both descriptors for your emotional state, and qualifiers for it. which brings me to: 2) Read more widely. Now, I know something of your tastes in recreational – as opposed to professional – reading. But I’d suggest that you might like to not only keep that recreational reading up but also see if you can broaden it a little. Fiction tends to be about descriptions of the way characters feel; not a subject that most professional texts go into very much. Humour – though very much a matter of preference – is one way into looking more at writing and talking about feelings, and can suggest means of delivery that can break the ‘five emotional state descriptors’ limit you see yourself restricted to.

    Perhaps for me, my reading is akin to your meditation!

  • Simon Knight says:

    I’m terrible at responding to comments – so my apologies for having taken so long to acknowledge this!

    As alluded to in the post, the NVC literature goes some way towards addressing this issue, by providing a specific toolkit for learning about and expanding ones emotional vocabulary, and provides a framework and heuristics for using it in a variety of situations.

    Having been along to a number of NVC workshops in the past, I can attest to it’s usefulness in at least exposing me to some of the thinking behind it (the notion that [English] language is fundamentally violent and domineering in nature e.g.) and toolkits for usage. But my wife and children weren’t particularly receptive to my actually using it [NVC] on them in real-life scenarios. Which led me back to the drawing board, at least in terms of application, if not theory.

    Reading widely is certainly something I’m up for, since it’s just (as you mention) an extension of what I’m already doing anyway. Sadly, time is limited – and there is ALWAYS far more that I would like to read, than I reasonably have time for…

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