Thomas G. Suk, PhD, LMFT, LCPC" />

We Live in Emotional Networks

Since the publication of Daniel Goleman’s influential book Emotional Intelligence, our culture has become increasingly aware of the importance of emotions, the ability to read our own and other’s emotions, and the skill to communicate with appropriately integrated emotions. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, has been placed on par with IQ, intelligence quotient. Where IQ represents reasoning ability; EQ represents awareness, management, and skillful expression of emotions. Classrooms and business seminars alike devote time to trainings on how to understand, manage, and express emotions.

The most common and powerful emotional networks are couple and nuclear family relationships. Extended families are also emotional networks, as are places we work or worship, friendships we keep, neighborhoods we live in and any other relationship set, even those experienced online. The complexity and intensity vary within the different networks, but each is an emotional network all the same. Those baristas where you get your morning coffee, that’s an emotional network, though obviously one much less intense than your family or employment emotional network.

Emotional Intelligence is important because we live and interact with emotional networks and emotional systems all the time. We don’t always think about it, or even notice that we live in a series of sometimes interconnected emotional systems. But emotional systems with their patterns of interaction are there and affect what we think and do.

Consider the simple parental instruction to their preschool age child who is frustrated or angry over not getting their way. “Use your words”, the parent might say to their child to help stop the yelling or stomping around. It’s a simple instruction from the parent to the child to get them to attend to their emotions and express in verbal ways what they are experiencing inside. That parent and child are in an emotional network, and reciprocal needs and interests can best be met when each is able to recognize the emotions they are experiencing and communicate about those emotions in a way that serves the interests of all members of the family network.

I once spoke to a mom who had tragically lost their youngest child through a freak accident. The entire household was in emotional distress over this loss, except for their five-year-old son who was reported to be doing okay.

“Have you asked your son, I inquired.”

“Well, no he’s too young.”

I encouraged the parents to ask their son directly, and when they did the child flooded out tears of hurt and emotions of loss. The child was holding all his emotion inside in an effort to take care of the family, he was part of the emotional network and doing his best to take care of it in the best way he could think of. The outpouring of grief was good for the child and helped rebalance the overall emotional load in the family network.

Emotional networks exist in work contexts as well. Edwin Friedman said, “Because an organization is a living system, leaders and followers are intimately connected through an emotional field they have created.” Those involved in a work setting, whether they are aware of it or not, create and edit the emotional field in which they interact and by extension are affected by that emotional field. See The Edwin Friedman Model of Family Systems Thinking for more on Friedman.

We can’t escape emotional networks and it’s good that we can’t because of the purposeful connection and overall good that such networks provide. But sometimes emotional networks cause pain or need an upgrade. Think of the couple in long-run marital conflict or the work environment that feels oppressive. We can take action to adjust the emotional networks of which we are a part, though one’s influence is likely to be small in large environments and quite instrumental in family settings.

Here are some tips to keep our emotional networks functioning well:

  1. Be honest about the emotions you are experiencing. They are already influencing the shape of that emotional network, so you might as well be up front about it.
  2. Identify hidden rules within the system. Is one member of the family permitted to get their way and others not? Is there a hidden rule about anger, such that anger can’t be expressed, or only one person is allowed to do so?
  3. Provide positive emotional support to the system of which you are a part. Sometimes the very things we want in our family, work, neighborhood, faith community, coffee shop, etc. we need to first provide to the network. That curmudgeon at work, inject some care their direction and see what happens. Want less conflict with your spouse or teen? Bring kindness and see what effect it has. This is the “be the change you want to see” approach.
  4. Provide space for negative emotions. When ignored, denied, or controlled, the negative often gets bigger. Give negative emotion an appropriate context in which to be expressed and see what develops.
  5. What happens emotionally needs to be resolved emotionally. In counseling sessions, I will often hear a person express their emotional hurt to their partner or about some external matter and observe that it is met with an explanation rather than emotional attunement. “Oh, I see you were hurt by what I did but the reason I did it was….” Such a response does little to resolve the hurt emotion. Better is a response that invites, “tell me more about what you felt, what that experience was like for you, what else it made you think about, etc.”
  6. Practice a non-reactive presence in emotional networks where you have a leadership role. This does not mean non-involved. You are very much involved already, but emotional networks self-adjust much more easily when other members are in a non-reactive posture. Parents of teens are one of the groups more prone to over-reaction. Take it down a step, start with, “Wow, that’s interesting, tell me more about what you’re thinking.” Leaders at work can benefit from this approach as well.

We live in emotional networks, even the recluse makes an emotional contribution by their absence. Each of us participates in multiple emotional networks. Try to recognize them and do your best to contribute positively to shaping them. We will live more happily and peacefully when we do.


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