My client burst into tears. And that was a very good thing.


By Mark Schaefer

The other day I was conducting an executive coaching session with a senior healthcare industry executive. Unexpectedly, in the middle of our conversation, she burst into tears.

I knew this was an excellent sign of personal progress.

Allow me to explain.

The disproportionate emotion

One of the things I’ve learned throughout my life is that when I have an emotional reaction that seems disproportionate to the situation, there is something profound to be learned there.

The key is to be aware of this opportunity and not let it go or forget about it. If you’re reaction to a situation seems strange or extreme, you might be on the brink of a personal breakthrough.

Here’s an example from my own life:

In grad school, I had a teacher who completely creeped me out.

He was an awesome guy, a super-smart instructor, and a true role model. But I kept finding myself feeling dread any time I saw him enter a room. It fact, the mere sight of him made me feel anxious and nervous. It made no sense.

By this point in my life I was a confident and successful executive. The whole thing was weird.

But instead of dismissing this disproportionate reaction, I explored the issue and even worked up the courage to talk it over with him (it was a psychology class so I felt like this was fair game!).

What I discovered was that this professor had a “poker face.” I could never tell what he was thinking or feeling about a situation. It put me in an emotional field that reminded me of other male role models from my childhood who could not adequately express emotions. I never knew from moment to moment what these men thought about me. They were blank.

I was unfairly projecting my own baggage onto this innocent man and this realization also helped me figure out why I was intimidated by one particular leader in my company (who had this same kind of poker face).

The point is, being aware of a weird, disproportionate reaction helped me become a better employee and leader.

Progress through tears

Now, back to my client.

In the middle of our conversation she began to cry. I had made an observation about her that had innocently touched her very deeply somehow.

She felt embarrassed and explained that she never cries in front of people. But I encouraged her to hold on to the feeling. I said that we should not gloss over this because we were on the edge of an important personal learning.

By giving her permission to embrace this hard emotion — instead of apologizing for it and moving on — she unleashed a torrent of pent-up issues that were keeping her from having the courage to pursue her true life’s goal.

We discovered that the real issue was not knowing her goal, it was overcoming the personal obstacles and having the courage to pursue the objective that had always been in her heart.

Embracing the hurt

I know this topic is a little off the normal marketing fodder I cover here, but this episode helped me re-live my own opportunities to learn and grow and I wanted to pass this on to you, too.

Don’t ignore those big emotions that well up and take you by surprise. If a friend, family member or co-worker seems surprised by your reaction to something, don’t immediately be defensive or explain it away. Take that feedback as a gift and possibly an important clue that leads to personal growth.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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