I always find this dichotomy misleading. It would be much more instructive to call it what it really is which is love-based emotions vs fear-based emotions, or, empathy vs reason. This may seem a bit esoteric but it is really important that fear and love emotions are seen for what they are . How often have we heard, ‘don’t be so emotional’? What’s really being said is ‘I am more comfortable with fear-based emotions than love-based emotions’.
The key is to recognize that decisions are not made without one of these emotions being involved. Reason is the recognition of a problem through fear, and the ability to keep that fear in check while you gather the information this emotion is offering.
Every decision you ever make will be based on an emotion. Neuroscience has verified that this is fundamental to the human condition. The difference between data and decision-making is the ability to connect to your emotions. And the emotions we use fall into two broad categories of fear or love. My favorite TED talks on this are Dan Pink on Motivation, and Charles Limb. Antonio Damasio’s book Self Comes to Mind is also a great reference for this research.
When we say someone is being emotional we often mean they are engaging in love based emotions of empathy, passion, or caring. There is an assumption that this is a weak thing. These are the emotions that lead to creativity and relationship building. It is also the mode you need to be in to be responsive to a situation. Good listening is about being responsive – really hearing what people say and letting it inform what you say next. I would argue that lots of good things come from allowing love-based emotions into the situation.
When we think of being rational we make the assumption that we are being unemotional. I would say that being rational or employing reason are productive responses to fear-based emotions. Fear often gets a bad rap but fear is essential to survival. The key is to apply the Goldilocks principle – “not too much, not too little, just right”. This is what rational thought is. You have fear under control to the point it informs you when there is a possibility of danger. This prevents you from freezing with fear. It encourages the thought processes that will consider the odds and chart the best course for moving forward. It focuses you on the issue that needs to be addressed to stay safe and make progress (putting some distance between you and scarcity).
If you didn’t have fear you would face adversity saying “not to worry, it will work out somehow” (which I have done much to the frustration of many linear thinkers around me, especially when I get lucky).
Fear inspires the need for control and the impulse to push back with rational thought. When we respond to fear with too little of these actions and instead resort to hiding, blaming, or denial the fear based emotion is working against you. I bet this is one of the reasons that people say “don’t be so emotional!” Cowardice is never pretty. The problem arises when all emotions start to get labeled as inappropriate. Half our emotional capacity as humans gets thrown out the window.
This is why it is important to call a spade a spade. Reason is a response to fear-based emotions. We push back the boundaries of our mortality by focusing on the predictable. Empathy is a love-based emotion that is receptive and makes room for the complex and the human. Great possibilities open up when you recognize you have both these emotions available to you in leadership.