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Feelings, Thoughts and Actions

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On a recent holiday I had a negative customer service experience. The inconsistent customer care of the companies with whom I was interacting got me thinking about the different things that lead us to act or not act; specifically, thoughts versus feelings.

This distinction is highlighted in psychometric personality tests, which tell us that some people are inclined to act based on their thoughts, and others, on their feelings. For instance, imagine that two people are on a road trip together through winding mountain roads. They round a right corner and stumble upon a road accident: two cars are enmeshed in the middle of the road, following a head on collision. One of the road trippers is a ‘Feeling’ person, and, moved by emotion, rushes to the aid of the other drivers. The second road tripper is a Thinking person, and is motivated by reason to address the danger of oncoming traffic and the need to warn drivers that the road is blocked. As you can see, the different approaches to the situation are equally valuable, and of course it isn’t black and white; personality types occupy a spectrum.

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Meanwhile, regardless of whether our motives are thought or feelings based, we are judged externally by our actions. Moreover, the behaviour of other people is a huge influence over anyone’s thoughts and emotions. But despite the interrelatedness of the three, we humans are surprisingly inclined to forget that thoughts and feelings are as powerful (and multiple) in other people as they are in ourselves.

The question that interests me from a professional perspective is, which has the greatest impact on our actions: feelings or thoughts? Or, a question that is perhaps more applicable to most behavioural decisions: which is the most likely to stop us from acting; thought or feeling?

Training often focuses on thought: establishing the responsibilities of different team members, giving instructions, and applying reason to show that these are the most productive ways of working. For example, a customer facing employee might be encouraged to think, ‘my aim is to maximise sales; I should do what I can to help the customer’.

However, the reality is that thoughts and feelings inform each other. Negative feelings can generate negative (although apparently unrelated) thoughts, and vice versa. Identifying the cycle of thoughts, feelings and actions can be a helpful way of managing negative behaviour. For example, it helps explain more common attitudes such as ‘This customer was rude to me, so I don’t want to help them’; ‘my boss only speaks to me when they’re asking me to do something’; ‘I do all the work around here but no one ever notices’. These types of negative thoughts fuel and are fuelled by negative emotions, leading to a cycle of unproductive behaviour.

Emotional intelligence helps us make better choices; we can evaluate and respond rather than reacting unconsciously.

Censoring negative attitudes is not the way to deal with this type of situation. Every workplace has some tasks that are particularly unpopular; projects that are particularly stressful; periods of time that are especially dull; or undertakings that were less than successful. Don’t drive the thoughts-feelings-behaviour philosophy so far as to suppress negative feelings about underwhelming aspects of the job.
Rather, considering the impact of thoughts and feelings on behaviour leads us to the impact of our own behaviour on the thoughts and feelings of others. So, acknowledging and empathising with an employee’s reluctance to complete tasks, and being seen to do your fair share, will cultivate a positive attitude and supportive environment among team members.

Respectful treatment, appreciation and friendliness and hugely undervalued attributes in managers, while efficiency and accordance with their seniors are often prioritised. But attention to thoughts and feelings lays the groundwork for positive behavioural decisions that benefit the entire organisation.

Which would you say has the greatest influence over behaviour: thoughts or feelings?
ted learning - Patrick Holtby - Theatre of Learning drama based training
Patrick Holtby

Patrick has been part of the ted Learning team since soon after the business was formed. He has worked extensively within transport, manufacturing and pharmaceutical sectors as well as in hospitality.

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