A practical experiment on the power of emotional openness to unlock efficiency and creativity in professional collaboration.
Coronavirus lockdowns have placed immense strain on every aspect of our lives. If we haven’t lost our jobs, we’re working on the front lines, risking our lives to provide essential services, or otherwise striving to work well at home — where kids might demand attention, spouses may be taking calls, and tempers might be flaring. Outside our walls, the global health crisis takes lives, a recession looms, and a social-justice movement makes powerful strides.
At Rapt, we invite everyone to “bring their whole selves to work,” which — at times like this — means we dispense with the pretense of keeping up appearances; that we don’t have to pretend everything’s just fine if in fact it’s not.
Four months ago, we never could have envisioned being where we are today — and we also couldn’t have foreseen our relationships with our colleagues deepening while relegating all communication to digital devices. But because we’ve committed ourselves to opening up more, we’ve formed stronger bonds and become better teammates. Our work is actually better for it.
But interestingly, sharing doesn’t always happen naturally. Zoom certainly doesn’t encourage it; by default, it reduces us to two-dimensional images locked in a rigid grid of ‘professional’ seriousness. The digital exchanges that happen on the platform can feel stilted and transactional, with little acknowledgement of the whole person behind the screen. And with digital engagements dominating our days, our creative spirits — sensitive and attuned — needed a new outlet of expression.
Instinctively, it seems, our deep and textured emotional experience sought alternate forms. Teams across our studio began to independently employ a diverse range of techniques to actively cultivate different emotional states and then intentionally share them.
In the past several months, we’ve been experimenting with a range of exercises that have taken us beyond the formality of a business context and into connection. They’ve been analog and digital, written and sketched, private and performed, short and long, individual and collective. And they’ve conjured or prompted us to recall a broad range of emotions, including joy, discomfort, and a sense of grounding. Some by their very nature invited buoyancy, others serious reflection. The ones that worked best unlocked a level of candor beyond more perfunctory questions like “how are you doing right now?” can yield.
The exercises moved us beyond scripted, reflexive answers and into uncharted territory.
As strategic thinkers, we were curious about this emergent studio-wide trend. We’d created a host of new modes of engagement that allowed us to tap into and empathize with one another’s emotional experience — and we wanted to test the rigor of them. We wanted to understand the “why” behind them, and what made some more successful than others. So we put on our left-brain analytic mode to assess the emotional states each exercise evoked and its impact on how we relate to and collaborate with each other.
Here are a few of the exercises that were most successful:
To elicit JOY & LAUGHTER:
Photograph a small, joyful moment.
Capture an everyday occurrence that caught your attention but that you could’ve easily overlooked — a plant emerging from the ground, sunlight hitting a variegated surface, an object bringing beauty to its environment.
Share an uplifting song.
Play a tune that has the power to brighten your spirit, and identify why you return to it and why it’s become important to you.
To make space for DISCOMFORT & UNCERTAINTY:
Collage the physical feeling of an emotion.
Identify a particular emotion that you’ve recently noticed and locate where in your body you’ve felt it. Sense into it, and then convey the sensation with color, pattern, and shape.
Graph the experience of an emotion.
Track the evolution of a feeling over time, placing weeks on the x-axis and your experience on the y-axis. Has the line stayed steady, or has it peaked and dipped?
To feel PRESENT & GROUNDED:
Diagram your workspace (or one of your workspaces).
Show the way you’ve oriented yourself within your surroundings. Note any special features that you relate to daily and that frame your experience.
Map emerging rituals.
Schedules have adapted to the current circumstances. Even if they fluctuate, mark main daily moments that feel significant, linking them together or separating them.
As teams across the studio have tested these exercises, we’ve received feedback and data that suggests that deploying a range of forms of expression — both visual and verbal — allows people to create new languages for sharing emotions that might otherwise be inaccessible. The interdisciplinarity of the prompts and the translation between media has given us new communication tools, offering new entry points into conversation and connection.
The exercises that involve visuals allow us to put images to feelings, and to convey what some of us might otherwise be unable to articulate fully in words. Some team members are able to be more candid when they contextualize their feelings through a drawing or sketch, which has the most reserved among us more actively engaged. Those of us who like to use writing as a main form of communication are finding new outlets in graphs and maps. And all of us seem more ready and willing to share even further during work-based collaborations after running through these exercises.
Responding to the prompts has habituated us to opening up, and our sharing spills over into work. Conversations throughout the day have become more nuanced, because we’ve invited the whole person to speak.
One unanticipated effect of this emotional openness is an increase in efficiency. We skip the platitudes and perfunctory chatter. We go straight for the truth, and we solve problems faster because we’re honest when we believe ideas aren’t working, which allows us to pursue only the ones that are.
These exercises may seem like frivolous distractions at first, but when embraced, we’ve found that they have a remarkable ability to clear the smoke away. The result is openness. Empathy. Clarity. Efficiency. Directness. We go straight to the heart of the matter.
We’ve found that these exercises are a springboard into fluid, meaningful communication — so much so that we’ll continue with them once we’re back to collaborating in person, whenever that will be. Because now, more than ever before, we’re being seen and heard not just as colleagues but as human beings. We’re better for it — and our work is, too.
Special thanks to the contributors of this piece, including Camille Robins, Nicola Kerger, Kumar Atre, Esin Ekincioglu, and Daniel Rauchwerger.
Rapt Studio is a strategic design consultancy. Our sweet spot is at the intersection of place, experience, and emotion. www.raptstudio.com