The Engineer Who Claimed, “There is no such thing as emotions”

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

JULIAN M: In one company I worked with, they were having major problems and they were going from a profit to loss situation and everybody was blaming everybody else. I had been working with the president and one day, after I had been working with him for awhile, he said, “I have a special job for you. We’re having a major battle going on between engineering and manufacturing, which is typical, and I would like for you to run a meeting that would include the manager of engineering, the manager of production and manufacturing, and a couple other key people.” So I was honest with him and told him, “I don’t know anything about engineering or manufacturing, so I don’t know what I can do for you.” And he said, “Well, what I’ve observed over a period of time is that you have an unusual skill in getting small groups of people to discuss their differences and come to a point of agreement. So it’s your skill in running a group I would like to have you do.” And I said, “Ok, as long as you tell the men I know nothing about engineering and manufacturing.” And so he set up the meeting and told the men what I asked, and I got underway with the group. It was a group of about six people. And so one of the engineers, when I took over said, “I don’t think you should be here. If you don’t know anything about engineering or manufacturing, you can’t help us.” Another guy spoke up and said, “Well if the president wanted him to do this, he must know something.” And so I just sat quietly and let them kind of argue. And finally, one of the fellows turned to me and said, “Well, why are you here if you don’t really understand manufacturing and engineering?” And I said, “I do have some understanding on how to help people work on their differences and problems. So let’s go to work.” So we got underway and then one of the men, Jim, who was an engineer, began to get quite agitated and he said, “Julian, several times during the discussion here you would say, ‘At the present time, we’re at an impasse because our emotions are getting in the way.’ Julian, don’t you realize there is no such thing as emotions?” I can still remember that moment. I was stunned and wondered if I heard him correctly, but it was also not surprising for an engineer. So many of them are trained so intensely in their technology, they’re clueless about obvious things such as emotions. So I said, “Well, emotions are everywhere, all the time.” And then he said in a condescending way, “No. They’re not.” He wanted to kind of fight about it. So I just dropped it, and we went on with some of the discussion. And then at one point, Jim was discussing something with one of the men in production and Jim got very, very angry. And the guy in production sat there with a smile on his face and said, “Jim, you sound angry.” And Jim snapped, “I’m damn angry!” And the other guys said, “Do you realize that’s an emotion?” And then everybody broke out into laughter. Except for Jim, of course, who sat there with a sour look on his face. So that’s a good example of how some people, particularly men in technical professions, deny the existence or importance of emotions. But in my work, regardless of the person’s background, this problem of emotion and denial of emotion was an area I had to focus on all the time. It was also one of the reasons I was so in demand.

BRANDY W: You mentioned people are often blocked by emotion or fear.

JM: Yes. Frequently there was a lot of emotions that went on between the president and his executives. And a lot of the emotions were denied and hidden which often led to things like unproductive, passive-aggressive behavior or stonewalling or other issues. So in my approach I would have to slowly bring that out by getting them to talk about what was bothering them in a peaceful, productive way. That’s a big, vast area in itself but a critical one. So you talk to a president or an executive—the person is talking about the issue or problem logically, but if you spend time with him or her, you’ll find that underlying the logical discussion are some very strong feelings. Very strong emotions.

BW: So you’re saying that people often think they are being logical and rational, but they are actually being emotional.

JM: In many cases, yes. Often denial is very strong. I would say a big problem is an unawareness or denial of emotion especially in men. In general, culture is anti-emotion. It seems whatever emotion a child is having, that it’s not right to have it, especially in an academic setting since it’s so disruptive. And I think particularly in men that maybe they grow up repressing a lot of their emotions. Like I can still remember when I was a little boy and I would hurt myself and let’s say my dad was with me, maybe I would be hollering and complaining about the pain. He would say to me, “Little boys don’t get angry when they get hurt. You just live with it.” So I grew up with the idea that it’s not right to have feelings. And if a situation was going on somewhere in the neighborhood, and I would say something like, “Well, it’s very, very sad.” I can remember one of my neighbors that actually said to me, “You have no right to be sad.” So these are just some odds and ends of experiences to make a point that I think that our cultural tendency is to repress feelings. Now what I’ve observed is that this is excessive in a lot of men, but women grow up with the idea that it is ok to have feelings.

BW: Maybe in another time. I think now, there is a very high emphasis on intellect and abstract thinking and a disdain for things like emotion, spirituality, dreams, that sort of thing in both men and women. Maybe women are given a little bit more leniency, but I think not much more these days. And academic demands are much greater now than in the past, so now there’s the same pressure on both men and women to shut off emotion.

JM: Yes, it sounds like the disconnection from emotion is becoming more of a problem. In the past, that was more the typical attitude of men—that emotions weren’t healthy. Yet emotions are an important part of life. They’re the driving force of life. If we didn’t have emotions and feelings, we would just be like a dead stick floating in the water with nothing but our rational, abstract thinking.

BW: The words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same latin root “movere” which means "to move." But obviously, we can’t give full license to emotions and act on whatever emotion that we happen to be having.

JM: Having an emotion is of course not the same as acting on an emotion. The point I’m trying to make is that people often want to completely deny the reality of emotions, which is not healthy.

BW: You shouldn’t be ruled by emotion, but you also can’t deny or get rid of emotion. Emotions are needed. For example, people often think of anger in just negative terms, but there is such a thing as healthy, righteous anger.

JM: But people in general are frightened by emotion. In civilized culture, there’s always been a fear of them and people want to keep them under control. For example, England is notorious for the “stiff upper lip.”

BW: Especially if the values of the society are about accumulation of wealth and power. Emotions just get in the way of all that.

JM: Emotions are messy, unpredictable, inconvenient.

BW: And they’re especially inconvenient in an industrial, technological society where nothing is supposed to get in the way of productivity. It would be ideal if humans didn’t have any emotions at all, like robots, so we could maximize our productivity and progress. These days, there’s a stronger and stronger emphasis on the rational—we worship human intellect. We put all of our faith in human reason and human ingenuity. So it’s not surprising that we end up hating and rejecting anything that runs contrary to those cultural idols.

JM: Emotions are very inconvenient especially in light of all that. So it’s not surprising that we’re becoming more alienated from the reality of our emotions.

BW: You see that more in the technological age—we surround ourselves with devices, electronic toys, and continually streaming entertainment.

JM: Because that’s easier than real relationships, which can involve a lot of risk and painful emotions. But trying to solve the problem of emotion by outright denial or repression of emotion is misguided and creates more problems. Completely denying or repressing emotions can create a pressure cooker or a ticking time bomb of sorts.