This term, Emotional Baggage, has been used for quite some time in both social and workplace settings. If you’re single and you go out on a date with a recent widow, the “emotional baggage” might obvious — the widow is grieving. If you’re at work and have a boss, co-worker, or employee who consistently refers to past failures in relationships or projects, then it is also obvious what the baggage is.
The debate in the Emotional Intelligence community is not around who has emotional baggage; there is widespread consensus we all do (otherwise you have not lived!). The debate is more around why some manage it better than others, and how to manage it well.
I have often been quoted as saying “people are never where they are, they are where they came from,” meaning that when we interact with others, we often deal with them in the present moment. If I am in a meeting right now, then I am engaging with everyone in that meeting in real time and taking their communication with me in the present moment. This is dealing with people “where they are.” However, if I engage with everyone paying attention to their verbal and non-verbal signs, then I can sense what might have happened to them over the weekend or earlier this morning or last week or last month, that is leading them to have the disposition they have. This is “where they came from.”
I have a friend who laughed at this distinction and share with me a recent experience she had with her husband. Her husband had over-reacted to a comment she made, and upon further inquiry, she realized his over-reaction was actually not to her comment, but to something he was upset about that happened between them a week earlier that he never communicated to her, and simply kept in him, letting it boil, and then her comment simply triggered an existing emotional baggage.
In workplace conflict resolution, I find this to be the case quite often too. We often deal with conflict in the present, not taking the time to ask or reflect on what might have occurred prior to the existing conflict that might have caused the conflict to begin with. In some cases, it is emotional baggage from other sources, and in other cases, it is from the other party in the conflict. I am not suggesting that we don’t say things in the present moment that don’t warrant an over-reaction … what I am suggesting is that Emotional Intelligence is the specific skill set that can allow you to get to the root cause of why so many of us are unable or unwilling to manage our emotional baggage which, invariably, given random triggers, will show its ugly face.
Invest some time this week to reflect on what emotional baggage you bring to work — it might be worth the effort. Specifically, you may want to pick one person who you work with closely this week and try to decipher “where they come from.”