Emotional Honesty in Designing Change

Innovation is emotional work and it’s time to connect our feelings and thoughts to fuel our change efforts and actions.

I recently read an interview between Yancey Strickler and Clare Farrell, co-founder of The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement that attracted my attention. The interview was part of Strickler’s Ideaspace podcast and titled ‘from hope to action‘ and in it Clare Farrell spoke about how XR has managed to bring about mainstream change through unconventional or radical means of protest arguing that it is their appeal to emotions that move people from hoping for change to taking real action that might affect climate policies and practices.

I’ve come to recognize that many of us have a hard time with honesty, often confusing it with transparency.

Emotional honesty takes the idea to another level. It’s about recognizing how we feel and naming and honouring that feeling, independent of whatever we think about what we’re feeling. In speaking about XR’s work, Farrell says “one of the most important things we were able to do when we emerged, (was) to encourage people to feel how it really feels” when it comes to climate issues.

This means saying things like “this feels like shit” or “this is heartbreaking.”

Psychological Safety, Awareness and Honesty

While some of us are more outspoken and comfortable verbalizing our thoughts, fewer of us are comfortable truly speaking to our emotions. Frustration, anger, resentment, sadness, and loneliness are a big part of the work of those seeking to innovate. Innovation is about expressing an intention through design with the hopes of achieving some kind of improvement because of our work, presenting a lot of potential emotional pitfalls within that journey.

Whether it’s our expectations, our demands, or the constraints we face in creating something of value to address a problem, this is emotional work. We invest ourselves in what we do and produce and that leads to disappointment, joy, and many other feelings along the journey.

In order to be able to deal with our emotions we first need to name them and feel safe doing that — with ourselves and our colleagues. Self-awareness and mindfulness are important parts of design practice that are often neglected or dismissed. Our attention determines our personal reality, but our neglects can determine our actual success in the world. As Clare Farrell points out, being aware of the problems of climate change does little if all it does is shape our sense of hope without spurring real, practical action.

This is innovation for the real world.

To practice this requires being emotionally connected, creating safety in ourselves and organizations, and space for all of it to come together into strategy, motivation, and evaluation of our actions. It also means understanding what we bring to the table — our baggage — and what our organization brings, too.

Emotional Honesty in Practice

As a concluding statement to this post it’s worth noting that this happens to be written and published on Earth Day 2021.

In keeping with emotional honesty, I must say I am angered and distraught at the level of willful ignorance or green-washing disguised as some form of innovation. This anger has built up for some time, but when I look around at small things like birds singing on trees, flowers seeking to break through the spring soil, and vegetation blooming in my neighbourhood I sometimes tear up because I know its mere steps away from pollution, junk, and the effects of a society that’s lost its connection to the natural world.

I am choosing to embrace both my anger and hope at the same time. Let’s see how well I act on both. I hope you can do the same.

Thanks for reading.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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