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Making sense of the f*** word!


Have you noticed that people are now using the F*** word more in public? I mean the word ‘feel’ rather than the other ‘f’ word! In the media particularly there is a resurgence of interest in people’s feelings. Questions are being asked of politicians and business people alike: “What do you feel about the plight of one-parent families?” or “What were your feelings on the European Monetary Union?”. Getting in touch with our feelings, particularly for the men amongst us, is being put forward as a good thing to do. Men are being encouraged to consider their femininity and the emotional right side of their brains (in contrast to the analytical left side).

Yet have you also noticed that in reply to these questions, we generally do not get to hear a lot about the respondent’s feelings at all. Rather we are given a lot of data about what the person thinks about the subject under question: words used often do not reflect the emotions in the situation.

Consider this fictitious example. Imagine the scene: a Radio 4 presenter is in the middle of an interview with the Prime Minister and Sarah George, a Nurses Union Representative:

Presenter: “Well, Prime Minister, what do you feel about nurses going on strike today?”
PM: “I feel it is totally irresponsible for the nurses to take this action which put the lives of many sick people at risk”
Presenter: “Sarah, from the nurses perspective, how do you feel about the situation?”
Sarah George: “I feel very angry at the attitude of the government and also sad that they are proposing a 20% cut in our salaries”

Which of the two participants answered truthfully about their feelings on this issue and what difference did the way the questions were phrase make to how they were answered?

The word ‘feel’ has a number of meanings. According to the Collins Concise Dictionary two of them are:
a) To have a physical or emotional sensation of something
b) To consider, believe, think

A useful check to identify the sense that is being used is as follows:

i) “I feel...” is a feeling when I can use “I am.....” in its place (but not “I think....”) e.g. “I feel worried” means “I am worried” (not “I think worried”)
ii) “I feel....” is NOT a feeling if I can use “I think....” in its place e.g. “I feel you’re bullying me” is the same as “I think you’re bullying me” so it is not a feeling, it is an opinion.

In the case of the fictitious interview the Prime Minster was explaining his thoughts on the matter whereas the nurse was sharing her emotions. Both were using the word feel correctly but in different senses with different results from the listeners’ perspective.

In business there is a preponderance of males at senior levels. When a woman asks a man a question such as “How are you feeling?” she is often looking for a response which would tell her something about his emotions in respect of a given situation. However, it is likely that he will respond with an answer which tells her more about what he is thinking (left-brain) rather than his emotional state (right-brain). Replace the man with a woman and the reply may well be, “I feel happy / sad /angry”. However, Chris Lee, Director of Growth International, who has run many assertiveness and parenting courses, suggests that in her experience some women also have trouble expressing their feelings, often because they have never been allowed to within the context of their own upbringing or their existing relationships.

We must not forget that feelings are a reality for the person experiencing them. This means that others are not in a position to deny the existence of these emotions in other people. Feelings occur instinctively when something happens. It’s a bit like the weather when there’s a storm approaching – you don’t seem to have control over them. Here are some of the feelings we have: happy, excited, sad, angry, disappointed, overjoyed, surprised, and depressed. They may come from the past: baggage or stuck feelings that you get tripped up by; they may arise in the present, spontaneous and fluid, coming and going like waves.

However, when we ask a question with the F*** word in it, there is an underlying, possibly subconscious, enquiry about the other person’s internal well-being. To cite a real case, we were working with a manager involved in a complex business planning exercise; when asked how she was feeling about the difficulties experienced she became upset. When asked why, she explained that using the F*** word had prompted an emotional response as a result of the intense effort on her part to do the work.

Do we need to be more careful in how we phrase questions with the word ‘feelings’ in it? This sounds a bit like walking on eggshells. Can we seriously expect to only use the F*** word in the correct context, otherwise we may psychologically damage the people we are speaking to? Yet there is a case for allowing people to express their feelings when appropriate. This would form part of a natural human desire to build lasting relationships. Openness and honesty would be two values which might be brought to bear, as well as active listening to ensure that what is said at all levels is actually heard.

Geoffrey Feasey, Senior Strategist with the National Grid has taken the distinction between thinking and feeling further in a business context. He has found that an “observe-think-feel” approach to giving feedback on behaviours in business meetings has had beneficial results. This originated from the difficulty that some people, particularly men, have in receiving challenges about what they said (content) and how they said it (tone of voice and body language). In all relationships, even those in business, authenticity should be a desired aim: I am behaving as I truly believe. So the Feasey approach is to challenge behaviours in a systematic approach to avoid confrontation: “I observed your behaviour – heard from the tone of your voice and seen from your body language”, then “What were you thinking about at that moment?”, followed finally by “How were your feeling at that time?”. This approach is designed to engage with the issues in a less threatening way by leaving the F*** word until last.

The importance of stating feelings is emphasised in the Family Caring Trust’s ‘Couple Alive’ programme (see bottom of page for details). We use this resource as a simple, but effective way for couples to learn about communication skills within a relationship. It is extended into a five-stage framework for couples to use in managing conflict in a respectful way:

Stage one: Tension arises
What to do: Find a time to talk when you can give each other your full attention
How to act: Focus on something you can change, particularly your own behaviour

Stage two: Listen and give feedback
What to do: Check that you understand what the other is saying by listening to feelings and giving feedback
How to act: Active Listening involves checking that you understand what the other is saying to their satisfaction

Stage three: What I need
What to do: Stating the underlying needs of both parties to the relationship
How to act: These will be different for each party: ‘I need....’

Stage four: Looking for options
What to do: Brainstorming between three and ten options
How to act: Don’t judge or criticise, writing down each option shows respect

Stage five: Decision time
What to do: A plan that meets the needs of both parties
How to act: Write down and review at a later date to check on progress

Our experience working with parents and couples is that the simple skills that they learn on the Family Caring Trust programmes in respect of their family relationships are easily translated into the business environment. Strong relationships within organisations and between customers & suppliers are the foundation for long-term business success. By using ‘active listening’ skills in the home it is a relatively safe place to practice techniques for understanding the people we work with.

Perhaps a closer focus on relationship skills within the business world using the learning that has taken place in recent years within a family context will allow a more meaningful and authentic dialogue between people. If we try and tell each other more about ourselves, we may begin to develop more trusting environments in our workplaces with leadership based less on power domination. There are both business and emotional risks attached to such changes in behaviour – at least we may start to make sense of the f*** word and use it as we mean to.

This article was contributed by Peter Desmond, Growth International, Crane Valley House, 11 Manor Road, Twickenham, TW2 5DF. Tel & Fax: 0208 898 4333.

For more information about Growth International, e-mail [email protected] or visit

The Family Caring Trust can be contacted on +44(0)169364174 or at 44 Rathfriland Road, Newry, Co. Down, BT34 1LD


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