Don’t Let Your Head Attack Your Heart

I had been planning a dinner party for weeks. There were twenty people coming, some family, some friends, to celebrate my wife Eleanor’s birthday. I designed a ritual for her: my goal was to create a space where people spoke from their hearts in a way they don’t usually do.

I prepared questions I wanted us to explore together, questions like: What do you feel grateful for in your life? What new things do you feel are struggling to grow and be born in you? What do you want to let go of, so that the new can be born?

Before I go any further, pause for a second, imagine yourself at the dinner, and notice your own reaction to those questions. Are you rolling your eyes at the touchy-feeliness of them or do they excite you? Would the answers you shared be superficial or deep?

I was excited and nervous as I introduced the initial question. I shared from my heart. Then, one person, David*, made a joke. It was light fun, but it was directed at my response and felt biting. Others laughed and chimed in. Then more jokes. I tried to keep the focus of the group but I failed.

I had been so excited and now I just felt sad, angry, vulnerable, and disappointed.

This is what I discovered that night: The heart is an easy target of the mind.

I was asking questions of the heart, and the mind fought back. We are trained and rewarded, in schools and in organizations, to lead with a fast, witty, and critical mind. And it serves us well. The mind can be logical, clear, incisive, and powerful. It perceives, positions, politics, and protects. One of its many talents is to defend us from emotional vulnerability, which it does, at times, with jokes and quick repartee.

The heart, on the other hand, has no comebacks, no quips. Gentle, slow, and unprotected, an open heart is easily attacked, especially by a frightened mind. And feelings scare the mind.

Why are feelings so scary? I asked my friend and colleague, Jessica Gelson, a traditionally trained psychotherapist who specializes in body-based techniques to help people unblock their feelings.

“People are afraid of feelings for the same reason people are afraid of ghosts,” Jessica told me. “You can’t see them. You can’t put them in a box. And you can’t really control them.”

Most of us are never taught how to experience and understand our feelings. And since our mind hates things it doesn’t know, it reacts like a guard fending off an attack.

But why is that bad? Why not just rely on your agile and capable mind instead of exposing your heart, especially in a business or professional environment?

Because our hearts are the source of our real power.

The heart is how we connect with others. It’s how we engender trust. It’s the heart — both ours and theirs — that makes people want to follow us and throw everything they’ve got into making something successful. People follow leaders who show competence and warmth, head and heart. And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we should start with the heart.

It takes tremendous courage to lead. And it takes even more courage to lead with heart. But that’s what leadership call us to do. Mostly, when people want to develop their leadership, they try to learn more about what to do. Which is precisely why most leadership programs fail. Because the hard part about leadership isn’t knowing what to do, it’s having the courage to do it.

Are you willing to experience the discomfort of speaking from your heart? Yes, it’s a risk. But a risk whose payoff includes the commitment, loyalty, and passion of the people around you.

Now, think back to how you answered the question at the beginning. Was your instinct to protect yourself and your open heart? Would you have resisted answering those questions honestly and openly? How can we be more emotionally courageous in those situations, both as the listener and the speaker?

1. Notice. Notice when your head wants to protect your heart. Notice how you might use humor to avoid feeling something. I am now aware that I do this myself. Honestly, I like the positive attention I get when people laugh. But I’m now sensitive to the cost. How it shuts me – and other people – down. When your instinct is to make a joke, see if you can pause without saying anything and notice what you feel.

2. Take risks. Taking risks builds your emotional courage. And you don’t even need to take big, emotional risks. Maybe your risk is speaking up in a meeting, or not speaking up, or asking about someone’s day, or giving someone feedback. Courage begets courage. The more you take even small emotional risks, the more you’ll be willing to show up authentically in all areas of your life. You’ll have a chance to practice this, right here, in a moment.

At Eleanor’s birthday dinner, I wavered. But, once I realized it, I saw it as an important opportunity to practice emotional courage. My risk was to call David, the person who first started the joking, and tell him that it felt hurtful. Without attacking him, I shared my disappointment and sadness.

He was defensive at first, but soon we engaged in a deep and real conversation about his discomfort and how hard it was for him to share his feelings at the dinner. We both learned some important lessons and felt closer after that call.

I’m still interested in how people choose to answer the questions I asked at that dinner party. I’d love to see your responses in the comments, if you feel comfortable sharing them. What do you feel gratitude for in your life? What new things do you feel are struggling to grow and be born in you? What do you want to let go of, so that the new can be born?

*Names and some details changed.

Originally posted at Harvard Business Review.


  1. Olga says:

    Well done Peter for wearing your heart on your sleeve. At the same time, I confess that if I’d been present at your dinner party I would have responded in a similar way to your friends. Asking people (especially men!) to share their innermost thoughts and feelings in a group setting is risky, and I’m not surprised that David was much more open with you when you spoke on a 1-to-1 basis. Our hearts are private and precious, and this is why we only tend to confide in people with whom we feel completely safe. I don’t know if you’re a rock music fan, but for the benefit of this discussion I recommend that you read the lyrics of the song “Private Parts” by Halestorm :-)

  2. Jana says:

    Peter, I consider you one of my Wise Men of The Internet. Thank you for explaining why I usually take the role of a buffoon in social settings.

    Have you read any of John Eldredge’s books? “Wild at Heart” is the first, but he addresses the heart in most of his writings.

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