How to Survive Being Emotional in a Room Full of "Tough Guys"

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a group of eighty managers and senior leadership. I was in a room full of “tough guys”, men who were physically and mentally hardened by the long hours, long-distance commutes, and hard labor. Like nails, diamonds, and honors calculus, these guys were tough.

Typically “tough guys” aren't all about smiling for no reason. Usually, being flamboyant in energy and passionate in enthusiasm do not serve them as they weather difficult circumstances that require endurance and mental fortitude. These guys had a quiet strength, a calm energy, and a love for what they do for a living. Like many people pursuing the coveted “American Dream”, these guys had a healthy interest in creating and pursuing opportunities.

These tough guys had straight faces, folded arms and were relaxed back in their chairs. However, as we progressed and they started talking with each other and sharing experiences, advice, and knowledge, the seemingly tough exterior melted away. They opened up right into the heart of what mattered to them.

One of the sharing activities we did was to learn from each other via storytelling. There was a young guy there attending as a guest, new to the team but really demonstrating dedication to his job. He was invited by his manager. To look at him and to talk to him, it was hard to take him seriously. He seemed like a bit of a goofball.

Participants in the workshop were asked to tell their stories, in groups arranged by table. As the winners from the first round of stories came up to tell how they lived their companies core values, the new guy’s table energetically encouraged him to the front. Although extremely hesitant, he shyly made his way to the front of the room. As the activity went on, this young man perceived to be a goofball took a stab at telling his story to eight (8) of his colleagues at the table plus a senior manager.

He was the next to last speaker and by this time the attendees had heard nine (9) other people speak. So as he started, I watched the shift of the crowd. As this young guy fought tears back so did his audience. People transformed from leaning back and arms crossed slouched in their seats to leaning in, sitting up, and even wiping tears from their face. The men followed his story clear to the end and were simultaneously knocked clean off their feet! He had WOW'd them with his heartfelt personal story of how he and his boss lived their companies core values.

A huge transformation had taken place. Suddenly, the former “goofy guy” was a noble father, a strong man with family values, courageous enough to live them and share his story with his peers. He won the exercise hands down and got a standing ovation from a room full of “tough guys”.

Not only did he survive the exercise, he thrived. Kudos and praise came from every senior manager and executive in attendance. And most importantly, he had won their respect with his vulnerability.

As Brene Brown says “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” - Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead*

When we have the courage to speak from our heart, we can capture hearts and minds of those around us.

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