Working with groups in the social and climate justice space sometimes means working with strong emotions and tensions that arise. Our tendency might be to react by freezing up or brushing strong emotions like anger and sadness under the rug. But what assumptions are driving these reactions? It is important to ask ourselves: How do I manage and interpret my own emotions as well as those of team or community members’? For example, are emotions okay or are they not? If they surface in a group that I am leading, is it because I did something wrong or are they something to surface and work with? 

Viewing emotions as weakness or as something that needs to quickly be solved is a common response in many work environments. But what if — instead of repressing or neglecting strong emotions — we befriend and integrate them? What would that make possible?

We are part of social and climate justice organizations and movements because we deeply care, and emotions are an important part of what drives us. When we learn to skillfully bring our whole selves to the world and the teams we are part of, we give permission for others to do the same. There is power in connecting with team members’ needs and acknowledging the different emotions in the room — fear, anxiety and anger can be equally present with confusion, joy and celebration. Even when these emotions are not immediately related to what’s going on and manifest in different ways.

How can you best harness the intelligence of emotions in service of the group you are part of, or are facilitating? Below we share some tools that you can use while designing your meetings and sessions ahead of time as well as methods to use as tensions arise in the moment.

Designing for strong emotions

It’s safe to say that in the challenging contexts many of us work in, strong emotions are likely to come up. You can anticipate this by making space for emotions in your design of a meeting or workshop.

  • Understand who’s in the room. Learn the group’s history and context as a backdrop to your design. You can use an Empathy Map (like our adapted map) as a tool for thinking through your group’s story.
  • Question our own assumptions. When working with communities we’re not a part of, or diverse groups more generally, we need to reflect on our own assumptions based on our backgrounds and experiences. How can we be present enough to hear what’s actually going on without interpreting it through our own lens? Who and what do we tend to direct our energy and airtime to?
  • Set ground rules and agreements for topics that will stir up emotions and hold the group to them. From the beginning of the session, we can agree to welcome every emotion and make space for them while stating that everyone is also responsible for self-regulating, for example by taking a walk during the break or indicating boundaries. For conversations where more support is needed, you could have trauma-informed therapists or facilitators on hand who support participants as well.
  • Consider the arrangement of digital and physical “rooms.” In physical spaces, you can arrange seating in ways that encourage collaboration and create equity. In digital environments, you can set up a breakout room for anyone who would like to process with the support of an assigned team member or facilitator.
  • Use a variety of tools so everyone has a voice, including writing, small groups, fishbowls, chat, drawing and dialogues.


Navigating tensions as they arise

When strong emotions come up in a group, you can give participants space to share more and honour their truth. 

  • Return to the purpose of the meeting. When everyone is in agreement about the purpose, outcome and process of the meeting from the start, you can use that throughout the session to bring people back to the original purpose of why they’re gathering.
  • Introduce a breathing practice. Slowing down and taking breaths helps regulate the nervous system and stay present and connected to the group. Breathing can help you focus on what matters most and what needs to have space.
  • Make time for those who have not spoken to do so and call for active listening. Group members may not be responding because they don’t feel they have a voice. Inviting them to contribute without putting them on the spot can be powerful. Calmly wait until someone speaks and invite the group to hear different perspectives. 
  • Validate, empathize with, and honour each individual’s truth. Acknowledge group members’ range of experiences while also inviting others to do the same.

Spring Associate Barbara Oliveira says, “As long as the strong emotions are a source of intelligence, it’s much better that they are on the surface than hidden as an iceberg under the water line just creating tension because we pick up on the micro signals. That these emotions are out there — that people are naming what they’re upset about, what they’re excited about, anxious about — really brings a lot of relief and brings the tension down. Processing emotions in oneself, in a group and in a collective liberates a great amount of space and creative energy for change and are one of the greatest gifts that process facilitators and transformative leaders can offer on behalf of our present and future generations.”

Do you have experience using other tools that help work with strong emotions in resourceful ways? Let us know and learn more about how to integrate these tensions in your work.