Zen and the Art of Data Maintenance: Feeling is Information

In this age of data being a precious and valuable resource, what data would you say is most important? Many people talk of the value of intellectual property, customer profile data, financial data, competitive data, and other types of data being invaluable, sometimes even more important than company revenues!

What about the data associated with feelings!? Some may think, ‘What does that even mean?! We are talking about business value here! Let’s stick to the agenda. Feelings are personal and ancillary. This isn’t some type of therapy session and I’m not a therapist!’

However, in my experience, this is some of the most important data that can be available to us. The data about feelings is often what makes or breaks programs or projects.

There are two aspects to understanding the data behind feelings. One is related to being aware of one’s own feelings, or in other words, self-awareness. Another aspect is being aware of others’ feelings and the ways that this is important in understanding the environment. We tend to want to address the latter first. Yet, we have much more control and influence over ourselves, so this article will focus on self-awareness of feelings as a productive and fruitful means to success. Perhaps, we can discuss the other side regarding dealing with other people’s feelings in a future article, since that is also an important topic.

Much is documented about how business decisions and actions are largely driven by feelings versus intellect. For instance, the book Switch[i] describes the huge part that emotions play in change management and decision making. The authors, Dan and Chip Heath, provide a metaphor for change management and liken it to a rider and an elephant. The rider represents the rational mind and the elephant represents the emotional aspects. While the rider (the intellect) may work at directing the elephant (emotions), the elephant is so much larger and more powerful, and plays a huge role in how we decide and act.

At one of my clients, I remember reviewing the proposed data architecture and I was planning on strongly recommending major changes and corrections to improve it dramatically. I discussed this with my key client contact who was leading the effort and he responded in a quite profound manner. He said something like, ‘Len, there are many people that are deeply emotionally bought into this architecture. They have designed major portions of this architectural design and feel very proud and excited about it. Buy-in is everything. It’s more important than technical precision. Just go with the current design.’ At that time, I felt frustrated. I wanted a better solution. Yet, it was critical that I acknowledge my feeling and before acting (or reacting), that I clearly understand the information first. 

It would have been easy for me to just insist on selling and pushing for my position, knowing that I had a better design. However, the information behind the feeling, was that I cared a lot and I wanted a better solution. After I was able to take some time and space with the feeling and get crystal clear with the associated information, I was able to comprehend a bigger picture; namely, that a solution where everyone was completely bought in, was a better solution! Thus, I heeded my client’s advice, accepted the architecture, and we implemented an enormously successful data warehouse. On this effort, there was so much enthusiasm, energy, and motivation, leading to one of the most productive efforts I have ever seen.

Feelings contain valuable information. Feelings can inform us. They can bring us data regarding our motivations. Many psychologists have claimed that we are often unaware of our own motivations and that this is so critically important to understand what we want.[ii] Feelings can offer us insight on what is important to us. If we get angry about an agile project ignoring enterprise wide data semantic standards, this provides data! It reveals what is most important to us, for instance, this may be that we see how much we care about our organization’s success and we see integration being a key part of this. Isn’t it important to know and track what’s important to us? When we are sad, it may represent information about what is meaningful to us. When we are fearful, is represents information about undesired outcomes. Tracking information about feelings may be one of the most crucial components to success: understanding what really matters.

So why not more carefully manage the information about feelings?

‘Emotional artificial intelligence’ [iii] is an upcoming field in machine learning and there is a plethora of automated means to gather data on feelings, for example in facial recognition software and algorithms that can deduce emotions within audio data.

What I would like to address in this article is more basic.  Since this column is about Zen (awareness) and data, I would like to discuss how can we act more intelligently by becoming more aware of our feelings and using the associated information to better accomplish our objectives.

Why Do Many Data Management Programs Fail?

Why do data programs go awry? In my experience, a key reason is the human factor, specifically, being unaware of our underlying feelings, which can lead to irrational and unproductive behavior. Of course, this is a core reason why any program fails, however, this column is about data, so let’s discuss this in the context of data.

I have witnessed many data programs fail. I have seen people fight with each other and quite often this is subtle, yet compromising. There are often conflicting agendas. I have witnessed programs that are attempting to integrate and synthesize data, yet meet with resistance to more immediate point solution needs. I have witnessed people fighting vigorously for what they believe in, but sometimes without emotional intelligence.

I remember one project where I was a consultant evaluating various options for data modeling and selecting which designs to use. In one part of the model, four data modelers shared how they would model an important information requirement. I said they were all excellent options, and since we have to select a single option, I’m going with this one modeler’s design. One of the data modelers whose model was not selected, felt that this was a huge mistake and that his way was by far the best. He fought for his solution and when he couldn’t win the argument, he communicated disparaging remarks about our effort across the enterprise. It really hurt the project, and in the end, this project failed and was shut down.

When these difficult scenarios occur, what can we do? I recommend starting with one’s own self-awareness since that is where we have much more control and influence.

If we care about what we are doing, and these scenarios happen, there are bound to be feelings involved. There may be feelings of despair, sadness, joy, depression, anger, fear, or any number of other emotional feelings.

If we are in this business world, should we just put our feelings aside so we can address our program, project, objectives, or task?


Yet, as human beings, we are not fully present with our feelings and the information it provides. We know that it is unwise to bury feelings. We know that not addressing feelings can result in unexpected negative situations later. However, we often do it because it is painful to feel some of them.

Whether we address feelings and the associated information can be a major factor leading to success or failure.

On one of my consulting engagements, I was interviewing a key stakeholder for our program. As the interview went on, he became more and more distant and gave more and more curt responses while folding his arms. After the interview was finished, he bellowed that I didn’t ask him the right questions and he left abruptly. I felt disappointed, but I waited before taking any other actions. He came back at the end of the day and apologized. He said that he had so many other disturbing things going on and was in a terrible mood then and that we should do the interview again. We talked and he shared that he also felt angry that there was an important strategic item that he wanted to discuss and that I didn’t directly ask him about that. I listened and he felt heard. I shared my feelings of disappointment with him. After we cleared this by both being aware of our own feelings and then sharing it, he became one of the most enthusiastic champions of the program, which led to significant business benefits.

But When I Experience Negative Feelings, What Should I Do (And What Should I Not Do)

We, as human beings, are often unconscious of our deep emotional feelings. I have found the below suggestions quite valuable in facilitating our self-awareness of our feelings. This awareness has a direct effect in optimizing our success and in living a better life.

Four things (I call these the 4 ‘A’s) that I believe are essential when our feelings arise are:

  • Acknowledge and be with the feeling
  • Ask, ‘What’s the information associated with the feeling?’
  • Appreciate the feeling
  • Allow the feelings to go through its cycle and then pass

This sounds simple and obvious, yet human beings often do not do the above. It is common sense, but not common. Doing the above is an art form that requires extensive practice. In my experience, being able to do the above, leads to life mastery, wisdom, and contentment.

Why is this difficult? Sometimes, the feelings are uncomfortable, painful, or even excruciating. We simply don’t want to acknowledge or be with the feeling. When we interpret the feeling as negative, painful, or just plain ‘bad,’ we don’t want to be with it, much less appreciate it. It often takes a great willingness to be vulnerable to fully acknowledge and be with difficult feelings. In the story I told about a person leaving abruptly on the interview, it was painful to sit with my feeling, yet it was important that I did that. When I was able to be with that feeling, it allowed me to see the important information associated with the feeling and better connect with the other person.

While it is true that some feelings are just so challenging to face, one perspective is that feelings are a gift that offer something of value to us. What do they offer? They offer information. They let us know what is important. My Zen teacher, Roshi Junpo Dennis Kelly, says ‘Anger means that I really care about something! Fear means excitement and opportunity!’ He says ‘Feeling is information’ and he explains that this is so important in awareness and in life. The practice is to not look away. What we resist, persists. We must be with these feelings. And when we do, we learn and evolve from them, and they tend to pass much more easily.

Five things that are important not to do are:

  • Don’t ignore the feeling. When we ignore the feeling, we are also ignoring the data, which may be crucially important. Until we receive that data, the feeling may persist, or it may become buried if we are not ready for it at this time, and thus we are often destined to repeat the lesson in the future.
  • Don’t suppress the feeling. We may actively suppress and bury it. Yet, in my experience, if we don’t deal with it sometime, it will likely come out sideways in future irrational behavior.
  • Don’t indulge the feeling. If we are stuck to the feeling, and groan and moan about it and/or encourage it to continue, this is another form of imprisonment to negative reactivity, and is not moving towards awareness.
  • Don’t identify with the feeling. We have feelings and yet we are not our feelings. We are so much more. When we say, ‘I am sad’ (or we can substitute sad with any other emotion), it is a misstatement. What is more truthful is the statement, ‘I feel sad.’ By identifying with emotions, this limits the freedom that we have to experience the emotions, while acting from the strength of our whole person. In other words, this helps us by not being completely bound by just one part of ourself related to that emotion.
  • Don’t fix the feeling. This may be the most difficult one. We often want to heal a bad feeling. The only way forward is through. We must feel what we feel. It is not about fixing something, since feelings often carry a hidden gift. It is our mission to discover the gift, even if it is one that doesn’t in any way seem like a gift at the time.


One of the most valuable types of data is about feelings. This data informs us about emotions, which are key drivers to decisions and actions. If we can be with the feeling, while discovering and appreciating the information about our feelings, this can lead to success, awareness, and a better life.

To implement real business intelligence, we must act with intelligence in our business setting. Understanding the information about our feelings is an important aspect of intelligence.

[i] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan, ‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard’, Broadway Books, 2010

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-our-way/202007/unconscious-motivation

[iii] https://behavioralsignals.com/what-is-emotion-ai/,

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Len Silverston

Len Silverston

Len Silverston is a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and internationally acclaimed expert and thought leader in the fields of data governance, data modeling, data management, and in the human dynamics of integrating information data. He is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which describe hundreds of reusable data models. The volume 1 book was rated #12 on the Computer Literacy Best Seller List and his volume 1 and 2 books have been translated into Chinese and in 2009, he co-authored “The Data Model Resource Book, Volume 3, Universal Patterns for Data Modeling”, which has been translated into Korean. Mr. Silverston has published many articles and has been a keynote speaker at many international data conferences. He is the winner of the DAMA (Data Administration Management Association) International Professional Achievement Award and the DAMA International Community Award. He has given many keynotes and has received the highest speaker rating at several international conferences. Mr. Silverston's company, Universal Data Models, LLC, http://www.universaldatamodels.com provides consulting, training, publications, and software to enable information integration as well as people integration. - He is also a personal and corporate mindfulness coach, trainer, and teacher and has studied and taught many forms of spirituality and life development skills for over thirty years. He has attended, staffed and/or led hundreds of days of silent, intensive retreats as well as dozens of life development workshops. After intensive practice in Zen, he was ordained as a Zen Priest in 2011. ‘Kensho’ Len Silverston provides ongoing ‘Zen With Len’ (http://www.zenwithlen.com) individual and corporate coaching, seminars, meditation gatherings, and retreats.

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