I recently had a team ask me if emotional displays were appropriate in the workplace. When I asked them what they meant, they shared with me that one member of their team would sometimes cry when discussing topics that were relevant to her work. I took the time to explore the situation with the person. I concluded that her behavior resulted because some team members didn’t see the issue in the same way or feel as passionately as she did about the situation that was being discussed.
When we consider the appropriateness of emotional displays, the expression of emotion could be placed along a continuum from aggressive or “hot” to passive or “cold.” Obviously when someone begins to shout, demean, or use derogatory terms, the person who is confronted by such behavior will usually respond in two ways: they will respond in kind and meet “hot” emotion with “hot” emotion, or they will completely shut down. And the conversation? The effectiveness of the conversation in the presence of such behavior is severely diminished. People either become derailed, or they choose not to say anything for fear of the consequences. Such behavior negatively impacts others’ ability to communicate. So what happens if others display an emotion such as crying?
Although crying is not the same as the aggression often displayed in a heated situation, an episode of such an emotional display has the same effect. People are not comfortable with emotions that they don’t understand, and they don’t know how to get past the emotional reaction to understand what is driving that behavior. In this instance, crying has the same effect on others as a “hot” emotional reaction with the addition that people often view those who cry as weak.
Here are some steps to help you when you experience a strong emotion or when you are confronted by the strong emotions from others.
If You Are Emotional
If you are the one who frequently becomes emotional, here are a number of steps you might consider:
1. Be aware of what’s happening with you. If you start to feel that you are losing control of your feelings, or if your feelings are starting to control the content and delivery of your conversation, then you need to do something immediately, particularly if the conversation is beginning to spiral out of control. It’s important to be aware of the moment that the conversation begins to go awry. You might consider doing some serious self-reflection and identify when, with whom, and with what topic you start to become emotional. That is a great place to start.
2. Take a deep breath. When our emotions are “hot”, we usually go to a non-thinking, reactive place in our brain. We also stop breathing normally which robs our brain of vital oxygen that is required for more rational thought. Remembering to slow down your breathing does two things: it forces you to access the more rational part of your brain in remembering the prompt and if you then breathe you will provide the oxygen that is necessary for higher level thought.
3. Excuse yourself. If you find that your feelings are getting the best of you, then simply excuse yourself in the moment. You could say something like, “You know I need to spend some time thinking through what we’re discussing before we go any further.” Or, you could conveniently remember a meeting or an appointment that slipped your mind and postpone the conversation to another time. If you can’t manage yourself in the moment, then you must remove yourself from the situation before you say or do something that you will regret later. Simply apologize and leave.
4. Assess the source of the force. Because emotion is the mask of meaning, the challenge becomes to identify what is driving your emotional response. Negative emotional reactions occur because you are perceiving that the other person in the conversation is violating something that is important to you. To identify what is driving your emotional reaction, simply finish the sentence, “I’m upset because...,” as many times as you can. This skill is designed to bring your subconscious musings into the light of day for further examination on your part. This is not always possible to do in front of other people. So if that is not possible, be sure to use this skill in a calmer moment when you can reflect and learn about the emergence of your feelings.
5. Do the personal work. The previous skill must be put to good use prior to or after a negative emotional episode. If you take the time to surface your thinking, then you can challenge your thinking or perception for accuracy. You will find that once you have done this a few times, you will likely find that your thinking is not only incomplete, but also inaccurate. By putting this skill into practice, when a similar situation arises you will find yourself becoming less emotional and not assuming the worst and reacting negatively in a situation that you may not even understand.
If the Other Person is Emotional
Managing this kind of situation is often much easier than managing yourself. Here are some steps to follow if you find the other person starting to react emotionally.
1. Be aware of what is happening with them. Are they turning red? Is the volume in the conversation beginning to increase? Is the person displaying a number of nonverbal behaviors that tell you that they are becoming upset or that they are beginning to disengage? Observe the behaviors of the other person in the conversation and notice their broadcast message. Once you notice what is happening in the moment, then you are in a position to do something about the situation.
2. Don’t take their emotional reaction personally. Remember that their emotions say more about them than they do about you. Why? Because their emotions were created by the way they are interpreting what is happening in the moment. It is natural to fight fire with fire, but such a reaction does not extinguish the blaze.
3. Be patient. Sometimes it takes a while for a person to become more in control. The person’s feelings are not yours, so you must be willing to let the person have some time to become more rational. If you don’t have the time for the person to gain more control of themselves, or if their reaction is causing you to become emotional, you are better off excusing yourself than telling them to calm down or, “get a grip.”
4. Make an empathetic statement. Acknowledging a person’s feelings has the effect of reducing the emotional intensity of those feelings because their brain will tell them that you are trying to understand them. Empathy is easily expressed by asking yourself, “What would a person have to feel or think to say or do that?” Use your answer to that question to make an empathetic statement. It might sound like, “I can see you’re upset about not being included on the new work team.” Notice that in this statement, you are simply reflecting whatever emotion that you see and guessing at the meaning behind the emotion.
5. Ask questions. If you offer an acknowledgment of their emotion and their emotional intensity does not subside, try asking a number of open-ended questions that they must think about to answer you. Asking questions is the easiest way to help another regain their rationality because they are forced physiologically to go to another part of the brain to answer the question. This should reduce their emotions or defuse their defensiveness. Also, ask them what they wanted and why. The “what” questions will help you understand their objective, and the “why” question will help you understand what is most important to them.
6. Work through the issues. Once you have clearly identified what is important to the person, take the time to understand and explore the other person’s issues and concerns.
We all have feelings. Sometimes our feelings or the feelings of others can erode the effectiveness of our interactions. If you or another begins to become emotional, whether that emotion be anger or crying, you must simply ask yourself if the presence of an emotional reaction is hindering the effectiveness of the conversation or not. If you answer in the affirmative, then you need to manage the situation in order to achieve the outcome you desire, even if you must withdraw from the conversation for a while.
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