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Monday, 17 October 2011

Emotional Mastery – 10 tips for managing emotions

In recent weeks, I have been reading an excellent book about management called “Conscious Business”, written by Fred Kofman.

Topics included in this book range from leadership and conflict management, to effective communication and accepting responsibility for one’s actions, all of which are brilliantly presented and discussed in great depth.

Chapter 8 illustrates the concept of ‘Emotional Mastery’, and was of particular interest to me, given that much of my work recently has focused on team building and conflict management.

The inability to manage emotions (in particular ‘negative’ emotions) at work is a serious issue, and one that can be extremely damaging to leadership. It is often when we become careless with managing emotions that the dark side of personality emerges. When emotions get the better of us, we suddenly revert to our biologically in-built response to stressors, threats and danger: flight, flight or freeze.

But it does not need to be this way. Yes, emotional mastery requires patience and a great deal of practice, and individual differences play a crucial role when it comes to the frequency and intensity with which we feel positive and negative emotions (the Adjustment scale of the Hogan Personality Inventory is a strong indicator of resilience, for instance). But when deployed effectively, Emotional Mastery can go a long way to prevent lasting damage to our reputation, while co-currently promoting cohesion and understanding at work.

Tips for yourself:

1) Self-Awareness: this implies taking a step back in order to truly ‘observe’ and analyse our emotion(s) with a degree of perspective. What is the emotion(s) we are feeling?  It is important to give the emotion(s) in question space to ‘breathe’.

2) Self-Acceptance:  how many times have you felt ashamed for feeling angry, or jealous? Yet being judgemental about the way we feel is counterproductive. Emotions are hard-wired automatic responses and their presence is outside our control. You can’t help feeling the way you feel, so moving towards true acceptance is cited as hugely useful.

3) Self-Regulation: now that we have taken a step back, understood and accepted our emotion(s), we can learn to regulate them. This does not mean repressing or fighting them, but simply adjusting our response so that it becomes appropriate for our audience and the environment. The ability to regulate your emotions responses and impulses (which again varies significantly among individuals) plays a crucial role here.

4)  Self-Inquiry: this step involves identifying the root cause of the emotion in order to be able to differentiate facts from fiction. Indeed, at the source of many emotions is a distorted perception of how others are treating us, or the ‘real’ message they are trying to convey. Commonly presenting thoughts such as these can lead to distorted perception. Is our emotion justified? Are we misinterpreting others’ behaviours and intentions?

5)  Self-Expression: having understood and implemented the previous steps, we are now better able to express our emotions with honesty and respect (based on true understanding and acceptance of the emotions themselves). When we are not ‘possessed’ by the emotion, it is easier for us to tell others how something they said or did triggered a specific emotional response, opening the door to honest and productive dialogue instead of conflict.

Tips for working with others’ emotions:

1) Recognition: by observing someone else’s body language and behaviour we can make ‘inferences’ concerning the emotions that they may be feeling. Again, the emphasis here is on inferences – it is impossible to read someone else’s mind, so it is important to acknowledge the limitations of our opinions. The very nature of observing how you think somebody may be feeling can lead to open and creative conversation. 

2) Acceptance: this tip can be a real challenge, especially when faced with someone else’s anger. Anger inevitably triggers defensiveness, a normal and biologically logical response (referring again to the flight, flight or freeze human response system). Still, we must accept and validate the emotions of others without judgement. This makes a lot of sense; try to tell an angry person to relax, or don’t be angry, or worse suggest that there is no need to be angry. What reactions do you think this may trigger? Yes, anger levels are likely to increase. 

3) Defusing: it is very easy to engage in a heated argument and become an active participant in its escalation. However, the best reaction sometimes is to not react at all in order to reduce the intensity of the emotion(s).  Escalation can easily lead to increasing the emotion (and the conflict) rather than defusing it. 

4 & 5) Inquiry & Listening: what is the other person thinking? Who/what has triggered the emotions they seem to be experiencing? The key here is to help others express their needs and interests in order to understand their position. We can support others in their emotional expression without sacrificing our own needs and interests.

These tips for yourself and others go some way to help us understand how emotions can be better managed; it is useful to remember however that we can’t live without emotions, nor we can make decisions without them. But, as Fred Kofman eloquently shows us, we can work towards enjoying the benefits and avoiding the drawbacks they may bring.

Andrea Facchini, MSc.
Business Psychologist

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