We can better adapt our communication when we first manage our emotions. The common expression ‘I get so angry I can’t even see straight’ has literal validity; when we get emotional the prefrontal cortex of the brain ceases to guide us.
There are three key steps to managing our emotions effectively:
- Bring awareness. Notice when emotions arise and name them in the most basic terms, such as “upset” or “tension.”
- Allow space. After noticing and naming it, be present with the emotion; let it be and do not push it away.
- Keep control. While the emotion is present, do not let it hijack control of the situation; make wise decisions despite it being present.
Picture the last time you were upset. Close your eyes and bring the situation into your mind in as much detail as possible. Notice the sights and sounds of the situation. Staying with the visualization, shift your focus internally and notice how your body felt at the time. You may even notice how your body feels right now as you visualize the upset. Commonly we notice tightness and heat in our bodies.
This exercise increases awareness of emotions for situations in the past and is good practice for dealing with challenging situations in the future. The ultimate skill is to be aware of emotions as they arise, in real time, while we are interacting with other people. This is an exercise in “noting” where we see and name what is occurring. During a conversation when you feel tightness in your body or heat rising, note what you feel and name the associated emotion with a simple word. That is it. That is the noting exercise. You can also note what you observe in others as you interact. Peter Drucker, known as the Father of Management influencing modern management extensively through his writing and teaching, wrote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Part of communication competency is the ability to ‘hear’ the emotions of others.
The second skill in managing emotions is allowing them to be, not trying to push them away. You may have noticed that trying to not be sad when you are sad only makes you sadder. Pushing emotions down has the opposite of the desired effect and makes them stronger. The skill lies in being with the discomfort of the emotion. This skill is best developed outside of communication interactions through insight meditation. Sit quietly for a few minutes every day and, after focusing on your breath at first, notice what arises in your mind, emotions, and body without trying to change anything. Inevitably, something unpleasant will arise, like a body pain or an emotion, and you get to practice being with the discomfort. With this practice, when we are in a communication interaction, we can more easily see emotions arising and let them be. This practice of being with discomfort also increases our ability to be with other people’s emotions that arise in our interactions.
The third skill is not allowing emotions to control the situation. It might be tempting to jump directly to this step, but it doesn’t work so well if you do. First awareness, then allowing, and then controlling. In Patty Azzarello’s book, MOVE, she conceptualizes valor in leadership as accepting fear that arises and still moving forward. She mentions that fear might be coming along for the ride, but we can tell it to sit in the back seat and not let it drive. We can allow emotions in without acting on them. Two techniques that may be helpful are intentionally taking an objective view and shifting your perspective to see outside of your own view. To look at things objectively, state the observed facts to yourself and avoid the back story. To shift your perspective, think of as many alternative viewpoints to the situation as possible. With both of these techniques, you don’t need to believe what you come up with; it is just the process of expanding your mind in the moment that is helpful.
An example of the alternative viewpoints technique is to generate many reasons why somebody said something you found insulting, such as “always the last one in the meeting” when you walk in late. They might be jealous that you took the time to get coffee and they didn’t; they might be trying to look better than you in front of the boss; they might genuinely want to give you feedback that this habit is detrimental to your career; or, they might just be trying to lighten the mood with a joke. I bet you can think of at least two more reasons. See how this technique broadens our perspectives?
With the three steps of managing emotions: awareness, allowing, controlling, we can move from autopilot and reactive to collected and intentional. In a calm state and with intentionality, our communication will naturally improve.
Jennifer Kammeyercombines 25 years experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes. She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates concepts and techniques in all of her teaching.
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