4 Ways to Control Your Emotions in Tense Moments


TL;DR Summary

When a colleague suddenly gave us a critical assessment or accusation, our primal sense tends to rush our brains to counter that personal attack. Our mind will be in a frenzy while assembling our case to rebut the “aggressor”.

Some physiological changes we’ll feel are tightening chest and shallower breath.

However, before we proceed, it’s important to note that many situations like this are life-changing situations. Many bad decisions in our lives are driven by impulse decisions in moments when we are unable to manage our negative emotions.

Similarly, the most consequential progress can be made by developing emotional competence and applying it at these moments.

It is important to recognise and shape our own emotions in order to deepen our relationships and amplify our influence in the workplace. Following are 4 practices that can help you make a difference:

Own the emotion

You can’t change an emotion you don’t own. The first thing to do when you feel the overpowering, negative emotions is to accept the responsibility for its existence. The external event always comes before the emotion, so it can be easy to assume that the event caused it.

The external event always comes before the emotion, so it can be easy to assume that the event caused it. However, believing that will cause you to be a victim of your emotions.

An “accusatory” statement can either lead to anger, resentment, surprise or curiosity. Whichever emotions you feel, know that it’s your choice.

Name the story

The best way to detach yourself from the event and start taking control of the situation is to name the stories:

  • Victim story: emphasises your virtue and absolves you of any responsibility for what’s happening.
  • Villain story: exaggerates the faults of others and attributes what’s happening to their evil cause.
  • Helpless story: convinces yourself that any course of action is pointless.

Naming the stories helps you to see the situation for what it really is.

Challenge the story

Once you’ve named your story, ask questions that challenge the story. For example, if you’re experiencing a villain story, you could ask “Why would a reasonable, decent person say this?”. If you’re experiencing a helpless story, you could ask “What’s the right thing that I can do now to move towards what I want?

As you ponder these questions, you will feel released from the anger that you’ve felt. As a sense of calm appears, it’s time to start asking the “accuser” questions to clarify his accusations, rather than presenting your defence.

Find your primal story

Take a break and ponder upon your past mistakes/experiences based on these steps. You might end up finding a pattern. You might find that the stories that you told yourself are predictable.

That’s because of your early life experiences i.e. those experiences that have helped you when you’re young by providing a sense of safety and worth. Those early life experiences ended up being encoded in your potent memories.

For example, you could have been bullied by a loud-mouth kid when you’re young. That could have caused you to be defensive. The same emotions could be triggered when you are yelled at by a colleague.

As you find the primal origins of your stories, you will feel a greater peace as you are now able to challenge the perception that your safety and self-worth is at risk (Hint: they’re not).

Find a specific script that has helped you to reconcile with your primal story (e.g. “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe.”). Reciting that during those tense moments can weaken your trauma-induced reaction that is not relevant to the present moment (i.e. Your colleague is probably not gonna punch you).

Notable Quotes

An overwhelming majority of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life were impulsive. They weren’t errors of faulty logic or ineffective deliberation. They were avoidable mistakes in moments when I was unwilling or unable to manage potent negative emotions. Likewise, the most consequential progress I’ve made in my development as a leader has been not in professional but in emotional competence.

Early life experiences that we perceived at the time to be threats to our safety and worth become encoded in our potent memories.

Recommended Reading

Recommended Book - Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry, Jean Greaves

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7-minutes read

Source: Harvard Business Review

Note: HBR only allows free access to 4 articles/month

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