Master your emotions

13 August, 2018

Learn to manage your feelings – instead of letting them manage you!

I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them….
~ Oscar Wilde

With several of our leaders, I find that their emotions get the better of them. While most of us have the occasional “bad moment”, left unchecked, wayward emotions can lead to dysfunctional behaviours and be very unproductive for leaders.

Therefore, it goes without saying that managing emotions effectively is crucial to good leadership. Just think about the leaders you admire – in business, sports or any other arena. Do they give free reign to their anger or anxiety in stressful situations? Or do they stay cool and collected?

Traditionally, dealing with emotions was seen as unnecessary or even as a sign of weakness in leaders. In fact, some people still hold this view! But the reality is that each of us already has an active emotional life, and not paying attention to it is a huge lost opportunity. If you don’t govern your emotions, your emotions will end up governing you – even though you may not be aware of it.

So, my message this week focuses on the steps you can take to master your emotions.

The idea isn’t to get rid of your feelings; rather, it’s to understand the triggers and manage them more effectively. According to renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman, this ability becomes even more important as you climb the professional ladder, because 80-90% of the competencies that distinguish successful leaders are built on emotional intelligence.

It’s no surprise that a growing tribe of leaders around the world are discovering and harnessing the benefits of emotional mastery. Chip Conley, a successful hospitality entrepreneur, attributes his accomplishments largely to his well-honed emotional skills. He’s even created a new definition of CEO: Chief Emotions Officer. Senior leaders, explains Conley, are like “emotional thermostats” for their organisations – their moods and feelings have a massive impact on the work environment. In other words, when leaders learn to regulate their emotions, everybody wins.

Here are some key recommendations for better managing your emotions. Remember, we all have emotional baggage and old habits that are tough to overcome, so don’t expect instantaneous results. However, with a bit of patience and practice, you’ll definitely notice a change in yourself.

1. Notice and label

“And how does that make you feel?” – most of you will recognise this as a therapist’s most common question, depicted in countless movies and books. That’s because it’s the starting point for emotional self-awareness. In order to regulate your emotions, you first need to notice and recognise them. Get into the habit of pausing, checking in with yourself, and naming your emotional state. You could also try to pinpoint the source of your feelings. For example, if you find yourself getting extremely annoyed during a meeting, ask yourself: is my irritation being caused by this discussion, or is it a lingering effect of the argument I had with someone earlier today?

Many people try to just “power through” a bad patch, but this is unhealthy and – ultimately – counterproductive. If you ignore negative emotions like anger and frustration, they will continue to build up…until you finally lash out at whoever is closest or engage in some other self-destructive behaviour.

2. Expand your emotional vocabulary

In her TED article, Try these two smart techniques to help you master your emotions, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes that one of the best things you can do for your emotional health is develop a nuanced emotional vocabulary. Don’t stop at broad-brush terms like “happy” and “sad”. Are you “content”, “hopeful”, “delighted”, “inspired”, or “ecstatic”? Are you “disappointed”, “dejected”, “regretful”, “gloomy”, or “disillusioned”? The more emotional concepts you’re familiar with, the more flexible and useful your emotional responses will be. (Plus, people with a finer-grained understanding of feelings go to the doctor less frequently and are less likely to be hospitalised for illness.)

Learning new words is the most straightforward path to a broader emotional lexicon – you can do this by reading outside of your comfort zone, listening to high-quality podcasts, or simply browsing the internet. Don’t limit yourself to the languages you know. Foreign-language words can introduce you to brand-new ideas. (You can get started with this wonderful compilation.) With access to a wide range of emotional concepts, you can start to identify feelings with greater precision – not just your own but also those of other people.

3. Stop being a victim

You may think, “But I’m an inherently anxious person” or “I just can’t help being irritated by X, Y or Z”. If so, you’ve cast yourself as a victim with no control over their own emotions and reactions. You’ve absolved yourself of all responsibility, placing the blame somewhere else. You’re also wrong: scientists have found that the emotional circuitry in the human brain isn’t fixed. You can change the way you process and respond to emotions. To kickstart this process, you need to get out of the “victim” mindset. Remind yourself that you’re the one in charge: own your emotions and recast yourself as a leader instead of a victim.

4. Recategorise and reframe

In the above-mentioned article, Barrett explains that it’s possible to recategorise how you feel. Say, your heart is racing and you have butterflies in your stomach before an important speech. Instead of telling yourself how nervous and scared you are, you could recategorise these sensations as excitement and anticipation. The way you choose to see your emotional state can actually change the way you feel. Situations, too, can be reframed. For example, if someone snaps at you, you could get angry and escalate the conflict – or you could simply tell yourself they’re having a bad day and let it go.

5. Write it out

Dr James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, has studied the connection between writing and emotional health for 40 years. His research shows a clear link: people who write about emotionally significant experiences are able to process them better, increasing their mental as well as physical wellbeing. Articulating your emotions helps you make sense of them and gain fresh perspectives.

To hone your emotional skills or to negotiate an emotionally turbulent period, you could try expressive writing. Dr Pennebaker advises writing for 20 minutes at a time, for at least four days (consecutively, if possible). Choose a topic you consider emotionally important. Once you begin, write continuously: don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just focus on putting your feelings down. And remember, you’re writing only for yourself. When you’re finished, you can destroy the entry or store it carefully – whichever you prefer.  (For an in-depth look at expressive writing for therapeutic purposes, read Dr Pennebaker’s book, Opening Up By Writing It Down.)

6. Fake it till you feel it

Your physical state has a tangible impact on your emotional state. For instance, even if a laugh is forced, it still releases endorphins and lifts your mood. Getting into a high-power pose makes you feel stronger, while mindful breathing immediately calms you down. So, if you’re battling negative emotions – fear, anxiety, anger – change your body language. Try a power pose, go for a walk, or place both your feet on the ground and focus your attention on how they feel (this is called “anchoring”, a mindfulness technique that helps you relax). To learn more about how body language can affect brain chemistry, watch this fascinating TED Talk by Amy Cuddy.

7. Align reactions with values

Your emotions can reveal your deeper values, which in turn can act as guideposts for your reactions. In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Manage Your Emotions Without Fighting Them, Susan David offers a great example:

You need to give some difficult feedback to one of your direct reports. You’re anxious about the conversation and you’ve been putting it off…. In examining your emotions, you realize that one of the values behind your procrastination is fairness. She’s a strong employee, and you just don’t want to be unfair to her. So, you ask yourself, how does having or not having the conversation either bring you toward or move you away from your value of fairness? Looking at the situation in this light, you can see that giving her the feedback and helping her to succeed is actually more fair to her-and to your whole team- than caving to your anxieties. You’ve been able to unhook yourself from the thrall of your immediate emotions in order to make a better choice that is true to the values that underlie them.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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