4 Ways to Control Your Emotions in Tense Moments
By Joseph Grenny
December 21, 2016
Twenty-three years ago, one of my employees — I’ll call him Dale — asked for a private meeting. Dale was serious and bookish and had very strong opinions. His work was fastidious. He rarely socialized with colleagues, but he was impeccable in his commitments to others. And he was skilled at his job.
As I closed the door to our huddle room, he came straight to the point, “Joseph, I’d like to offer you some feedback.”
I had expected a different agenda. But given my professions about candor in our culture, I was somewhat trapped. “Please do,” I said cautiously.
“Joseph, you are arrogant and difficult to work with. Your first inclination is to shoot down criticisms from me and others. That makes it impossible for me to do my job as an editor.” And with that, he was done. He looked at me calmly.
I compressed an hour’s worth of emotions and thoughts into mere seconds. I felt waves of shame, resentment, and anger. In my mind, I made a frenzied inventory of Dale’s defects — as though assembling a case to rebut an aggressive prosecutor. I fantasized briefly about firing him. My chest felt tight. My breathing was shallow. Through it all, I did my best to fake a composure I clearly did not feel. My tacit logic was that confessing hurt would telegraph weakness.
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.
The career-limiting habits I entered my profession with were a direct result of my inability to deal with emotions like anxiety, embarrassment, and fear. For example, I routinely procrastinated on tasks that provoked anxiety and a lack of confidence. I reacted defensively when embarrassed by criticism. And I struggled to speak up when my views were at odds with powerful colleagues.
The ability to recognize, own, and shape your own emotions is the master skill for deepening intimacy with loved ones, magnifying influence in the workplace, and amplifying our ability to turn ideas into results. My successes and failures have turned on this master skill more than any other.
But can you strengthen this core muscle of your emotional anatomy? If your impulses tend to override your intentions in cherished areas of life, is it possible to make the converse the norm?
Four practices have made an immense difference for me at important moments in my career, like this one when I faced “Dale.”
Own the emotion. Emotional responsibility is the precondition of emotional influence. You can’t change an emotion you don’t own. The first thing I do when struck by an overpowering feeling or impulse is to accept responsibility for its existence. My mental script is, “This is about me, not about that or them.” Emotions come prepackaged with tacit external attribution. Because an external event always precedes my experience of an emotion, it’s easy to assume that event caused it. But as long as I believe it was externally caused I am doomed to be a victim to my emotions.
For example, my anger following Dale’s criticism had nothing to do with Dale’s criticism. His statement could have corresponded to feelings of curiosity, surprise, or compassion as much as resentment and anger. The fact that I experienced the latter rather than the former was about me, not him.
Name the story. Next, you need to reflect on how you colluded with the initial event to create the present emotion. Emotions are the result of both what happens, and of the story you tell yourself about what happened. One of the powerful practices that helps me detach from and take control of my emotions is to name the stories I tell. Is it a victim story — one that emphasizes my virtues and absolves me of responsibility for what is happening? Is it a villain story — one that exaggerates the faults of others and attributes what’s happening to their evil motives? Is it a helpless story — one that convinces me that any healthy course of action (like listening humbly, speaking up honestly) is pointless? Naming my stories helps me see them for what they are — only one of myriad ways I can make sense of what’s happening. As I sat with Dale, I realized I was deep in victim and villain stories. I was thinking only of reasons he was wrong but not of how he was right — and I was attributing his criticism to his personal flaws, not his legitimate frustrations.
Challenge the story. Once you identify the story, you can take control by asking yourself questions that provoke you out of your victim, villain, and helpless stories. For example, I transform myself from a victim into an actor by asking, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in this situation?” I transform Dale from a villain into a human by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person say this?” and I transform myself from helpless into able by asking, “What’s the right thing to do now to move toward what I really want?”
As I pondered these questions in my interaction with Dale, I saw how my impatience and… gulp… arrogance, was a big part of why he was saying this. As I asked, “What is the right thing to do…” I felt an immediate release from resentment and anger. A calming humility emerged. And, I began to ask questions rather than present my defense.
Find your primal story. Over the years, I’ve wondered why the stories I tell myself are so predictable. In my research with hundreds of leaders, I’ve found that most people have habitual stories they tell in predictable circumstances as well. Early life experiences that we perceived at the time to be threats to our safety and worth become encoded in our potent memories.
For example, perhaps a classmate in second grade coaxed you to an unsupervised place in the schoolyard and bullied you in a traumatic way. A parent may have shown you less approval than a sibling. From these experiences, the most primal part of our brains code certain conditions as threatening — physically or psychically. And from that point forward, you don’t get to vote on whether you’ll react when those conditions are present. When a larger work colleague raises his voice, your brain might connect with the old bully experience. Or, when Dale accuses you of being arrogant, your parental criticism triggers flare. I’ve found greater peace over the years as I’ve become aware of the primal origin of the stories I tell — and learned to challenge the perception that my safety and worth are at risk in these moments. When my chest got tight sitting across from Dale, simply thinking, “This can’t hurt me” and “Humility is strength not weakness” had an immediate calming effect. Reciting a specific script in moments of emotional provocation weakens trauma-induced reaction that is not relevant in the present moment.
Dale and I worked together productively for years after this episode. I’ve failed as many of these moments as I’ve mastered — but by working intentionally on these simple exercises, my successes are far more common.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.
No Time to Think
By KATE MURPHY
July 25, 2014
ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.
When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.
And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.
“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”
The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.
Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.
It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.
It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.
“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”
The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”
But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.
“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”
Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.
Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”
Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.
“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”
Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.
“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.
To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”
Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.