How to Master Emotional Responses in Professional Situations

How do you respond when someone upsets you? Makes you angry? Pushes your buttons?

What if that someone is you? How often do your thoughts run away with you, carrying you off into a downward spiral of negativity?

Today I want to revisit and expand on a previous article, which you can find right here.

Why so much attention on communication?

In short, it’s essential. Your ability to communicate effectively is your most critical skill. More so as a manager or leader…

Your ability to produce results as a leader is constrained directly by your ability to communicate with your team, peers, and superiors.

I’m not one that fears the impact of artificial intelligence on humans and their ability to remain gainfully employed. So, I believe you will need these skills forever.

If you find yourself biding your time waiting for a sentient robot to take your job, work on these skills for the benefit of the people around you. Those people may likewise be lamenting the loss of their livelihood to those damnable machines.

At the very least, the depth of your discontent will be adequately and fully understood.

When we let our emotional response to a situation override the logical inputs we typically use to converse and react to the people around us, bad things tend to happen.

Of course, if you control those emotions too tightly, you may be confused with one of the robots mentioned above.

There is a balance to be struck, but let’s first look at some examples of bad behavior driven by emotions sans control.

This already sounds like a reality TV show…

If you have never reflected on your own actions as you interact with people, you may be confused by my continued reference to bad behaviors.

I expect you’ll be nodding along and agreeing with me shortly, however. Unfortunately for all of us, I think we’ve all seen these types of interactions in the workplace.

Unnecessarily Escalation and Outbursts

Disagreements are a natural part of any team — or other groups of people. So much so in fact that if you never have constructive arguments, you likely want to question the group makeup. If it’s your team, your hiring process probably needs some attention.

If you never disagree on anything, where do your new ideas come from?

But, disagreements can be unproductive as well, and sometimes they get out of hand.

When emotions run high, it’s not uncommon to take the escalated action of running to a higher authority with an emotionally charged account of the other person’s transgressions. Usually, this is done in the hopes of winning an ally that will support your cause.

Sometimes, of course, escalation is necessary. Too often, however, it feels more like disgruntled children looking for adult mediation.

Escalation is not the only outlet you’ve probably observed here. Another possibility is a generalized blow-up. Restraint and tempered thoughts are abandoned, the walls come down, the gloves come off, and we say a bunch of things we shouldn’t, and can’t take back.

Emotions are what drive us to cross these lines.

Whining, complaining and negative talk

I have to believe we all fall into this behavior from time to time.

Sometimes, you just need to let off a bit of steam about a person or situation. You need to vent…

We let this get out of control when we don’t realize we are doing this. It goes on for too long. It’s taken steps too far.

Emotions are what drive us to cross those lines as well.

Pranking co-workers and Passive Aggressive Behavior

I love a good joke as much as anyone. Ask my wife. She’s been tolerating my sense of humor for decades.

I’m not referring to good-natured fun that both parties participate in equally, and generally use as a way to build and express camaraderie.

No, I’m talking about the types of pranks that are more funny-not-funny. They probably look similar to those of the lighter nature. They may even be identical, except for one key element.

The relationship between the people involved determines the impact and tone.

Food coloring in a co-workers coffee where a stable relationship exists, and everyone can laugh about it is one thing. The scenario is quite different when inflicted on someone who we have a barely cordial relationship with.

I see this type of pranking as passive-aggressive behavior. The instigator can mostly shrug off any adverse reaction with a deflection, “It’s all in good fun…”

But is it?

The list of passive-aggressive behavior is, of course, much broader:

  • Persistent sarcasm
  • Overly critical responses
  • Withholding well-earned praise
  • Avoiding communication entirely or ignoring proper channels
  • Refusing to share resources or time

And so on, all driven by emotional responses to a situation or relationship.

Don’t be that person…

This litany of bad behaviors could, unfortunately, go on forever. Like reality TV, it’s not worth our time. Yes, I have a strong bias against reality TV, but that’s a discussion for another time.

You are a better person than I’ve described here.

Let’s continue looking at ways we can maintain control of our emotions, and hence our conversations and interactions.

You may be questioning what I mean by control of the conversation. As much as we may like to believe we don’t have a plan when we engage in conversation, it’s rarely true.

Controlling your emotions, and more specifically, your response to those emotions puts you in control of the conversation.

The same description of control can be applied to your relationships, and even more broadly, to your life.

Again, I’m not trying to turn you into an unfeeling robot-esque shell of a person.

I want you to be more intentional about how and when you use your emotional responses. And, in doing so, ensure you are not letting your emotions instead use you.

Another critical point to consider is your mental and physical energy. Have you ever been exceptionally angry with someone over an extended period?

It’s exhausting.

Where else could you have spent that energy? Somewhere positive, productive, or generally promoting activities that improve your life?

Yes, please. Let’s do that.

How then do you find this calm, controlled person that you hope is living somewhere inside you?

The first step is recognizing responsibility.

You obviously can’t control other people’s behaviors. You can, however, control your response. A fire without hour is suffocated and dies. Treat negativity and over the top emotional outbursts the same way: don’t get them any air.

This is a skill that, like any other worthwhile activity, requires practice to master.

Here are some tips, tricks, and practices you can adopt to help.

Meditation

I recently took the Gallup Strengths Finder test, and a good friend of mine broke down the results and helped me understand what they mean.

If you aren’t familiar, you can learn a bit about them here.

I’m a hardcore pragmatist. Let’s just say you need a map and specialized tools to find my belief in “woo.” So you may be surprised that I’m recommending meditation.

Well, now I’ve given away another secret about me. I like to keep people guessing…

Not really, but if something works, I use it.

If you have an interaction with someone that usually sets you off meditate quickly before, and if they were true to form, after as well.

You don’t need a robe, or a guide, or a special place. Just take 30 seconds to do whatever you need to do to find a sense of calm.

Preparation

Let’s come back to your control of yourself, rather than those external button pushers.

Often when our emotions take over, it’s in response to our own perceived failure or surprise at the given situation.

Someone hits you with a question you are entirely unprepared to answer. A manager asks for an explanation of results you simply don’t have ready. A customer wants to discuss a particular failing in your business’s delivery of service.

It’s hard not to respond emotionally to these things. They are surprising, angering, embarrassing, uncomfortable…

Preparation is the key to success here. Take the time necessary to try to foresee what you may be asked in an upcoming interaction.

Often this means spending some time thinking about what would surprise you. Try to identify what you don’t know. Being aware you don’t have an answer for a particular line of questioning, but recognizing that it may come up takes that emotional sting off when it does.

Keep your agenda in mind

We all have a plan or desirable outcome from any conversation or interaction.

Keep that front of mind as you respond in an ongoing conversation.

Focusing on what you want, what you need to say, and how that will affect the final outcome keeps you centered on moving the interaction in a positive direction. As opposed to letting your emotions take over, and quickly forgetting your purpose.

Focus on what you need and why you need it. It gives purpose to your own control, and that instantly makes it easier to achieve.

Practice a bit of empathy

Here we go with the “woo” again. I guess I’m not as much of a lost-cause pragmatist as I think I am.

When someone else is misbehaving, I want you to try a straightforward exercise.

Practice putting yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes with one question:

Why are they behaving this way, and what’s driving this response?

Ask yourself what could be motivating them to act as they are. How can you help, or at the very least, diffuse the situation?

The truth is when people exhibit emotional behavior towards you, it is rarely actually about you.

It’s about them, and something they are dealing with.

Pursue positivity

This tip reiterates something we touched on earlier as we looked at the cost of our emotional responses, and how draining that can be.

Recognizing that, I now want you to find ways to pursue positivity actively.

Consider how you talk and the words you use. How many negative word choices do you make in your everyday speech? Don’t, can’t, won’t, etc.

Change your default use of language. At the very least, bring it to light and be more intentional about the words you use.

Do the same for the company you keep and the activities you pursue.

Remove anything that harms your mental state, and that is within your power to control.

Don’t neglect your health

Too often we argue that we don’t have time to look after our health, considering all the other things we have to do.

This is a logical fallacy of the worst kind.

You don’t have the time to not look after your health.

If you think you are busy now, and you can’t find the time in the day you require, just wait. When inattention to your health lands you in the hospital, what effect do you suppose that will have on your ability to get things done?

That’s an easy, if extreme example. The benefits of looking after your health are more subtle and impactful than merely keeping yourself out of the hospital.

Endorphins are real, y’all. (I live in the south now, I’m pretty sure it’s a regulatory requirement that we say y’all wherever appropriate.)

As you look after your physical health, grudgingly or otherwise, don’t neglect your mental health either. While both are intricately related, they do need separate attention.

Unplug when you need to. I don’t mean from electronics alone, as I’m horrible at this, but from work.

Set reasonable hours for yourself to get your work done and stick to them. Working more and burning yourself out is no benefit to you or anyone else. Your long term productivity and achievements will quite likely be less than if you took the time needed to keep yourself healthy.

Trust me on this one.

Ask for help

Final point, and admittedly I don’t do this as often as I should.

I’m working on it. Don’t be like me!

If you need help, advice, or support: ask for it.

As you get better at being the calm center of every interaction, the list of people who are willing and able to help you will continue to grow.

Once you’ve done the work to cultivate healthy relationships with the people around you, don’t be shy about using those relationships appropriately.

Ask for help.

Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should also be open to giving the same help when needed.

You know the rest. It’s printed on shirts and noised about the internet as a meme daily.

Calm is the key to remaining in control.

Whether you are dealing with stressful situations at work or responding to a dire emergency, calm will serve you well in any situation.

Build yours and put it to good use.

You’ll thank yourself for doing so.

I hope you enjoyed this, and if you want to see more from me, I invite you to join my group of Intentional Leaders here.

I hope you join us, and I look forward to sharing your leadership journey.

Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.

When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.

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