Turn Raw Emotion into Productivity

One of the hardest things I’ve found in my career has not been learning new tools or functions, but rather learning how to translate my emotions into productive conversations in the workplace.

It’s no secret that many people carry stress related to their work life, which can at times stir up certain emotions. We can’t always prevent that stress from surfacing, but we can control how we respond to it. Not being able to advocate for yourself or surface the triggers of your stress productively only causes more problems. While there are many amazing books with helpful tips, much of what I’ve learned has come through trial and error in my own experiences. Sometimes I have failed to represent myself well, and sometimes I’ve had very productive conversations with my colleagues.

Reflecting back on the conversations that have gone well, I’ve identified it boils down to four main steps. If you find yourself getting emotional in the workplace, try these!

1: Feel how you feel

No one is asking you not to be human. You cannot mute your feelings when you walk into the office. It is normal for your brain to generate a response to situations that arise. That said, it’s important to refrain from sharing those raw emotions as your actual feedback to your team and leadership. You need time to process your thoughts and feelings so you can have the most productive conversation. Something that has stuck with me through the years is what a manager once told me:

“Liberty, the feedback you provided was relevant but because you delivered it with so much emotion — the person couldn’t hear it.”

No one really ever explained to me when I started out in my career that there is a difference between how you feel and what you tell people about that feeling. I think back on the early days of my career and realize how much more productive my conversations could have been had I understood this. Now, I challenge myself constantly to reframe my feeling into an objective statement rather than just stating my feeling outright.

Emotional Response: “I don’t like this change because it’s bad.”
Objective Re-statement: “This change in its current form creates some challenges for me that I would like to address.”

Action Item #1: Take 5 minutes to think about something that caused you stress today and identify how it made you feel. Then, challenge yourself to objectively re-state your raw emotion.

2: Talk to your confidant

There are many scenarios as a working adult that can cause stress. It’s pretty hard to work through tough changes alone. As everyone who’s ever been through a company merger knows, there’s a lot of ambiguity and change involved. In fact, there are countless scenarios in the workplace that are accompanied by those same components. Many adults in the workforce have been through work situations that are similar to what you’re going through right now, and they likely have advice they can lend. If nothing else, they can be a sounding board for how to approach the situation.

Maintaining a network of people you trust and can rely on for sage advice is critical. Personally, I process through talking and often find a conversation with one of my confidants helps me organize my thoughts and makes me better prepared to handle the situation at hand. They often offer perspectives that I had not considered, which gives me a better understanding than I had previously.

Action Item #2: Reach out to a trusted colleague and set up a time to grab coffee or drinks.

3: Organize your thoughts

Raw emotions and thoughts are rarely productive. As mentioned in the first bucket, re-stating your emotion objectively is an important first step. That said, you still need to take time to organize all your thoughts and understand what’s underneath your initial reaction. You can organize your thoughts many different ways, but I’ve found it usually boils down to three basic categories: Problem, Possible Impact, Possible Solutions. Typically, a strong emotional response to change occurs because it doesn’t address your concerns or specific pains. If I’m honest, sometimes I have let my emotions get the best of me and I can’t articulate what my pain point is. When challenging myself to define it, there are times I’ve found that the change isn’t as big of an issue as it originally felt. Regardless, organizing your thoughts will ensure that you can properly advocate for yourself and communicate clearly what you need.

Let me give you a personal example:

A couple years back, we were in the middle of a big project rollout at work that involved my whole team. I was trying to keep the team focused on the task at hand. A colleague of mine was distracting my team from accomplishing the work they needed to do, and in doing so undermined a decision I had made. My raw emotional response was anger and frustration. If I’m being candid, I wanted to walk right up to that person and give them a piece of my mind. Instead, I stepped away from the situation to find a better way to address it. I spent two hours writing up an email to the person who caused the distraction asking them to be my partner and help me create a productive environment for the team. To this day, I still look back on that situation as one of my proudest moments and most productive conversations.

  • Problem: Team not following instructions
  • Impact: Unproductive and disengaged team members, support requests not being handled in a timely manner
  • Solutions: Reduce distractions, improve partnership, lead by example

Action Item #3: Take 5 minutes to understand and organize your thoughts. Write out the problem, possible impact, and possible solutions.

4: Present your thoughts objectively

When you have to surface feedback/concerns that seem at odds with a recent decision or change, it can be difficult to do so objectively. Remember that the people you need to surface your concerns to don’t often have the same perspective that you do. It’s your job to walk them through from your perspective and help them understand the day-to-day impact and pain points. Additionally, because you know the ins-and-outs of how the situation impacts you, you are uniquely positioned to know what some effective solutions might be. If you’ve taken the time to organize your thoughts and surface them objectively, the conversation is far more likely to be successful. It’s also important to reinforce your feedback with positive intent. Most people want things to work out, and they need to know that’s what you’re aiming for as well.

The last thing you ever want is for someone to feel attacked by your thoughts or feedback. Naturally, we all get defensive when we feel we’re being attacked. Another way to present your information is to ask yourself, “How would I want someone to approach me about this?” More times than not, this gives you a chance to pause and think about things from their point of view and create a better way to surface the information in a neutral way.

Objective Phrases:

  • Here’s what you’ve asked me to do
  • Here’s what is preventing me from accomplishing the task
  • Here’s what I need to be successful
  • Here’s where I need your help
  • If I take on this task, here’s what else is impacted
  • Here are the possible risks/challenges
  • Here are some possible solutions or levers we could pull

Positive Intent:

  • I want to meet your expectations
  • I want to deliver a great experience
  • I want this project to be a success
  • I’m excited for this new challenge
  • I’ll do whatever it takes to make this work
  • I want to be partners on this
  • Let’s work together to figure this out

Action Item #4: Take 5–10 minutes drafting up an email presenting your thoughts and feedback.

It’s important to remember that building these skills takes time and practice. Every interaction, whether good or bad, is a learning opportunity. If you have a really productive work conversation, identify what made it go well and replicate it in future interactions. If you find that you have let yourself down in how you handled a given situation, take that as a challenge to improve the next one that arises. We’re only human, and it’s up to each of us to keep growing and learning.

Action Item Recap:

  1. Think about something that caused you stress today and identify how it made you feel. Then, challenge yourself to objectively re-state your raw emotion.
  2. Reach out to a trusted colleague and set up a time to grab coffee/drinks to talk through a recent challenge.
  3. Understand and organize your emotional thoughts/response to a recent challenge. Write out the problem, possible impact, and possible solutions.
  4. Draft up an email presenting your thoughts and feedback objectively and with positive intent.