My emotions are my nemesis and my superpower. I feel deeply. Much more than the average person. It allows me to attune to people I regularly interact with, pre-empting issues early, which is probably my biggest superpower. On the downside, however, I have worked much hard than most at emotional regulation.
Emotional people act like the canary in the mine. They are the early warning system indicating something is wrong and allowing early correction if taken seriously.
The Value of Emotions
I remember walking into a team years ago where I had to deal with an overemotional team lead no one knew what to do with. My initial brief included a plan to isolate him as much as possible to protect the rest of the team.
I didn’t, however, push him away or try to isolate him. I realized he must have a very important message if he feels so passionate about it. So, I tried to understand why he was so passionate while trying to protect the rest of the team, often without success. He couldn’t express his goal in words so I had to find more creative ways to understand the underlying message he was trying to convey.
When the need arose we went into the soundproof boardroom where I allowed him to express his emotions away from the team and validate how he felt. I also had short conversations with him in the kitchen to build the relationship until eventually, he trusted me enough to share a prized possession with me. A book containing what he was trying to implement but couldn’t communicate.
After reading the book I finally understood his goal and could better support him. The emotional outbursts slowly decreased but eventually, he left, knowing he wasn’t accepted in the team. I was the only one sad to see him go, feeling I have failed him.
This story always surfaces when the topic of emotional people comes up. It keeps me humble and reminds me that the way he communicated and was received was the problem, not him.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
He didn’t know how to communicate, but his message was very valuable. The introduction of a design system – a tool the team was not familiar with before he introduced it – enabled a startup to scale rather effortlessly compared to one without a design system. A few years later design systems became the industry standard, again reminding me of how valuable his message was. He wasn’t the problem, communication was – from both sides. Management and the team didn’t want to understand him, seeing him as being difficult, while he didn’t communicate his message well enough for people to want to give him a chance.
Emotions are messengers. It carries personal truths. It is your inner navigation system that tells you whether something is right for you or not. Anger, for example, is an indication that either you are afraid of something, or a personal boundary has been crossed. Fear, on the other hand, tells you something is dangerous, or you don’t believe you have the ability to deal with something. Sadness gives you the opportunity to retreat and process loss. Disgust warns you something is physically or socially toxic. All emotions have a valuable message.
The stronger the emotion, the more important the message. The goal should thus never be to get rid of the emotion but to understand it and find more functional ways to express them.
Why People are Overly Emotional
From my own experience as well as observing and working with other emotional people, people are emotional for one reason and one reason only. They’re not being heard.
I only get emotional after I’ve been ignored at least five times in a row, mostly many more times. Each time I say or ask something without getting a response, the emotions start filling up drop by drop like water filling a glass. Until, like a volcano erupting, it overflows. Usually as a result of something seemingly small to others.
It’s a helpless cry to be heard after repeating myself so many times in different ways without getting a reaction or response.
The worst thing you can do when someone is emotional is to push them away or make them believe they are the problem. You as a leader, or team member, are as much part of the problem as the person trying to communicate.
Dealing with Overly Emotional People
The only tool you really need is the ability to listen and respond. When you listen for understanding and with full presence, people will feel heard. They won’t have to rely on extreme measures to attempt to get their message across.
For more on the art of listening, read this post which delves into how to become a better listener. The key takeaway is to translate what was heard into action, with the consent of the other person. Ask yourself how the other person will know you heard and understood them. What will you do differently as a result of the conversation? What do you want them to do differently?
Some guidelines for having a meaningful conversation with some conversation starters are outlined below.
1. Name the Emotion
The foundation of emotional intelligence is the ability to name the emotion as you are feeling it in real-time. Most people only know they’re feeling good or bad but are unable to articulate the emotion.
They are often overtaken by the auto-pilot response that the emotional triggers, much like an unexpected wave crashing on you. By asking them to name the emotion, they are asked to step out of the emotion and curiously look at it from another perspective, which in itself will help manage the emotion.
When someone gets triggered, try asking the person what they are feeling. “I notice you’re upset. What’s going on? What are you feeling?” When they struggle to name the emotion, guide them gently by asking “Are you feeling angry? Or perhaps frustrated?”
Using metaphors is another useful way to elicit emotions. “If the emotion was a thing, what would it be like?” Maybe it’s like a volcano erupting, or a fire burning, or being caged and unable to get out.
Once you’ve identified the emotion you can start a more meaningful and constructive conversation around it.
2. Make it Somatic
Another useful tool to get people out of the emotional response and back into the logical mind is by focusing on the physical sensations associated with the emotion.
“Where in your body is the feeling? What does it feel like? Is it tingling, a contraction, or perhaps a void? If it had a shape, what would it be?” are useful questions to ask to identify the emotion.
In coaching or counseling you can then use these sensations to move the energy and with that the response.
3. Contract for Safety
The worst thing you can possibly do is invalidate the person’s emotions or make them feel as if they are a problem. Rather spend a few minutes creating a safety contract, ideally before it is required, but not too soon.
Ask them what they need to feel safe. How do they process emotions? Do they need to walk away, or do they need to talk about it? Each person has a different way to deal with their emotions and to create the safety you need to understand and honor their needs.
No one wants to overreact emotionally. It is as uncomfortable, if not more, for the person reacting as for the other people involved. When you can sit down and talk about how to handle these situations before it happens, you may prevent emotional outbursts totally and strengthen trust in the team.
Some more questions you can ask:
- What happens just before you feel this deep emotion? Is there a build-up?
- How do you know the emotion is about to get too much?
- What do you need to be able to deal with the emotion?
- What support can I provide?
- What else?
4. Practice Managing Emotions
Managing emotions takes practice. Allow space for people to practice the art of emotions. In Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golemen, an excellent book containing both science and practical tools, he suggests a simple checklist using traffic lights as a metaphor.
- Red light
When you’re emotionally triggered, stop and take a deep breath filling up your lungs to full capacity. Hold it for as long as possible before slowly exhaling. Repeat if necessary. This simple exercise will help reduce the intensity.
- Orange light
- Name the emotion and how you feel.
- Set a positive goal.
- Brainstorm solutions.
- Consider the impact and consequence of each possible response.
- Green light
Go ahead and respond with the best alternative.
5. Provide Support
Emotions are part of what makes us human. It is what makes life worth living. Without emotions, you won’t be able to enjoy a beautiful sunset or a special moment with a loved one. Without emotions, you won’t be able to know when danger is lurking around the corner or whether you can trust someone or not. Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. Rather, provide support to enable people to better manage their emotions.
Coaching in the workplace is increasingly gaining popularity due to its successes and is designed for this. Consider making voluntary coaching services available in your organization. Having access to coaching will create a safe container where employees can come up with personal strategies to manage difficult relationships at work.
The average return on investment for coaching is reported to be between 5 and 7 times, making it a good choice if you’re wanting to retain the talent but improve relationships.
So the damage is done. You overreacted. The checklist didn’t work and your good intentions to control your emotions didn’t plan out. Now what?
Creating repair is one of the most important aspects of any good relationship. When you are able to create repair early on and when the issue is small, you create healthy, strong, and long-lasting relationships. Here are some basic guidelines to create repairs:
1. Start Small
Don’t wait for a big emotional outburst before you attempt to repair it. It’s much easier to put out small fires than to attempt to manage a blazing forest fire. Whenever there is the slightest discord address it and practice repair while the stakes are still low. The more you practice it, the easier it will get.
When the stakes are high you will be better equipped to successfully deal with the situation.
2. Don’t Wait Too Long
The longer you wait the harder it becomes to create repair. Respond within a few hours, or the next day to allow both parties to reflect. Never wait more than a few days, but also never push it before one of the two sides aren’t yet ready to talk about it.
3. Apologize Authentically
A heart-felt apology has the power to shift mountains. Say why you are sorry and what you would rather have. Focus on the solution, not the problem, and make sure there’s no blame. If there’s a but in the apology, it’s not an apology.
What will you do differently going forward? An apology is meaningless if there’s no intention to do something different going forward – spend time reflecting on what happened and what you can do in the future to prevent the same situation to repeat.
If there isn’t a safety contract in place yet, this would be a great time to include it.
5. Keep Each Other Accountable
The intent is easy, action is harder. Changing old habits isn’t a switch you can turn on or off. It takes practice and you will fail while you’re learning. Hold each other accountable to the contract and when someone falls back into old, dysfunctional habits, remind them gently of the contract.
This is not a time to blame, but to gently remind them of their intent and give them the space to self-correct. It’s also worth agreeing on a cool-down period before reminding them of the contract.
Emotions are valuable. It is the messenger of personal truths and the difference between a fulfilling life and a robotic existence without joy. Don’t try to get rid of emotions, rather create an environment where emotional people can express and manage their emotions in a more functional way.
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.