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Put your negative emotions to work – in your favor

Posted January 24, 2014 • Emotional Intelligence,Leadership • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

The other day I was working with two senior executives at a global healthcare company. They came to me because they need to work together but are having trouble getting along.

It’s a familiar story: They started out as friends, but in the midst of a series of disagreements and power struggles, one said some things she shouldn’t have, and suddenly they’re on a downward spiral with no way out in sight. Both of their teams’ bottom lines are suffering, and their colleagues and other leaders are concerned.

We see scenes like this in the movies, but they are more common in real life than we realize. Anyone who manages or leads teams knows this. People cry. People call names. People yell. When our emotions are triggered, it doesn’t take much for us to fly off the handle, even in a work setting, even with superstar talent.

It can be very hard to put into words how we’re feeling in the moment. It can take hours, days, weeks, or even years to understand why we felt what we felt and why we responded the way we did. By then, it’s usually too late. The damage has been done.

But what if you could identify, in a matter of minutes (not days or years) why you are so upset, and then put it into words, rather than belting it out in a scream or a cry or an off-handed insult. What if you could say: “I’m really angry, and here’s why” or “I’m upset, and I need to take a break to cool off”?

There is a way to harness the negative emotions we feel every day and put them to work in our favor. Think of it as giving your emotions a “workout”– sending your emotions to the gym! Just like you might stop at five different weight-lifting machines at the real gym to give your muscles a workout, imagine working out your emotions at the following five locations:

Location 1:Acknowledge (simply notice) the emotion rising in you. This is much easier said than done, but it’s one of the keys to making your workout work for you, so listen up! It’s usually a feeling you get in your body: tightness in your throat or chest, a pit in your stomach, or your face feeling red or flushed. It could also be a more generalized feeling of being out of control, or wanting to do or say something inappropriate or out of character (for example, wanting to punch or insult someone when you don’t normally behave that way).

Once you know which of these sensations tends to come up for you (and which emotion it is a signal for), it gets easier to be aware of when it is happening.

Awareness of these emotional signals is the key to seeing your emotion rising as it is happening.

Location 2:Accept the emotion as valid. You may not like it, but you accept that, in reality, you are feeling it regardless of whether you like it or not.

Again, this is much easier said than done. But don’t let that stop you! It’s too easy to try to push the emotions away and pretend you’re not feeling them. Resist that temptation. It is OK to feel anything you actually do feel. Pretending you don’t feel it makes it impossible for you to transform it into something else, something positive. Besides, if you don’t feel it, you can’t go on to location 3, and you want to finish your workout, right?

Location 3:Sit with the emotion. This means different things to different people. You might decide to take a short break from whatever you are doing so you can sit and notice how your body feels (for example, where it is tense or tight); or you might experience this as going about your day knowing that you have an underlying feeling of anger or guilt or shame or sadness, and just letting it be what it is.

Location 4: When you are ready (this could be after one minute, one hour, or one day) ask yourself the following questions:

– Why am I feeling this way? What events or circumstances led to these feelings?

– Based on your answers to the above, ask: What are my emotions trying to tell me? Sometimes emotions are trying to tell us to do something, and sometimes they are trying to tell us to allow something to happen. Either way, our work is to listen to the call. For example, I might realize that I got upset when someone asked me to do something that doesn’t acknowledge my skill set, so I need to calmly tell or show them what I’m really capable of. Or, depending on the circumstances, I might need to set tighter boundaries, change the direction of my team, take a break, tell someone something they don’t want to hear, etc.

Location 5 (and this is arguably the hardest part in this series): Calmly Act. Now, you may be thinking that acting calmly is an oxymoron. How can you act, calmly? Acting means doing something, and the word “calm” connotes slowness, almost doing nothing at all. That’s right. Because when you put them together, here’s what you get: act, with care. Act thoughtfully. Act on purpose, from a centered place.

But in the end, act. Your negative emotions will only work in your favor if you act on what they tell you to do.

That may scare you, even frighten you silly. If it does, you know you did your work correctly. Because those emotions were there for a reason. They were trying to tell you something.

You can either act, or run the risk of those emotions lingering on and causing more damage.

Do an experiment. Let me know how it turns out!