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Emotional intelligence: How to help employees control emotions when triggered

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Dr Audrey Tang champions the importance of building emotional intelligence, and discusses strategies for leaders to give their team when they are struggling to control their emotions.

11th Apr 2022
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Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics said “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy.”

In childhood, rather than teaching us emotional management, we often learn that it’s not ok to have emotions – through repetition of seemingly innocuous phrases such as ‘calm down’ – and we may grow up thinking we need to suppress them. 

Yet, not only are emotions a useful message – an insight into our authentic self – and suppression of this can lead to ill health; in being able to manage them, and even make them work for us, we benefit hugely both professionally and personally.

Therefore, nurturing emotional intelligence – so that we can utilise (rather than fear) emotions – brings results that reach beyond our own sense of wellness.

Building emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence may be defined as follows:

  • Our ability to recognise emotions, responding appropriately in our personal conduct as well as interactions with others
  • Our ability to express and manage our feelings in an effective manner
  • Our ability to handle interactive relationships effectively – even if we need to express something different to how we feel inside (and ways to recharge from that demand)

The following exercises will help you become comfortable with experiencing and expressing emotions – as well as help you deal with overwhelming surges of feeling at the point of being triggered.

At the point of trigger

There is no point telling someone who is in the midst of a cortisol rush to calm down.  Instead try to engage your cognitive brain:

  1. Ask yourself, ‘Is there another way I can interpret this?” or “Is there another thing they may have meant?’ This can also be helpful in preventing us from taking things too personally, but also in recognising when we might inadvertently behave in a way that could have been misconstrued by someone else.

    By being aware that communications are only ever as effective as how they are received, we remain mindful that we might be projecting our own feelings onto a situation, rather than understanding it as it really is.
     

  2. ‘Friend’s sight’ technique:  Take yourself out of a situation, by asking yourself ‘How might X friend see this situation?’ and ‘How might they respond?’ – this may open up new behavioural choices to you. (Read more on this technique here.)
     
  3. Active Listening:  Rather than listening in order to reply (ie. thinking about what you are going to say), or to defend or argue, engage with what you hear.

    Ask questions about what they have said or paraphrase back your understanding to them which enables you to check that you have understood their meaning. This is also a great way to build rapport because the person speaking feels heard.  It can also go a long way to diffusing a situation.  
     

  4. Use affirmations: Try repeating ‘Even if I cannot control anything around me, I can control my breathing’, or ‘I know I cannot save people from themselves’.

    Affirmations can ground you and give you head space to think of your next action, and in taking that action, focus on the outcome you wish to achieve, rather than ‘winning’.

For resolution: Focus on fact over emotion 

Unfortunately, while something may not be your fault, it might end up being your problem to deal with.  

  • When resolving a situation try to avoid blame or ‘he said, she said’ by focusing on facts and evidence.
  • State the situation as factually as possible – using evidence as appropriate.
  • Set out or ask for the resolution being hoped for, and listen to see if negotiation is needed, knowing which procedures are open to you.
  • If resolution is beyond your limits, bring in someone who can help, while being clear to explain the situation to them, so as not to cause further problems in having a disgruntled person repeat themselves.
  • Outline the next steps – a sense of control can help restore emotional balance.

Emotional work outside the points of crisis

It is helpful to work on building your emotional and mental fortitude outside emotional moments, as this widens your ‘window of tolerance for’, or buffers your WTF moments.

Because our brains are ultimately designed to survive, we tend to seek, process and experience more negativity than positivity. However, because of neuroplasticity – which enables us to continually form new connections in the brain – our emotional pathways can benefit just as much from practices such as:

  1. Play: Simply for the sake of having fun (maybe put googly eyes on your stationary).
     
  2. Spend time with those who make you feel loved: You may ask the question: am I smiling  because others make me happy, or is it because I don’t want them to be sad? But either way, at least you are smiling.

    Longitudinal studies on happiness and work in the field of Positive Psychology, cite healthy relationships as a key determinant of life satisfaction and longer life.
     

  3. Adventure and curiosity: Part of being alert for threat is alertness to difference – but difference is often felt more positively. Simple actions like going a different route home, or looking at something from a different angle, even simply looking up when you’re out for a walk can also give our emotional brain a boost.

It can be helpful to see emotions as a source of power rather than powerful in and of themselves, because to make the most of them we need to channel them. In doing so our professional and personal lives are all the richer for it. 

 

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