As I wrote previously, every human emotion is valid. However, the story behind them might not be, and we always have the choice of how to respond to an emotion. If we want to master how to deal with others’ emotions, our own emotional mastery is the prerequisite.
Studies have shown that emotions like frustration, cynicism, enthusiasm, etc are as contagious as germs. I believe each human being acts like a tuning fork. Every emotion is like a wave, which when reaches others, either accentuates or dies down depending on whether the frequencies match or not.
When two people are emotionally reactive, even a small argument can quickly escalate into a fight. When we learn to master our own emotions, it gives us an opportunity to deal with any situation confidently. It will dampen any emotional waves and allows collaboration, even in the face of disagreement. We can strengthen our relationships with others, even in the most stressful and difficult situations.
1. Learn to Notice Emotional Build Up
Emotions are like storms. Just as we can forecast most weather storms before they strike, we can always notice and predict “emotional” storms too. If an emotional outburst of an employee is a surprise, then there were some signs we missed.
Emotional reactions don’t come out of nowhere. Just like storms, they build up over time. There are always signs, physical and behavioural, which we can observe and watch out for. If we notice these signs, we can get an advance notice of emotional build-up in people.
For example – If we notice tightening of muscles and a red face, the person might be getting angry or frustrated. If we notice a trembling voice, sweating and defensive body language, someone might be feeling scared or anxious. If we notice smiles, laughter and a relaxed body language, the person might be happy about something in his/her life.
2. Act Early. Validate What You Notice
When we notice physical signs of emotional build up in others, we must act early and validate our assumptions. Obviously, we can’t read another’s mind so whatever we assume about another’s emotional state might or might not be true. So the most prudent way is to state our assumption as just that, and ask the other person for validation.
For example – If your colleague has been quiet and detached since a few days, you can approach them and say – “I see that you have been quiet lately. You seem a bit tensed too. Am I right? Is there something which I don’t know, or can help with?” Never walk up to someone and pass a judgement, “Why are you sad? What’s upsetting you?”
Remember our assessments about others’ emotional state are just that – assessments. Mistaking them for truth could trigger an emotional reaction and make them defensive, which we don’t want to. What works for me is to state my assessment tentatively, and to always ask for verification.
3. Listen And Acknowledge. Don’t Judge And React
It is only human to be emotional. When someone opens up about their emotions to you, it is an act of courage. Don’t dishonour that act by rushing to judgement or suggestion. Just like our own emotions, acknowledge them by listening and understanding their point of view. Try to stand in their shoes and sympathetically feel what they feel.
Challenging others’ emotions is often counter-productive and makes them feel alienated and disrespected. If their emotion is directed at you or they feel your behaviour led to the emotion, you might be tempted to justify yourself. But that never helps anyone. If you can stay calm and relaxed, any emotional attack will eventually diffuse itself.
Emotions are the result of an internal fire. Reacting emotionally only adds fuel to that fire. Instead, let we can let it run out of fuel by allowing others to express themselves fully while we listen empathically.
4. Let The Storm Pass. Take A Time Out
When there is damage due to a weather related storm, we don’t rush out to do repairs while the storm is still on. We wait for the storm to pass before assessing the damage, and doing any repairs. Similarly, if we notice an emotional storm, it is always best to wait for it to pass before jumping in to help.
There have been many instances when I have been sucked in to respond to an emotional employee. I have always regretted it later as it only made the situation worse. Taking a time out often works for me. A few moments to breathe often allows both parties to stay with their emotions and come to peace with them.
I believe the best way to understand someone else’s emotions is to observe our own. Becoming aware of our own emotions can help us empathise with others. When we feel compassion for others’ emotional states, regardless of whether we agree with their reasons or not, then we are ready to take the next step — which is asking the right questions and coaching them.
5. Coach. Inquire. Ask the Right Questions
The next step is to ask coaching questions and help them understand their own emotions. By genuinely inquiring and listening to others, we can help them clarify their thoughts.
Coaching via asking open questions is about respecting people as individuals, and giving them a free choice to act in a way that is consistent with their values.
Coaching someone doesn’t mean fixing other’s problems. We don’t get to be a superhero through coaching. Coaching is about letting others find their own answers – ones they already know but have become masked behind their stirred emotions. Coaching begins with genuine care for your employees and colleagues. It is a skill which requires practice, and you get better at it with each conversation.
Depending on the emotion, the coaching questions you can ask will differ. Here are a few examples –
Sadness – What are you sad about? What did you lost? Why did that matter so much for you? How could you grieve or mourn for your loss? Is there something I can do for you to support you?
Fear – What is scaring you? What are the chances of that happening? How does that impacts you? How can you prepare better for it to minimise the damage? What else can you do to feel at peace?
Anger – Who hurt you? What boundaries did they cross? How can you express your complaint and act in a way consistent with your values? How can you put the issue behind? What would it take for you to forgive them, or let go?
Guilt – What did you do? What damage did it cause? Who have you hurt? How can you make amends? Have you apologised? How can you be at peace? Can you forgive yourself?