Post No.: 0788
It’s difficult to resist anger or hatred (or indeed love, lust and all the other kinds of emotions and feelings) when they just come, and sometimes we shouldn’t. But if we learn about and become better aware of how emotions affect our bodies (the hormonal changes, our autonomic nervous system, etc.) and vice-versa, we gain the power to be in better control of ourselves. Something may be happening in the environment, such as a person being noisy – but how we respond to that stimulus will be in our control once we’re consciously aware of our emotions as they arise.
Now the amygdala can signal emotions before we have any conscious awareness of what’s going on, thus the mind may have made a decision to act before we have any conscious awareness of making a decision, hence our immediate responses to stimuli may not be voluntary but instinctive (like flinching or saying, “Ouch!”) – but once we gain conscious awareness of what’s going on inside of us and how we’re behaving, we can gain control of how long and intensely these emotions last and how we respond.
Our fast-paced, deadline-dense work schedules make this difficult but it firstly requires mindfully paying attention to your emotions and the physiological processes in your body (e.g. your constantly furrowed brow or slumped body posture) as they arise. Be aware of what you’re thinking about – literally describe and label how you’re feeling (e.g. frustrated, frightened, grateful or at peace). Finally, seek to gain perspective on how you feel (e.g. that these emotions are only temporary, about only specific contexts, they don’t define who you are but can be growth opportunities, and reflecting on whether there are alternative ways to handle similar situations?)
One risk, though, is that directly reflecting on our emotions might lead to detrimental repetitive rumination. Hence a better way to gain perspective on our emotions is to view them as we feel them from a third-person or outside viewer’s perspective (‘self-distancing’). This can stop you from becoming swept up within your thoughts on what someone said or what happened, as you metaphorically take a step back from them. You can also ask broader questions to uncover the root causes of your distresses and find constructive solutions to, or closure from, them from a more holistic point of view (e.g. when understanding that something happened in the past but isn’t still happening anymore). Although it may feel unnatural to talk to yourself in the third-person – even just in your own head – research suggests that it can help you to confront difficult feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them. Eventually, you might be able to use this kind of self-talk during difficult events as they’re unfolding, such as during a high-pressure task at work.
We might realise that our angry barking at another individual, for instance, was really due to the shame of us losing a game and the fear of being labelled as a loser. Likewise, if someone else suddenly roars at us, they might have their hidden reasons that aren’t the reasons they’re vocalising at us. Someone might be more stressed over some detail than you’d expect, but that’s only because they have OCD or some other anxiety disorder? So when a child is throwing a tantrum, they might actually need our comfort and reassurance rather than being told to calm down or punished for screaming. This would be a fine demonstration of emotional intelligence. Post No.: 0757 was about EQ.
Not taking an experience as a personal affront (i.e. maintaining a healthy degree of ‘self-other’ distinction) works similarly to self-distancing, and is linked to healthier emotion regulation and more supportive behaviours.
Modelling emotional intelligence is vital for parents and leaders. If a father believes it’s weak to talk about his own bullying experiences as a child then the message to his own children is that if they’re being bullied at school then they should keep it to themselves too. Is that what a father wants?
‘Emodiversity’ – or more specifically feeling and expressing a variety of different positive emotions like happiness, enthusiasm or calm, and not just simply feeling and expressing more positive emotions – might improve well-being too.
The emotion we’re currently feeling implicitly biases our minds to seek and highlight information that we feel is most pertinent to the problem or opportunity that the emotion is meant to help us cope with. So since anger is about confronting a known injustice, feeling wrath orients us to blame someone or something. Sadness typically concerns a loss that we had no control over, and this inclines us to notice external situational factors more. Delightful surprise primes us towards considering what’s unpredictable. Moments of pride focus us on our own personal strengths and capabilities. Due to cognitive ease, we’re more trusting or sure when we’re feeling happy, and more critical or cautious when unhappy.
So emotions affect attention and action. When we’re feeling crestfallen, we tend to welcome new possessions; perhaps in an implicit effort to restore one’s underlying sense of loss (hence the risk of ‘retail therapy’ and debt). We’re also more likely to be willing to pay higher prices for items, and choose to take less money today than more money tomorrow (hence the vulnerable are more at risk of exploitation). Disgust produces the opposite effects. Emotions affect memory too. More affectively salient events will be remembered more easily. (What’s salient will be individual to each individual though e.g. someone who goes to celebrity parties regularly may not easily recall all of the times they’ve met a famous figure.) Since memory is an act of present reconstruction – memories are retrieved in a way that align with how we currently feel. So recalling prior experiences or knowledge of things that evoke sadness is easier when we’re feeling sad, for instance. Therefore emotion and cognition are intertwined. Specific emotional states shape how we process information and think, which ultimately guides decisions. Thinking can impact emotions too. We can ‘work ourselves up’ when we over-think things (up-regulation), or think about events in ways that attenuate or even change our emotions (down-regulation).
This all means that emotional self-awareness, instead of falling prey to absent-minded reactions, is critical to success – we can notice emotions as they arise, account for the biases they’ll incline us towards, try to connect them to their true root causes, prevent displacing them onto any false causes (like innocent people who just caught you at a bad moment), and select the better routes to proceed.
We can up-regulate and savour our positive emotions by sharing them with others. But be careful because trying to force ourselves to feel more positive emotions, or becoming obsessed with seeking pleasures, will backfire. It’s about finding the right balance. Perhaps it’s about ‘prioritising positivity’ – so putting yourself in more situations where positive emotions are more likely to naturally arise. Can your work be made more fun, more conducive for flow, gratitude and pro-sociality?
While fear generates uncertainty, anger generates (over)confidence. Angry people are more likely to place blames upon individuals rather than institutional/societal structures or luck. They’ll tend to minimise how dangerous risks are and thus take overly risky gambles. And they’ll possibly rely on more stereotypes. So fur-ious people may be more eager to act, but they might act in unbefitting ways – both in the moment and through carry-over effects, where perhaps if you felt vexed when leaving your house on the way to work, you might be more likely to blame a colleague for a mishap, whether or not they really had anything to do with it.
Meanwhile, gratitude can make us delay gratification more and increase diligence in our work; as can expressing compassion for our future self (visualising ourselves in the future and considering how our actions today will affect us then) and feeling pride in our efforts (as long as this doesn’t venture into fuzzy hubris). Pride in one’s work can make us persist in doing a good job. Gratitude, compassion and pride in our efforts nourish our social relationships too, which leads to more happiness and success.
Emotions like disgust, contempt, anger, guilt, pride, gratitude, awe and compassion guide our moral compass. Brain damage to areas related to processing emotions can lead to an acquired sociopathy. Many moral quandaries don’t have objective answers (e.g. whether the rights of the mother-to-be or yet-born-child should take precedence if they conflict) but emotions help break the deadlock for us. Our gut will tell us whether we’re going against what we, personally, feel is right. Sound reasoning still ultimately matters more – but it’s precisely through reasoning that we understand that emotions crucially matter when it comes to our moral convictions. (Philosophical practice hinges upon reasoning, and it’s about the logical arguments we apply when trying to justify the conclusions we reach, more than what those conclusions are.)
Empathy is like an arm around the shoulder and a reassuring, “I hear you.” Empathy enables us to make choices and decisions that better enable integration, coordination and collaboration, like towards greater collective gains – which is essentially what work is about, whether we work in an organisation or try to understand and meet the unarticulated needs of clients. Our own and other stakeholders’ concerns are considered. When we interact with somebody who is more empathic, we feel heard, validated and understood – we consequently feel more trust, closeness and motivation to cooperate. Empathic people are also better at reading the room – and so are more effective communicators. Empathy lies at the heart of social understanding. Woof.
Despite all this, empathy isn’t normally explicitly emphasised in business contexts. Apathy is regrettably the response most endorsed in workplaces i.e. don’t take it personally – it’s ‘just business’. And immense work pressures, being in a hurry, comparing our own (assumed higher) levels of stress with other people’s stresses, and being jealous of other people’s joys, have a tendency to dampen empathy too. Because our brains have limited attentional capacities, this self-focused narrative means we pay less attention to signals and information coming from other people. It’s of course also more difficult to express empathy when we’re feeling tired or angry.
Empathy requires successfully reading other people’s emotions. So pay attention to the facial expressions and body language, the words, vocal prosody (rhythm, stress, intonations) and vocal bursts, non-verbal gestures and touch, of others. And meet them where they are. Pay attention to these things emitting from yourself and how they may be affecting others too.
Non-verbal gestures can be broken down into illustrators (dramatic gestures like hammering your fist in the air every time you state a point), regulators (gestures that coordinate communication between two people like nodding your head as someone else is speaking), self-adaptors (nervous gestures like restless fidgeting) and emblems (gestures that are culturally specific like the ‘OK sign’ with your hand – so be careful).
Empathy is vital during negotiations, when leading and when building trust and credibility. But we tend to overestimate our ability to be able to read emotions accurately from other people’s faces. It might be more reliable if we just focus entirely on people’s voices? It’s certainly trickier trying to decipher emotions accurately from short text messages (with or without emojis or emoticons) than from voices or facial expressions. So when a message appears ambiguous – it’s best to assume good intentions; otherwise don’t jump to conclusions but seek for more information. Virtual communication technologies are undoubtedly useful and are advancing but, for the most important interactions, the richness of face-to-face communication cannot yet be matched.
The right kinds of touch – which depends on the context, culture and individual (and animal!) – can build trust, encouragement or give comfort, like feeling more affirmed in your work after your boss pats you on the back (good boi me!) Touches are commonplace in team sports, such as after a teammate scores a touchdown. The wrong kinds of touch will produce the opposite effects however.