Monday, April 11, 2016

Managing our Emotions and Driving Performance

We all have our off days.  Those days where we seem to lack the interest, energy or motivation to get out there and make things happen.  If our off days are significantly outnumbered by the days that we feel 'on', we likely don't worry about them too much.  However, when our 'off' days seem to be gaining a foothold or seriously begin to outnumber the good days, we may find ourselves becoming concerned over the potential impact of these days on our short and long term success.

We know that we perform better when we are in a positive frame of mind. It's a simple equation: when we feel good we are more likely to engage in good work.  When we feel bad though, our work suffers.  Unfortunately, many of us don't know why we feel bad, why we feel angry, sad, anxious, or nervous and, even if we do, we believe ourselves to be at the mercy of the emotion.  We don't control our emotional responses.  Or do we?

There is an emerging new field of study - Emotional Body Language - that is investigating this more fully, but know that it is based on studies that have been taking place over the past 20 years highlighting the interrelationship between our emotional and physical states.  In fact, Amy Cuddy's top TED talk of 2012, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, is a prime example of the work done in this field.  In her study Cuddy focused on the impact of Power poses on participant's physiology.

We know that our emotions drive our body language.  When we are sad it shows in our facial expressions and the way that we move and carry our body.  When we are angry that translates out into different expressions, gestures and movements.  So too when we are happy, disgusted, surprised or fearful.

What is important about the work of Cuddy and her team, and so many other studies, is that the reverse of this is also true.  You can consciously create an emotional response by engaging in certain body movements and postures.  You want to feel more confident and powerful?  Adopt stronger more powerful body language.  You want to feel happier?  Adopt the body language of happiness.
"We don't laugh because we're happy, we're happy because we laugh"  William James
Our body language drives certain autonomic and hormonal responses within our bodies which, in turn, drive the corresponding emotional reaction.  You want to feel more confident?  Stand, sit and move with confidence. The feeling will follow.  This is referred to as Self Generating Emotion.  You create the emotion you want to experience.

Certainly this is something that requires a little more than simply 'telling' yourself to be happy.  You must first understand what your body typically does when it's happy.  How do you carry yourself when you are happy?  How do you move?  How do you gesture?  What facial expressions do you engage in?  The better you understand this, the better able you are to replicate it.  The better you are at doing so, the clearer the message you send to the brain, which reads the happiness signals you are sending and creates the Autonomic and Hormonal responses that support the state you are creating. You now feel happy.

As with all things worthwhile to perfect, this takes some preparation and practice.  Two important steps in this process.

  1. Build Awareness.  You need to develop your conscious awareness of what your body does when angry, when confident, when happy.  Whatever emotion you are looking to replicate.  The easiest way is to 'dissect' your body language when you find yourself in a situation when you are experiencing the desired emotion. When you are in a situation in which you feel happy, consider how you are gesturing, how you are walking, how you are moving.  What is the position of your shoulders?  What is your facial expression?  The more detailed you can be the better and clearer the message you will send to your brain when you want to replicate this emotion.
  2. Practice.  Try adopting the behaviours and body language of Happiness (or any emotion of your choosing) when you are not feeling particularly happy.  Walk around the room in the same way you do when happy.  Replicate all of the behaviours you identified in the first step.  Try this for two minutes and then assess how you are 'feeling'.  If you've done a good job in the first step then you will be feeling and experiencing more of the desired emotion. The good news is that once you are 'feeling it', your brain will assume control of your body language, making it fit the new emotion.  You no longer need to manage it consciously.  If, after a couple of minutes, you are not experiencing any emotional shift then go back to Step 1 and assess and dissect your movements again, adding more details.  If you can arrange for video to review even better.

The positive message for each of us is that we are not at the mercy of emotions.  When we are experiencing an emotion that isn't serving us (perhaps nervousness or anxiety) we have it within us to change that emotional state to one that does (confidence).  A little upfront homework can pay off huge dividends for us by helping keep us in the emotional mindsets that assure us productivity and peak performance.  Definitely a recipe for success!

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