Monday, June 6, 2016

Managing Your Emotional Thermometer

There are times where, despite our best intentions, our emotions seem to get the better of us. We get caught up in what we are feeling, losing control over our behaviours and the conversation.  Rarely does this work out for us, the end result never being a outcome we would have developed deliberately or strategically.

Some people seem to be much more in tune with their emotions, able to control their responses almost effortlessly.  They appear cool, calm and collected in most situations, maintaining an even-keeled perspective.  Although taken at an extreme this calm demeanour may appear uncaring or distanced (think Mr. Spock here), they will typically appear far more professional and credible than someone flying off the handle at every slight.

If our desire then is to manage our emotional responses better, to heighten our professional presence, just how can we learn to control emotional responses when they are something that 'just happens'?

The first step is to create a visual representation of your emotions. Consider that your emotional responses run on a continuum of behaviour from 'everything is fine' to full out 'catastrophe'. It is often helpful to picture a thermometer beside this continuum, such that the rising temperature of the thermometer is indicative of your rising emotions.

Creating this visual helps you to establish an internal emotional gauge of your responses.  Some of my clients like to attach numbers to their thermometer while others like to use colours, with green being at the bottom of the thermometer (safe zone), rising through yellow (warning) and red at the top (danger).  Whichever you choose it is important to attach some labels that fit for you, that reflect the type of emotions you are typically experiencing at each level.

Think of different instances you have experienced; what you were feeling at the time and what behaviours you engaged in.  Put these on your Thermometer chart to help you in gauging your emotional responses quickly when in future situations. Spending the time when you are calm and controlled will help you to gain the clarity and control you need during a more emotionally laden situation.
What's the temperature of your upset?

For each of the main emotional levels you have identified on your Thermometer (whether key numbers or colours), consider what practical actions would have helped you to reduce your temperature and ultimately gain control.  Some of the following suggestions from my clients may prove helpful to you in building your strategies...

  • Low.  Take some deep breaths.  Think of something positive.  Listen to calming music.  Think about what you really want/need from the interaction and listen more actively to what the other party's needs are, considering whether there is some practical middle ground.  
  • Mid.  Take even slower, deeper breaths.  Think of someone you can speak to that will be 100% supportive of you. Think of positive interactions you've had with the other party in the past. Consider whether your emotional level is warranted in the given situation.  Take a mental break with music or reading.  Take a walk or engage in something physical to relieve tension.  Repeat calming phrases to yourself.
  • High.  Breathe slowly and fully from the diaphragm.  Consciously tense and relax main muscle groups.  Leave the situation.  Take a walk to think things through.  Engage in exercise to relieve the tension. Get a massage. Write out pros and cons of what happened and attempt to develop a win/win outcome.

It's important to spend some time thinking about what techniques and activities work for you.  What helps you to calm down and disengage?  Looking at Youtube videos of kittens may work for others while for you it may aggravate you more.  Therefore the strategies you employ must be something that's meaningful for you.

I have a client that has a soft piece of fur they keep in their desk that they like to pet to soothe themselves (reminds them of their dog), another who likes to squeeze a stress ball and yet another who has specific music they find calming.  There is no right or wrong, just what is 'right' for you. Knowing what you need and require at each emotional level, before you are caught up in the emotion, helps you to activate that response and regain control faster.

Sometimes the mere act of just thinking about your anger and where you are on the thermometer helps you to regulate the emotional response, taking you from the unconscious and uncontrolled response to the realm of consciousness and control.

With your Emotional Thermometer in hand, try using the following steps to help you to manage your emotional responses more quickly and effectively in future altercations.

  1. Assess Your Temperature. When you feel your emotional temperature rising, think about where you are on your gauge. Sometimes there is a steady rise, sometimes an immediate temperature jump.  Understanding where you are currently lets you engage in the right strategy.
  2. Ask.  What led me to this state?  Is this emotional level warranted given the situation?  Is this likely to lead to my desired outcome?  Asking these questions helps you to shift from your unconscious (reactive) mind to your conscious (proactive) mind.
  3. Strategies.  Use your temperature chart to determine what you need to do to lower your emotional response.  What do you need - Now - to lower your temperature, regain control, and drive the outcome you need from the exchange? 
The earlier you gauge where your emotions are at the better.  It is far better to catch your emotions before you get caught up and invested in them.  Typically hurt and anger are two emotions that we can become moralistic over, getting caught up in justifying our reactions. The stronger we build our position, the more difficult it is to diffuse.

Using your Emotional Thermometer to help you catch your emotional responses early and deal with them quickly, helping you be viewed as more professional and capable. Great leaders aren't unemotional, they simply manage their emotions rather than be managed by them.  

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