How To Be Less Emotionally Reactive At Work
Whether we admit it or not, the workplace is an emotional war zone based on the sheer fact that it is comprised of humans. Our emotions are intertwined with our well-being and are often a function of our everyday experiences.
Some would even argue that it is these emotions that carry us to and through whatever career we are in today. This is a good thing. And despite stereotypes, both genders carry these emotions into the workplace.
We all know somebody whose emotions seem to fly everywhere at the drop of a hat. It can seem like they are looking for a reaction. And if they don’t get it, you are gaslighted into believing you are not doing your job. It’s a vicious cycle.
[Read more: How To Deal With Opinionated People In The Office]
Even “picking your battles” implies two options: just do it or battle it out. Sadly both come at a cost psychologically or politically at work. So what’s the alternative?
There is a truism worth remembering here: “Hot heads and cold hearts never solved anything.” To be less emotionally reactive entails arming yourself with strategies to react, but not be reactive.
S.I. Hayakawa was a perceptive writer and U.S. Senator from California who observed that we live in two worlds: one of first-hand experience and the other of verbal description.
In other words, experience as reality (what you know to be true) and communication as perception (what you do in meetings). The problem is that perception often defeats reality.
For example, a Nigerian friend of mine is on the cusp of becoming a partner at a major firm. However, clients often mistake her for an analyst when she is, in fact, the senior manager about to give a presentation. The perception is she’s not the boss, but the reality is she is the boss. A mere perception cannot change that…unless she lets their perception affect her work.
And this is the trap I see many upwardly-mobile, people-pleasing, and highly-ambitious careerists fall into. We too easily take other’s perceptions as gospel. To be clear, this is not to say you should not care what other people think. Becoming Marie Antoinette is not the answer. Rather, the key is to reframe ignorant or aggressive actions as opinion, not fact.
And move on.
- Opinion: She doesn’t look like a senior manager.
- Fact: She is a senior manager.
It is not easy. Initially, my friend did let it affect her performance. Her presentations hinted of irritation and justifiable resentment. When she realized that these emotions were hurting her prospects, she consciously let them go.
Remember the facts.
Know Your Audience
I think the source of many emotionally reactive moments lie in the frustration of not being understood. Then I would try harder. But ironically I think this natural inclination backfires when dealing with people’s perceptions.
An audience of finance analysts are not going to be persuaded by a sales presentation. They will likely roll their eyes and flip to the appendix looking for numbers. Any numbers. On the flipside, a sales team perceives a numbers presentation as useless. Throwing out more numbers won’t make a difference.
If you’re caught in the crossfire, focus on summarizing their point of view. It’s very hard for someone to be upset at you if they agree with you. For example, clarify what’s happening in the moment with, “So you’re feeling disappointed because of XYZ, is that right?” You are setting up a situation where they have to respond with yes. And the quicker you can get them to yes, the quicker you can lower the reactive intensity in the room.
And avoid clichés as much as possible. The classic example is when someone says, “Calm down.” The normal response is, “I AM CALM!” with protruding eyes and a loud voice.
This is the last thing that a lot of mentees like to hear. But it’s particularly appropriate when you feel cornered at work. When you don’t agree with what a person is saying, ask for more time to think about it or reschedule.
If time is of the essence, show that you understand their position by repeating it back to them even when you don’t agree with them. Repeating their own words back to them offers them a chance to clarify or expand on potential gaps. Ask open-ended questions. Be curious.
This serves two purposes: 1. Building empathy for the current situation and 2. Buying time which makes space for more conversation. The conversation may not always be thoughtful, but it will lessen the intensity of an immediate reaction.
Other helpful lines include:
- Help me understand…
- I don’t mean to sound critical…
- I’m trying to understand this from your perspective…
When all else fails, excuse yourself to use the restroom.
Finally, it’s important to reflect on why a situation stirred your emotions. Talk it out with a mentor who can offer some unbiased perspective. Chances are it has happened to them too.
And together, we can learn to embrace our emotions and react accordingly.
“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.”