What should you do with difficult emotions?

As a leader you want to model the way, to set an example for people who report to you. In conflict, this means responding to challenging interactions, with both strength and compassion. This means you need an emotional foundation to stand on.

We’ve found the following perspective from a leader in the field of conflict, Bernie Mayer, helpful. He talks about a student commenting to his martial arts Master, “I don’t know how you can always stay in balance.” The Master replies, “You are wrong, I lose my balance all the time, but I know how to regain it quickly.” Mayer talks about how, in conflict, we all get thrown off balance sometimes, and triggered by what others do or say.

This is not a problem in itself. But we do need attitudes and practices that support us in quickly regaining balance and regulating emotional reactions we experience.

Our view at the On Conflict Leadership Institute is that it takes a set of practices rather than one practice to regulate emotions. For sure you have to be able to self-manage in the moment when you react or become triggered. You are having an emotional response that may be larger than what might be “normally” expected. Being a mature, developed, capable and courteous person is not enough in these situations because something from your past is driving you to react.

What do you do?

We recommend that for a few seconds you attend to the physical bodily part of your reaction. It could be tightness in your gut, a hot feeling in your chest, or some other smaller sensation. Putting your attention on it breaks your reactivity in the moment. You can use that moment to take a breath and further calm yourself. Then you can make a conscious choice about how to respond.

How you respond is a second set of practices. Ask yourself if you are ready to speak about it, or is it better to say you want to take some time before responding. Your emotional response may have something to teach you. Taking a day or two will give you opportunity to inquire into your subjective experience of the feeling and ask yourself what it means and what it is telling you. Emotional responses can be a source of wisdom but we usually need to take some time to be with the feeling.

A third set of practices is in how we talk about our emotional experience. Generally, it is better to own your emotional experience when you speak about it. “I was angry when I heard that we were not going to make the deadline because I worked hard to create and communicate a clear set of accountabilities for each person,” is probably better than, “I was very angry at you when you told me you had not completed the work required in order for us to meet the deadline.”

We love to hear your perspective about working with emotions in difficult conversations.

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