MANAGING YOUR EMOTIONAL SELF Related to the need to be a skilled active listener, and thus to understand what other people want to communicate, is the need to manage your own emotional self. While the idea of emotional intelligence is currently heatedly debated on both conceptual (Eysenck, 2000; Locke, 2005) and methodological (Brody, 2004) grounds, managers need to understand their own emotions (as they occur) and be able to handle them appropriately. Managers and leaders are frequently put into positions where conflict is either raging or bubbling under the surface. Frequently, tough decisions must be made. The outcomes of these decisions can have severely negative repercussions for some people—staff members might be laid off or fired, client services reduced, or programs eliminated entirely. Even if you have used active listening to its fullest, sometimes people are going to be very distraught and angry. They may yell at you, threaten you, or start other unpleasant or even dangerous situations. It is at times such as this that your ability to notice how you are feeling (angry, frightened, irritated, afraid, withdrawn, and so on) is vital. Strong emotions can result in an “emotional hijacking” (Goleman, 2006) where your feelings literally avoid the rational parts of your brain and affect your “primitive brain” directly. Such a hijacking can cause you to invoke the “flight or fight” response, which motivates you to run away or to lash out. Hormones and adrenaline are immediately released by your body, which then stimulate action without thought. While this type of reaction is important if one is about to be attacked by a predator, it has less use in a nonprofit office. Being unable to take control back after an emotional hijacking can be quite damaging to your career and have negative effects for your organization. In this type of situation, being able to note and classify your emotional state allows you to re-route your hijacked brain so that your thoughts go through the rational parts of the cortex, and allows you to regain the ability to think logically about how to respond to the perceived danger you face. It may be that you are not threatened nearly as much as you first thought. Taking the time to calm down enough to think again will usually save considerable amounts of time later on as you will not need to retrace your steps or attempt to undo hasty actions. Once the emotions are noted, they have less power to control you. You can also take four additional steps when confronted with an emotionally difficult situation at work. First, take control of yourself. If you are not under control, you won’t be able to assist others. One way to manage yourself is to breathe deeply and slowly, forcing oxygen into your system (which is good for thinking) and preventing you from rashly taking action. In situations like this, it is better to take slow steps, even taking a step back mentally, than to jump ahead quickly without thinking things through. Second, you can also take a few moments to think about how you would like the situation to end and the steps you can take to achieve that preferred end. Third, by engaging your active listening skills, you can determine what your colleague wants from the situation. This act will take time and also help pacify the other person to some extent. Finally, you can try to interject some humor into the situation. This must be genuine humor, and preferably self-deprecating, rather than a sarcastic or snide sort of joking about the other person. While not always an easy thing to do, finding a way to comment on something funny about yourself or the situation relieves tension and allows for a peaceful resolution. Many times, a mild disagreement can escalate into something much worse, a situation that causes lasting damage to relationships and job performance. These few simple acts on your part can keep communication open. As a leader, you will at times need to manage your team and their feelings in group (rather than one-on-one) situations. You must be clear about your own feelings, as noted earlier, and you can use similar techniques to bring about good results in meetings. One of the more important elements of communicating during group sessions is to be clear about what others in the group are thinking and feeling. Often, when there is conflict within a group, or as options are being discussed, frustrations arise if participants do not feel they are being heard. You need to ask for clarification and use your active listening skills in these situations. You should also ask questions and be willing to challenge ideas that are put forth so that pros and cons can be brought out ahead of any decisions. In addition, it is wise to have the group discuss issues such as what are “best case” solutions, and what alternative solutions are acceptable. By separating out these two levels of results, solutions meeting different needs or views can often be found. By modeling what you expect from others, you will help create a higher functioning group. In the end, your final decision probably will not make everyone happy. Still, if the process is open and people have a chance for meaningful participation, you can usually retain good working relationships. A final way to keep emotional hijacking from occurring is to take the surprise element out of the situation. It may not be that your fight-or-flight response is related to the actual topic (as conflictual as it might be) but rather that your emotions are aroused because of the suddenness or unexpectedness of the issue arising at that moment. It is often appropriate to take a step back and request a short break or to schedule a separate meeting time for topics with high emotional loads. You will have time to consider what you want to accomplish with the discussion, as will everyone else involved. By lowering the stress levels for yourself and others, better decisions will be made. If you have introduced the concept of emotional hijacking to your coworkers and explained how our emotions can bypass our logical thinking processes, leading to unnecessary escalation of responses to issues, everyone on the team can be on guard to keep the whole group or a member of the group from succumbing to this common problem. It can even turn into a group practice that a certain phrase can be used to signal to people that they may need to check and monitor their emotional situation. When used in this way, the power of the group is enhanced and individuals within it can be nudged by colleagues to become more self-aware and productive.
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