Context: Losing your composure hurts you
When you lose your composure you don’t get promoted.
People don’t follow you if you lose your composure. You lose your ability to motivate or influence them.
If you debate or argue with someone and you lose your composure and they don’t—that is, if your emotions become more intense than theirs—you generally lose the argument.
People feel emotional reward when someone else’s emotions get intense. When you get the other person to lose their composure, you feel a certain reward. If you show intense emotions, you motivate the other person to do again what led your emotions to get intense. Any parent knows this because kids are great at it.
It helps to understand why emotions get intense, which I wrote about in “Why people flip out (including yourself) and what to do about it.” Briefly, emotions get intense when you don’t know how to handle something important. People who know how to handle a problem, no matter how challenging, handle it. The emotions of people who don’t know how to handle a problem will grow increasingly intense as they exhaust their skills without solving the problem.
The Challenge: How to handle intense emotions
If your emotions get intense and showing intense emotions hurts your career and ability to motivate and influence, what do you do when you sense your emotions growing intense? Or after they’ve already become so?
Two counterproductive but common tactics
A common tactic in the workplace is to do your best to stay rational. You can imagine someone growing angry sticking with a process no matter what, telling themselves they’ll handle the emotional problem themselves.
Many people consider work a place of reason, not emotion, so when their emotions get intense, they increase their focus on staying rational.
This tactic rarely works. It moves away from self-awareness, the root of every system of personal and professional development (at least that I know of), toward denial. Other people can generally sense the emotion you’re trying to hide, motivating them to continue provoking you if they’re malicious, discouraging them from following you in any case. The effort to control your increasingly intense emotions takes a lot of your attention from the problem you want to solve. You can think of other problems.
Someone who denies their emotions, if they continue to intensify, risks blowing up. Going postal is the extreme. You’ve seen people lose it and start yelling and screaming. It’s not pretty. More relevant to you, if you do it, it repels everyone who sees it.
Another common tactic outside the workplace is to allow yourself to get carried away with the emotions. This response feels spontaneous, romantic, child-like, and free. You can imagine a couple running off to Las Vegas to get married on a whim.
This tactic often leads to regrets. Reason helps us understand situations. Denying it keeps us from considering consequences to our actions. I’m sure this point is obvious to everyone.
A solution: Rational Emotion
The Rational Emotion tactic is based on the model that we have an emotional side and a rational side. I look at it from an evolutionary psychological perspective. Our ancestors evolved abilities that solved problems, had children, and we inherited from them. Their peers who didn’t have them didn’t pass theirs down. So these abilities are probably useful for solving problems, especially our social interactions with each other.
The tactic is to acknowledge both your emotions and your rationality. Then you can act optimally. You can use more of one, the other, or a mix.
If you find yourself angry at work, instead of trying to stay purely rational or lashing out in anger, you would say something like
I don’t know if you’re trying to get me angry, but now I am. Right now we have a job to do and a deadline, so we’ll get to that later. For now let’s focus on this problem.
You might even some emotion, even anger, in your tonality. The point is that you don’t hide the emotion, but you don’t let it take you over either. Trying to appear calm when you’re angry rarely fools anyone. Talking like this example is powerful—that is, it influences people effectively. For someone to feel anger but maintain composure without acting shows they have strong emotional awareness and skills. You don’t want to mess with someone like that, you want to learn from them.
Likewise, you can use the same technique if you want to run away with your emotions. Say you’re out dancing with friends, they want to bring you to an after-party, you want to go, but you don’t want to do something irresponsible. Then you might want to acknowledge and show your rational side and take care of what you have to so you can enjoy the night without worrying.
Guys, I want to go. I just have to think about what I have to take care of and who I have to check in with before letting loose.
Now you can pause from the dancing and see if you can take care of business. If you can, now you can enjoy the party more than you would have had you ignored your rational side. If you can’t, then you know you won’t regret not going out. Had you not acknowledged your rational side, you might have done something you would regret.
A teacher at Columbia Business School, Ralph Biggadike, taught me this technique. He called it “self-differentiated” leadership. Actually, it was one of the best classes I took and it was one of the best lessons I learned. I understand the term “self-differentiated” but didn’t seem to convey the meaning so I coined “The Rational Emotional Response.”