Why people flip out (including yourself) and what to do about it

The pattern: overly intense emotions

We’ve all experienced someone losing their cool around us. People flip out. They scream or raise their voices. Or, alternatively, sometimes they withdraw and act depressed or powerless. They make rash decisions. They get difficult to be around, etc. Sometimes you’re the one whose emotions get out of control.
Some people describe the pattern as “being emotional.” Since I say people are always feeling emotions — calmness, satisfaction, and laziness being emotions, for example — I specify that losing your cool means your emotions became intense.

The problem with the pattern

Intense emotions override other emotions and rational thought. People feeling intense emotions react without thinking — the opposite of leadership.
You don’t like working with people like that. One of the few times you do is when you’re negotiating against them, because you know when they flip out, you’re in control and you can get a better outcome for yourself.
Meaning you don’t want to flip out yourself. You probably want to be able to help bring the intensity of people’s emotions, including yours, under control. The first step in learning to prevent emotions from getting too intense or bringing them under control is learning why they get that way.
By contrast, you probably do like being with people who stay calm under pressure. You want them around when problems arise. You’re happy to pay employees like that more.

What causes emotions to get intense

Emotions become intense when you feel you can’t do anything about the situation — that is, when you feel powerless. Emotions motivate you to interact with your environment, so more fully you can say

You feel intense emotions when the world is one way, you want it to be  another, and you don’t know what you can do about it.

The intensity may show up as an active emotion like panic, anger, and rage. Or it may show up in passive emotions like sadness, depression, or helplessness.
Experienced, capable people’s emotions don’t get extreme and intense. When you know what to do, you do it, so you don’t show intense emotions. It makes sense — when you face a problem, if you know how to solve it you’ll solve it. When you’re getting things done, your emotions focus on getting the job done. They don’t uncontrollably grow in intensity.
That’s why you hire experienced people and pay them more. They have solutions to more types of problems. Fewer things make them feel helpless meaning fewer things cause them to lose control of their emotions.

What you can do about emotions getting too intense in others

Say you’re with someone whose emotions are getting intense. Obviously I can’t give a general solution. Each case is unique.
Broadly speaking, however, you can recognize why their emotions grew intense. When you understand the reason, you can address the cause, something they generally won’t explain themselves, especially in the throes of the emotion.
You can start by trying to understand their perspective. You can try asking them questions to find out

  • How do they see the situation like and how do they want it?
  • Have they solved problems like it before?
  • Do they need to change it?
  • Do they have access to anyone else who can help?
  • Do they think they have any chance at solving it, especially if their emotions weren’t so intense?
  • How bad are the consequences if they don’t solve it?
  • Can they see the situation another way? Can they change their models and beliefs about it?

When you find out the situation from their perspective you can act more effectively and lead them to being more effective.
Keeping your emotions from getting overly intense will generally help. As usual, I recommend “Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can.”

  • Can you bring in more experienced people?
  • Can you access someone with more experience for advice?
  • Can you temporarily reduce their emotional intensity enough to find a solution?
  • Do you need this person now? If not, can you remove them from the situation so the more capable people can get the job done?
  • Can you help them change their beliefs or models?
  • Can you help solve the problem?
  • Can you help them see how to solve the problem?

For future reference, you may want to see how you can prevent such situations from happening. Can you hire more experienced people?

What you can do about emotions getting too intense in yourself

Most of the questions and behaviors for how to lead others apply to leading yourself. You can start by recognizing your emotions got intense because you want the world to be different than you see it and don’t see how to change it.
Look inside and seek to understand

  • How do you see the world: what are your beliefs and models?
  • How do you want the world to be?
  • How bad are the consequences if you can’t change it?
  • Can you take a problem-solving approach?

If you can approach the situation as a problem to solve

  • Can you change your relevant beliefs and models?
  • Can you see the situation, even if you don’t see how to solve it, as something building your experience and skills?
  • Have you solved problems like this before?
  • Has anyone? Can you access them or see how their solutions could help?
  • Pausing usually helps. Your emotions’ intensity will drop if you can divert your attention. When you come back, the lower intensity may help you see solutions you missed in the haze of the intensity.

Emotional awareness in general helps. Naturally, I recommend reading about and practicing my Model and Method.

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