Succeeding in Emotionally Charged Situations
The only progress you can make in emotionally charged situations is dealing with emotions.
Emotionally charged people may want you to fix things. If you’re able to change frustrating processes or procedures, do it. But, fixing may reinforce negative behaviors.
The person who gets what they want, after throwing a fit, learns to throw more fits.
Enable people to address their own concerns. Avoid solving “for.”
Defusing strong emotions:
A Leadership Freak reader asked, “How can I defuse emotions?”
- Defusing seems arrogant, even though I suggested it yesterday.
- Validate and affirm emotion seems better than defuse.
- Don’t ignore or belittle emotions. Do yourself and others a favor, stop pretending everything’s okay when in reality it isn’t.
- Explore values. Anger indicates we care deeply about something, for example.
- Ask, “What do you want?” Emotionally charged people frequently blame others and forget what they want.
- Ask, “What can you do to get what you want?”
- When possible, postpone; allow time for feelings to cool.
- Avoid threatening postures, step back a few inches. “In your face” doesn’t work.
- Invite them to sit with you. Sit to the side rather than front on.
- Create open space between; remove barriers.
- Lower your voice.
- Soften your tone.
- Talk while walking slowly.
- Follow up, if you postponed. Some emotions – if not addressed – grow destructive with time, bitterness for example.
- Step back and explore the big picture. It’s not about sides.
- Avoid being pressured to make decisions.
It takes at least fifteen minutes, usually more, for the impact of adrenaline to subside.
Adrenaline raises your heart rate, fuels aggression and reddens your face. Additionally, your voice gets louder and your hands get shaky. It’s all normal but not always helpful. I suggest you get away until your biology settles down. Go for a slow walk.
How do you succeed in emotionally charged situations?
To neutralize a situation, I model the behavior I’d like to see in others.
I was a sales executive before becoming an executive coach. One morning, a high profile client called me at the office. I served this client very very well. For no apparent reason, Dave the customer, began complaining. His voice was loud and animated.
My first thought was there must be something going on in Dave’s world that has nothing to do with me.
After 10 minutes, I calmly (#10 and 11 above) asked, “Dave, how can I help you today?” There was a 10 second pause on the other end of the phone. I diffused the situation. I burst his bubble, took the wind out of his sails, etc.
Since that call, I became Dave’s friend.
You show us the wisdom of not getting sucked into the emotions of a situation and staying focused on forward movement.
Thanks for being a regular contributor and sharing your insights.
Where was item six last week when I needed it? We were dealing with someone who’s emotions seemed out of scale to the situation. I have a feeling if we asked, “what can you do to get what you want.” We would have gotten better results and less blame scattered around by emotional person.
I notice the skilled way you crafted your opening sentence. It might have read, “where were YOU last week”
You make me think about the usefulness of focusing on issues and concerns and not making it personal.
I know you didn’t intend to do that… but thanks.
Emotionally charged situations can at first appear to be very intimidating and can almost cause a lot of people to react. The discipline here is in not reacting but remaining proactive, breath, listen and think.
Emotionally charged people, are exhibiting the behavior associated with childhood. A change, challenge or situation has impeded their ability to assimilate the information rationally and logically and thus results in an emotional outburst. At that given time, they are unable to articulate the hurt / pain in a rational manner. We all are culpable of this dependent on what flicks our emotional switch.
These outbursts usually last a small amount of time with a rational albeit somewhat emotional adult. So it is best to let them vent within reason, as this will take the steam out of their emotion. Allow them to come down a little and try to find the common denominator in the situation. What happened to make them react in this manner. What flicked their emotional switch to overload and how can you address this balance proactively and diplomatically.
People usually react in this manner because they care deeply about something, but usually are unable to actually articulate what it is unless it is delved into a little.
At all times retain your own control – try not to get suckered into the emotionally charged energy.
I’m thankful you are a regular contributor here. I appreciate your insights.
Among other things, thanks for bringing the term “vent” to the table.
You have my best,
Dan thank you, it is an absolute pleasure. I am definitely fast becoming an avid “Freak” and just find it such a captivating interactive learning medium …. to gain new perspectives and to “vent” a little of my own ……. then it makes sense, when written, why I view the world the way I do …….. makes it all simpler ….
Great points to try, I usually let them talk and most of the time if I say nothing the stop in about one minute. I then ask “what is it that I can do for you?” they usually stop for a few seconds and then respond in a calmer manner. This has worked 98% of the time for me.
Great seeing you again…
I love simplicity and you’ve given it. Silence followed by “what can I do for you.” Bingo.
Thanks for sharing your own practice.
A lot of the conflict I’ve seen at work is “role conflict” in which individuals perceive that another’s actions are a personal attack and not the result of someone’s awkwardness in handling a situation in which conflicting objectives put people at loggerheads. I have had many former combatants tell me how much their “enemy” has “changed” now that he/she has a new assignment that doesn’t put the two of them at odds with each other. Occasionally, I’ve come across a genuinely destructive individual who plays a win-lose game and won’t play win-win. I advise managers to get rid of them without delay. They are toxic.
One of the most common themes when people are angry is to find someone to blame for what has happened. Blaming is usually destructive and seldom useful – it creates a “I’ve been wronged” and “someone did this to me” dynamic that is disempowering. You will seldom get agreement from combatants on who is to blame for a situation that engendered anger. Don’t waste your time on this.
State clearly that placing blame and focusing on events past is seldom productive. The way to remedy the situation is to forge agreement on what must change going forward. Then focus on defining the conditions and getting agreement on behaviours needed for future collaboration. Sometimes, people will spontaneously apologize for their role in a misunderstanding when they can see how well this is working. But even if they don’t, agreements to change that are followed up to ensure they’re followed through can work wonders. Reinforce changes by affirmation.
Thank you for sharing your insights.
I’m 100% on board that the path forward is found by following the path forward rather than wallowing in the past.
Figure out what you want or what needs to happen. Identify core behaviors and activities. Affirm what is working and hold people responsible when they screw up. KaCHING…
All the best,
Dan, this is a great reference piece. The ideas are as applicable to life situations as they are to business situations… maybe more so, as many people hold themselves to a different standard of conduct at work than they do in everyday life. Well done.
Excellent post and excellent comments above. I agree, that aggressive behaviour is fear based – they feel threatened in some way. Diffusing the sense of any threat by asking how you can help is a superb idea. Akin to dog training – rewarded behaviour trains the behaviour so simply giving in to demands will promote that attitude (something learned from childhood no doubt). By being non-threatening it’s possible to change the state of mind. I thought the comment about waiting for 15 minutes was valuable too.
I step back and think. Sometimes I write it or down, listen to music while not really listening to the music, and/or take a walk to meditate on what God would have me to say, do, or act.
Sitting to the side rather than front on is the male version of a non-confrontational posture. Women prefer to be faced and looked in the eye, otherwise we feel that we aren’t being listened to. There’s a great chapter that describes these phenomena in “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation”.
Love your blog.
Agree generally with the thrust of the conversation, however the positive emotions are neglected.
A passionate leader who shows emotions positive and negative is inspiring to me – maybe because I try to remain calm and reasonable but don’t achieve it.
However on the flip side I am very easily motivated, enthused etc
I was told once that there are really only two main emotions that drive all our behaviours – fear and love.
The older I get, the more apparent this is becoming to me.
Thanks again for wonderul conversations.
Clara has hit an important point here. Someone prone to outbursts will burst out the positive too. Yet others not programmed this way, are likely to play it cool most of the time, even when thrilled with what is happening. This embedded preference can lead to expectations in others’ behaviour and, if we don’t have those expectations met, we get distracted, “What’s wrong with them?” The drama club doesn’t go down well at the poker school and vice versa.
To defuse is to risk disrespecting the other person way of communicating. Instead I think the goal is to channel the energy into positive emotion and progress. Aim to convert angry critics to raving fans.
Thank you, Colin and Clara. I’m reading this because I’ve made a series of complaints to my supervisor, who did many of the above techniques, “defusing” me at the time. They were complaints about specific things co-workers were doing that undermined my work and created a chaotic workplace in general. My supervisor seemed to listen sympathetically and dealt calmly with the problems, bringing improvement and more order. But now, in my Performance Evaluation, he’s scolding me for “judging” my colleagues and encouraging me to forgive them! I’m fine with my colleagues now, but apparently he doesn’t see that. And I feel blindsided by his written comment, which he never warned me about verbally. What can I do? If I bring it up to him, I don’t trust that his in-person and in-writing behaviors and comments will be the same.
Dan I also love this blog of yours, although most of the time I am a ‘lurker”/reader only, this time I feel its wise to add a couple of cents. Beware of trying to be counselors. And dont assume that because someone else is angry that it is obviously their own problem, or that they are the one needing fixing. Strive for dialogue not right/wrong or win/lose. Suggestion read the book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, McMillian, Switzler. McGraw/Hill. Its insightful and points us towards ourselves not the other person, when conversations involve high emotion, high stakes and diverse opinions. Although it is much more human to believe its their fault– and while that may be true- it doesnt fix our problem or the purpose of our dialogue!
Jack Douglas Cerva
Coach / Facilitator
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Enjoyed reading this article. I think some emotionally charged people can just drain and suck the life out of you in the office. I