Handling emotional responses – Part 2

So in part 1 we tackled getting up the gumption to even have conversations that might trigger an emotional response.   And yes,  I know its not easy but there is such positive benefit that can come from having those conversations that we really need to not put them on the side line.

So now that you have worked up the courage to have the conversation, what do you do if the other person has an emotional reaction?  How should you handle it?

1. Remember emotions are just data

Half the time what trips us up in these situations is that we get emotional in response.  In the coaching and training world we call this being ‘triggered’.  Something happens in a conversation that triggers someone to have an emotional response, and then because that person is emotional, they do something or behave in a way that triggers the other person to become emotional.  And then we end up with a ping-pong effect where each person is triggering the other.  Not great.

So how do we break that?  Well, its a mindset issue.   Often we get triggered in response because we take the person’s reactions personally.   Someone cries and we think “oh god I made them cry” and we shut down as a result.  Or they shout at us and we go into protection mode and shout back “don’t you talk to me that way” or any number of other responses that aren’t going to help further constructive conversation.    So you need to ready your brain for the possibility that an emotional response might happen and detach from it.

I do this by reminding myself that emotions are just data.   

No matter what response I get from the other person, I am looking at it as information on what is going on for them.   By putting it that way, I am focused more in analyzing the response than internalizing what they said.  So if they shout, then I think .. “Okay,  looks like they are angry.  What are they shouting about?  that might help me understand why”.      If they start to cry I think “Okay, so it looks like they are sad, or maybe disappointed.  I need to provide some comfort and then explore why”.

That is all emotions really tell you – the degree of significance of something to someone and whether it is ‘good’ in their head (and you get a positive emotion)  or ‘bad’ (and you get a negative one).   Thats it.

The rest is all in YOUR mind.   Which  I will comment on briefly….

The more that you know and understand about what triggers you, the better  you can manage yourself in any situation you find yourself in.  I know that I have two main triggers, and knowing that means over the years I have been able to put the brakes on the emotional response that happens when someone triggers me .  Well, most of the time!  I’m not perfect either.  But that awareness is really key, so if you’re not sure what triggers you,  it would be worth getting in touch.  We can spend some time with you on that piece so you are better able to manage yourself and your impact going forward.


2. Help the other person regain control

So you’ve managed not to get triggered in response. Brilliant!  Now, you need to help them regain their composure. Generally two things work well in this situation (or as well as anything will) :

a)  displaying empathy, and

b) asking kind questions that explore

Empathy is key.  Empathy is a key leadership trait full stop, but in these situations it is the diffuser.   Showing someone you care about how they are feeling is key to regaining the centre, trusting ground in your communication.    One thing I do hear people say is “I can’t say I am sorry because then they will think I am saying they are right and they aren’t”.   We need to try to get away from that thinking.  In these situations, “right and wrong” and “good and bad” don’t help much.   You can empathize with someone without affirming their viewpoint.   What do I mean by that?   Well…

Imagine you have to have a conversation with someone who is frequently late coming to work.  When you address it with them, they seem to get angry.  Their tone goes up, they stand up, get red faced and start saying things like “this is so unfair, you’re only picking on me because I have kids.  Other people come and go all the time but I don’t see you having this conversation with them!.  This is bullying!!”

Firstly,  don’t let the ‘this is bullying’ be a trigger.  Because for some people it might be.

Secondly, you can empathize with the person without agreeing with them.  “I can see how angry you are about this and I am sorry about that.  Can you sit down and we can talk this through some more?”    You are in essence apologizing that the person feels badly rather than agreeing that you have been unfair in your treatment.  And honestly, I do feel sorry when someone cries or is angry so saying sorry for that is real and genuine.

Don’t be surprised if your first acknowledgement falls on deaf ears.  You may have to say something a few times to get past their emotion and have them hear you.   The calmer and more empathetic you are, the more likely you are for them to hear you.


3. Ask them what they need

Once they have started to regain some of their composure, ask them what they need at that point to be okay.   You have a need to explore what just happened by asking kindly framed exploratory questions, but they might not be in the headspace to do that.  So ask.  “What would you like to do right now?  Do you want to keep talking or would you like to come back to this at a later date?”     Be clear though, that you can’t leave the conversation there.  You need to come to a resolution on whatever you were discussing AND figure out what the triggers was so you can (jointly) avoid having similar blow ups in the future.   So if they say ‘come back later’ let them know when they can expect you to follow up with them again.  And when you do,  the empathy and honestly rules still apply.

Once they are willing to continue the conversation, ask KINDLY about what happened.  Noticing and naming is a great place to start, and remain calm and empathetic while you talk.   “So when we last talked you seemed to get quite angry about the situation.  Can you talk to me about that?”     Listen to their answers,  and listen to truly understand them and not to respond to them.  If you do that, your follow up kind questions will appear e.g.     ” So you said you didnt like how I phrased the issue. What is it about what I said that was challenging for you?”  and no matter if their temperature rises again, you are always the one to stay calm and empathetic because after all, emotions are just data.     The more you can find out about each other, the better you will work together.

And that, in a nutshell, is it.   Though I know, it sounds simple on paper and in practice its hard.  But you do need to practice.   So try it out.  If you would like to practice with us first! or want us to help you figure out how to handle emotions at work or difficult conversations, get in touch at contact@ethree.ca or click here

You  might also want to check out some of our other blogs and our free resources to help you on your journey!   but whatever you do, don’t put the conversations off, because it never, ever makes them better.


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