REGULATING STRONG EMOTIONS

December 26th, 2017 | 137 Comments

“I’m a fiery person. I’ve always been that way. When I’m angry, I’ve learned to wait a day before responding angrily to an email. But face-to-face encounters are more difficult because it happens so quickly and just comes out. I don’t have time to make a choice.”

Eileen was newly promoted into her first leadership job at a large hospital. Her strengths lie in her clinical skills; and in areas driven by her emotions, specifically her relationship building, her passion and compassion. As a new manager, Eileen’s emotionality is clearly a strength, but is sometimes seen as unprofessional. (Like most of us, overusing a strength can become a liability.) She asked me for help in managing her sometimes-volatile emotional expression.

Eileen’s emotions arise quickly, beginning with an unconscious reaction to an event, then quickly moving from her body to her speech. So, we started by attempting to slow down this rapid response, first by locating and defining the feeling in her body. I asked her to imagine a situation in which she got angry. To facilitate locating and conscious identifying this feeling, she took two deep breaths and scanned her body for sensation. For this angry feeling, she described it as beginning with a tightness in her chest. By feeling this emotion and labeling it, she became more conscious of it. Doing this in her fast-paced workplace would enable her to slow down her response and give her a choice about how she wanted to express it, if at all.

This process worked in our role play simulation. Instead of instantly telling me that my idea “would kill the patient”, she took a breath, felt her rising anger, and came back with a more diplomatic response, something like, “I believe the clinical data suggests that that approach might not be beneficial to the patient, and might even cause her harm.”

As Eileen experimented with this new approach she started feeling more confident about being able to use it in real time. She also said that it would take work. “Work” meant that it would require concentration and focus to stay aware of her emotions.

As she thought about this, we searched for something that would motivate her to exert this effort in changing a pattern of quickly expressing powrful emotions. She stated that her relationship with me, and her commitment to our work would be motivating. I was flattered, but suspected that our relationship might not be a strong enough motivator to change this lifelong pattern. So, we searched for others and hit upon her career and her reputation. These were indeed important to her and certainly longer lasting than our coaching relationship. She believed that all three together would give her the energy and stamina to regulate her emotions and how she expressed them. She committed to trying it in the workplace. (More to come about how she succeeds in this project.)


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