Intent Blog

How to Deal with Emotions in the Workplace

To handle emotions at the office you must know how to balance three issues: what is mine, what is yours and what is ours. Underneath any emotion in the office is some issue. Unfortunately, we can get so busy with the emotions that we forget what this is about. The emotions then become the topic, and we do not focus on the issue that needs to be solved.

So what should we focus on? To be successful at dealing with emotions in the workplace you really have to do two things: 1. To control the intensity of your emotions, and 2. To keep the discussion solution focused. Understanding the “path” of an emotion is to understand how to handle the emotion more effectively.

One way to understand an emotion is to think of an “emotion path” like this: situation-interpretation-emotion. Briefly: a situation in the work happens: a problem occurs; a person is angry; a person is again not delivering; an unexpected event is preventing work-flow; etc. I immediately respond to that event based on how I interpret it and the seriousness I give it. My response is not just my thoughts. My response includes an emotion, typically a negative one. The more important the obstacle/event is, the more intense the emotion. Events of small significance, or events that can be solved easier, only brings about low intensity emotions. This is the basic sequence from an event to an emotion.

Where does this go wrong? At least three places:

  • My emotion hi-jacks the thinking about the solution;
  • The emotions of the other people involved hi-jack thinking about the solution;
  • In our interactions with each other we forget the real issue. We get trapped in emotional thinking rather than solution thinking.

How to handle emotional hi-jacking at work?

  1. You: If it is to be, it starts with you. Reduce and focus. Reduce the emotional intensity of your response. One way is to immediately change your posture: relax, slow your breathing, and focus all your attention on the issue that you need to fix. The next step is to think carefully through solutions: talk yourself through a set of questions or statements that will help you get to a solution. “what is the problem?” “who made a mistake?” “whats was the mistake?” “how can that mistake be fixed?”, etc. This “talking through” will differ from situation to situation. With experience a person learns a standard approach, if you are not there yet, “borrow” expertise. Ask the expert how they go about doing what you intend to do.
  2. Other: Acknowledge and focus. It is important to acknowledge the emotion of the other person by paying attention to it. In addition to paying attention to the emotion of the other person, it is useful to remember they have just done their own interpretation of the issue. If you have time for a discussion then ask about their interpretation. If it is an emergency then agree to talk about emotions later, but focus on the solution. You might usefully add ask questions: “what is the issue?” “what are the options?” 
  3. Reduce, acknowledge and focus. Remember that intense emotions feed intense emotions. The very first step therefore is the break the pattern (called a pattern interrupt). This is applying step 1 above: if I reduce the intensity of my emotion I set the tone for others to follow. My breathing, my posture, my voice my talk interrupts the pattern; set the example for an alternative way of talking about the issue. Once I am focused on the issue and its solution, then I acknowledge the emotions of the others. We are now ready to talk issues and solutions.

There are definitely negative consequence for not handling emotions well in a work context. Some consequences of not handling emotions at work are:

  1. Emotions increase in intensity and hi-jack solution focused thinking. People talk from their emotions. This results in emotional issues becoming the focus rather than the issue that is to be solved. A price that one pays for this is that it becomes impossible to get commitment for the way forward.
  2. Intense emotions shape one’s thinking, and the words one uses. The consequence is that the thinking becomes personal. Typically in environments where people can’t handle emotions a lot of blaming happens. Problems turn into personal attachs and solution focused thinking goes out the window. 
  3. Come-backs. The issue might be resolved now, but intense emotions last. People remember the times when they were handled without respect. They file those moments when they were not cared for. These memories pop up during times when they do not serve solution focused thinking.

Handling emotions is a good investment in the workplace. Being good at handling your emotions makes you more effective. We bring emotions to work, and we take them away. We just have to make sure these emotions serve us and do not hi-jack our solution focused thinking.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.

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