Have you ever had a good laugh at work?
How about crying?
Maybe you had butterflies in your stomach from nerves before a big speech.
Or maybe you got hot under the collar when a colleague didn’t finish their part of the assignment.
Every emotion we feel is there to tell us something. Are we listening?
How Does Emotional Processing Work?
When it comes to emotional processing, humans aren’t that great at it. Our base instincts kick in when we have a negative experience, and that can easily distract us from harnessing, learning from, and managing the resulting feelings. But what does it mean to process emotions?
Psychologists generally agree that there are three steps in processing emotions. Those three steps include experiencing an emotional situation, the body’s physiological response, and our chosen behavioral response. Let’s look at an example.
Step 1: Emotional Experience
You’re in a team meeting, presenting an update on an important project. One of the team raises their hand and speaks up. They point out a flaw in your work and pose a tough question you haven’t considered and can’t answer. For most people, this subjective experience would develop feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and fear.
Step 2: Physiological Response
Now, your sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response. Chemicals flood your brain and body. Your pulse and your breathing quicken as cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) are released. This all happens in an instant.
Step 3: Response Behavior
From there, we react. This behavior is often automatic and based on how we have responded to stress hormones before. In this case, you might lash out and tell the person you have it handled. Or you might go quiet and must fight every urge to run out of the room.
This is how the basic stages of emotional processing work. Obviously—not great if we aren’t paying attention.
How to Properly Deal with Emotions in the Workplace
Dealing with our emotions means processing feelings in a new way. There’s no way to control the first two stages of emotional processing. We all experience emotional moments (both good and bad) in life. And we can’t stop our bodies from responding physically. The only step we have control over is our behavioral response. If we want to change our behaviors, then we need to reframe our emotions.
Step 1: Name the Feeling
In order to resolve a problem, we must first understand what it is we’re facing. Start by identifying the core emotion—enjoyment, anger, fear, disgust, or sadness. From there, dig deeper into more specific feelings. You can use a list or even a thesaurus to find the right words.
(E.g., I am feeling fearful because I am embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer.)
Step 2: Listen to the Feeling
Feelings are there for a reason, and we should never simply push them to the side. We must name them, confront them, and see what they mean in our lives. This requires continually asking, “why am I feeling this way?” until we reach the underlying message the feeling is showing to us.
(E.g., I am feeling embarrassed because I wasn’t prepared.)
Step 3: Interrogate the Feeling
We’ve identified our feelings and listened to what they are telling us. Now it’s time to turn things around and start taking control. Remember, not all negative emotions are “bad,” and our goal is not to feel enjoyment 24/7. Rather, we must constantly question ourselves if the feeling is helping or harming us.
(E.g., My embarrassment is helping me learn that I was not prepared with all the information I should have had.)
Step 4: React to the Feeling
The final step to harnessing our emotions is to choose a reaction. Wallowing is not an option. Instead, we should look for ways to resolve our situation and move past the emotion without it overtaking us.
(E.g., I can move past embarrassment by learning more so I am confident in my knowledge.)
Now, you have new stages of emotional processing to turn to when you experience negative emotions in the workplace. If you’re interested in learning more about reframing your emotions, then I invite you to explore Take Command, a Dale Carnegie book, written by myself and Michael Crom. This new book brings Dale’s teachings into the modern world, giving us new principles for leading our business and our lives.