Recognising our own emotions

Recognising our own emotions and their impact on effectiveness and collaboration – the bedrock of emotional intelligence at work

The better we are at describing an emotion, the more likely we are to understand what it may feel like in another person. 

If we can imagine the other person’s feelings, we are more likely to empathise. And if we can do that, we are better placed to understand another person’s drives, motivations, and potential actions. In Dan Goleman’s excellent leadership book, “Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence”, he clearly articulates how the ability to walk in another’s shoes for a moment without judgment helps people connect to their team and customers and creates value in an organisation.

So how can we become more adept at reading our own emotions?

  • Aim for accurate labelling of your emotions; for example, “anxiety is here”.
  • Aim to label the emotion without using, “I am X”. Replace with, “I’m noticing X”.

Getting into this habit helps people develop greater emotional agility: “I am” frames the experience as unchanging and rigid. Instead, emotions come and go, and we can “mine” their information to help us learn more about what we find meaningful and our values. Emotions provide valuable data – they provide data, not directives – they are neither good nor bad.

Watch Susan David’s TED Talk on emotional agility and accurate labelling of emotions:

And check out her great book, “Emotional Agility”

Tuning into our own emotions

Being able to describe what an emotion feels like in ourselves also indicates an ability to be open to emotional information. By observing the sensation and the emotion, we allow that sensation and emotion to pass. We can learn from the emotion but not hold onto it. Through observation, we learn more about our triggers, goals, and values and how they occasionally conflict with our teammates or the organisation’s values and goals.

The better we do this, the more we can learn from emotions without becoming embroiled. In this way, we can also begin de-escalating and regulating them to express our position clearly and coherently.

During difficult conversations with people, keep an open awareness of how you are feeling. By identifying our emotional state, we can appreciate that our emotional state influences the way we think, act and direct other people.

As we focus on our physical and emotional state, we can use strategies such as slowing the breath and physical grounding to help us return to a centred place. From a clear and centred place, we can listen to, support and manage effectively.

Learning from your emotions – great sources of data for your growth

Think about some of your emotional triggers. Then, consider why they may arise.

• Which goals were blocked?

• Which memories were brought up?

• Which of your values were pressed against?

As you do this exercise, observe how does this make you feel? Consider keeping a daily journal of how these things make you feel and where you feel the sensations in your body. Then, as you observe the sensations and understand more about the triggers, use some grounding techniques and visualise the sensations and feelings drifting away. In this way, we observe and describe the sensation, understand why it arose, document the connection and then practice visualisation to allow the feeling to drift away.  

In our workshops, we explain how we relay information from the more experiential right hemisphere of the brain across the corpus callosum divide between hemispheres to the sense-making/meaning-finding left hemisphere. Documenting your feelings about a situation, gathering evidence about the situation and articulating your experience with a colleague, friend or coach enhances this ability to understand your emotions better.

The technique mentioned above is not designed to suppress the emotion but instead helps people “lean into it” and learn from it.

Interpreting the emotions intensity model

Reframing the call to action and burnout zones

During our group workshops we explore a model of emotional intelligence called the emotions intensity model – four quadrants high intensity emotions, low intensity, “negative” “positive”.

Many participants describe the “call to action zone” and “burnout zone” in very negative terms. They often label them as zones to be avoided – such as “the red zone or danger zone”. However, mindfulness techniques help us observe and own the emotion, whatever it is. 

The word emotion comes from to emote or act. Emotions arise for a reason. We can either detrimentally suppress the emotion or learn to own it, learn from it, express it and let go of it.

Reconsider your views about the “call to action zone” and “burnout zone”. Awareness of why we are in one of these zones is a source of information. For example, when we are in the “call to action zone” it may be for one or more of the following reasons:

• someone or something is obstructing us from achieving our goals;

• we have experienced a personality or values clash;

• the style of communication from a friend or colleague triggered us because it reminded us of a previous type of communication which we found disagreeable ;

• there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication;

• we may perceive a lack of commitment to high-quality work from others;

• we have incomplete knowledge of another person’s situation.

Pausing to enable mindful action and communication

We can learn to regulate our emotions by slowing down and taking a few moments to reflect; for example, by practising slowing down for a moment to engage top down, logical thinking. When we are in the “call to action zone”, we may choose to lash out or instead take a moment and observe the emotions as they arise. In this moment of self-reflection, we become empowered. This moment’s pause gives us choices: In that brief pause, we may be able to see the bigger picture and appreciate that the person in front of us is not the cause of our problems but part of the solution. We may realise that we still feel aggrieved by the persons’ actions, but in that brief pause, we can regulate our emotions and explain clearly and calmly why we feel disappointed.

We may also realise that this is not the time for confrontation but that a clear conversation will need to be had with the person when the time is right for both of you, and you are both open to different perspectives. Or we may also realise that the thing that we thought aggrieved us is not important.

That brief pause also enables us to be less reactive. It helps us access the wisdom from our professional training, personal experiences, procedural experiences, personality and intuition. It also allows us to collaborate with colleagues better.

Listen to this podcast between 36 minutes and 45 minutes – it’s a great explanation of how difficult emotions provide a wealth of information – to be learned from, rather than run away from.

Ezra Klein interview about teen mental health

I hope you found this blog useful. Let us know and connect with our Breathe Coaching and Wellbeing community.

Andy Roberts

Share these insights with friends and colleagues