Strong emotions can derail even the most stable leader, given the right timing and circumstances. When we feel we’re at the mercy of our rage, anger or resentment, we react swiftly, only to have regrets later. We stay on the hamster wheel of anger, reaction and regret, promising to do better next time.
The problem isn’t our emotions. The problem is mismanagement. Emotional triggers hijack decision-making, increasing the probability of unnecessary conflict. The key to changing this self-destructive pattern is self-regulation.
Self-regulation isn’t about suppressing, avoiding or appeasing. Self-regulation is part of the “inner game” of leadership that helps you shift from automatic reaction to intentional response.
Below are two practices to help you achieve self-regulation — emotional integrity and cognitive restructuring.
There are distinctions between emotional awareness, emotional intelligence and emotional integrity. Emotional awareness is being aware of how emotional energy processes through your body. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control and express emotions and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and with empathy.
What makes emotional integrity distinct from emotional awareness and emotional intelligence is intentional transparency. This is the ability (and willingness) to let others know about what’s going on inside of you without blaming and without lashing out, as well as the courage to finish a conversation you wanted to avoid.
Here are three steps to help you practice emotional integrity.
- Take ownership of your experience. This means you can’t blame someone else for your anger, resentment or rage.
- Face your dark side. Tell the truth about what you feel. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Anger is just an experience. You don’t have to act out.
- Represent yourself. It’s OK to say, “I’m feeling angry” or “I’m too upset to discuss this right now.” Owning your experience without blaming others puts you back in charge.
Each time you give in to your triggers, you create more neuro connections that keeps the behavior alive. When you feel the urge to react it’s because your emotional brain (the amygdala in your limbic system) overrides your thinking brain (your pre-frontal cortex), where good decisions are made.
You aren’t a prisoner of your emotions. There’s a way to change your wiring: it’s called cognitive restructuring.
Become aware of your triggers
What makes you angry? Whether it’s a certain person, a situation or someone’s behavior, the ability to identify your triggers is the first step to consciously change your response in the future.
Feel but don’t act
This is difficult, because you have created habits that help you release the pressure, such as interrupting, discounting, yelling, or stonewalling. Notice your desire to revert to the comfortable behavior but, instead, pause. Do not take any action. Instead, do the courageous work of feeling.
Notice your bodily sensations. Does your neck get hot? Do your palms sweat. Does your stomach feel upset? What happens next? Resist the urge to release pressure. There’s a refractory period for your pre-frontal cortex to take over, so give it some time and let the feelings dissipate.
Create a plan
It’s easier to change behavior if you already have a plan for what to do instead of reverting to your trigger response. For example, if you tend to get triggered when Kim surprises you with unwanted information, take a breath. Then, instead of reacting, you tell Kim you’d like to meet with them next Thursday at 2 p.m.
Rather than firing off a terse email in all caps, wait until the next day to send the email. When you’re back in charge and feel grounded, leave all emotion out of the email, instead focusing on facts and action items.
Learning to self-regulate is challenging but rewarding. You’ll know your practices are working for you when you no longer get triggered by the same situations or people. In addition, others will notice a change in you.
Three times lately, someone has either thanked me for my patience or told me how patient I am. As one who has struggled most of my life with impatience, it’s great to know that I’m not at the mercy of my old behaviors, and neither are you.
Self-regulation is the path to your future self. You can transform your life and leadership with emotional integrity and cognitive restructuring.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, executive educator and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book “From Conflict to Courage“ (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at MarleneChism.com.