Leaders Lean in to Negative Emotions

We all must face negative emotions from time to time. We might get into a discussion with someone who is angry about an organizational decision or we might find it necessary to mediate a heated disagreement between two team members. It’s also possible to find ourselves in a meeting with someone who is just having a bad day and wants everyone around them to experience it as well. While we might prefer positive emotions, negative emotions such as anger, sadness, jealousy, anxiety, etc., are a reality of life. We experience these emotions ourselves as well as interacting with those around us who have their own.

There is a natural human reaction to negative emotions in other people. Our limbic system, the part of our brain that is responsible for reflexes and emotional responses, senses negative emotions as danger. The brain’s automatic reaction to danger is to protect us by choosing one of three possible courses of action – flight, fight or freeze. This explains why, when facing negative emotions, one might instinctively find an excuse to escape the situation (the flight response) in order to avoid the emotion and any discussion of it. The fight response is the natural reaction to fire back in anger when confronted with negative emotions and commonly occurs when anger is the negative emotion being displayed. A fight reaction would typically result in an escalation of the negative emotion. If not reacting in either flight or fight, the third, less common reaction would be to simply freeze, unable to respond in any way.

Leadership is built on a relationship of trust and respect. While the three reactions described above are natural self-protection responses to the danger that our subconscious brain interprets, all three of them have a large potential to damage the relationships leaders have with those around them. Rather than building relationships, these reactions cut off relationships or fire back negative emotions that undermine trust and respect.

To effectively deal with negative emotions, a leader must learn to recognize these situations early and build the capacity to “lean in” to negative emotions. This requires building some character traits and competencies that will help during these interactions. Before we are able to lean in to negative emotions, we must learn to block our reflexive reactions. This requires, first, developing our emotional intelligence so that we are able to quickly and accurately recognize the emotions in others. (This is sometimes called the third domain of emotional intelligence. For more discussion on EQ, see the article from September 2016.) Once we are able to identify the negative emotions in others, the second skill that we need to develop and utilize is the ability to keep the limbic system from taking control and, instead, maintain control of our reaction through the thinking part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. This is a matter of developing the habit of analyzing and responding with thought in emotional discussions, rather than allowing our reflexes to take control.

Developing the ability to lean into negative emotions may also require some character development, as we need to value the people with whom we interact, value the relationship, and have the courage to face difficult discussions. If we value the people and the relationship, we will have a natural curiosity about what is happening within the other person. With the character traits in place that enable us to lean in, the next components are developing the communication skills to effectively enable us to explore and understand the emotions that we are facing and the story behind them.

The actual process of leaning in involves acknowledging the emotions, asking questions to gather an understanding, validating the emotions, and verifying our understanding. The leaning in conversation may start with a statement such as, “I can see that you are angry about the decision to ___; please tell me more about why this bothers you.” From there, you might ask some follow-on questions to deepen your understanding. Validate feelings through statements like, “I see that the impact of ___ might make you feel ___.”

Validation during the leaning in conversation does not mean that we agree with the emotion or with the story that is in the other person’s mind. It is simply an expression of understanding. The leaning in conversation should not be an effort to refute or reverse the negative emotions. An implication that the person is wrong for having these negative feelings is counterproductive or even destructive. Emotions are not wrong, they just are. The conversation to understand can help the other person to process those emotions. Defending ourselves or other people during this conversation is also counterproductive. There may be an opportunity to clarify facts during the discussion, but the focus of the conversation must be first and foremost, to understand the emotions and the story that lies behind them.

By leaning in to negative emotions, we as leaders demonstrate our humanity and our care for the other. This builds relationship. Gathering an understanding of what lies behind the emotions will help you as a leader to resolve any current issue or to be cognizant of potential issues in the future. In the process, the conversation is likely to diffuse some of the negative emotions, proving that leaning in pays off in many ways.

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Ken Vaughan

Business Consultant & Leadership Coach at New Horizon Partners Inc.
(614) 776-5720

Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.
Ken Vaughan
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