Situations at work can often (and quickly!) become pressured and tense. And in that state, we’re unlikely to perform at our best.
So no wonder a key defining quality of those in senior, influential or otherwise successful positions is that ability to handle the pressure, keep the thinking brain online and manage situations to successful outcomes.
3 options for emotional regulation
There are 3 primary options for dealing with strong emotions: expression, suppression and cognitive change.
Expression, in its rawest form, isn’t a viable option in a place of business. It’s going to have quite the opposite impact if your goal is to demonstrate ability to manage – and thrive – under pressure.
Suppression (holding down the feeling and masking the emotion) is a common response. But actually, suppression has been shown to lead to more arousal of our limbic system, whilst also impacting judgement, memory – and making others feel uncomfortable to boot!
The third option is Cognitive Change. That is: changing the thinking.
Letting go of our stories
Cognitive change leads to less arousal of the limbic system, no negative impact on memory or other cognitive functions and achieves our goal of thriving under pressure situations.
There are a few brain-based techniques, verified by neuroscientific research, that can reverse the impacts of limbic system. But the trick – the crucial thing each approach starts with – is being able to let go of our story. To give-up our attachment to the existing interpretation of the situation.
If, for a moment, you can imagine doing just that – giving up your interpretation – here are 3 ways to induce cognitive change; and so regulate your emotions for those high-pressure situations.
When our limbic system is aroused (for example, by a stressful or threatening situation), our prefrontal cortex (our “PFC” or “thinking brain”) is denied resources. And so: not a lot of conscious thinking happens in that moment.
But the converse is also true: if we can arouse our PFC, the response of our limbic system is dampened. A bit like moving an attention spotlight from one brain region to another.
A great way to do just that is give your PFC the task of labelling the emotion we’re experiencing in that moment. Anxiety. Apprehension. Anticipation. Anger. Or whatever. (Maybe even an emotion not beginning with “A”!)
This perhaps seems counterintuitive. Like studies have shown, many people expect emotional arousal to increase if and when they label that emotion. But the opposite is true.
The key is how you do the labelling: NOT long, drawn-out discussions about what’s happening; but instead, a succinct word or two; and where possible, using symbolic language using indirect metaphor, metrics and simplifications of your experience.
In execution, you have two options: to hold the labelling conversation with yourself; or simply to verbalise what you’re feeling in the meeting. “I’m frustrated to hear that”, for example.
Reappraisal, which you might know better as reframing or understand better as re-contextualising, has been shown to have a stronger positive effect than labelling.
Reappraisal is the ability to see a situation differently. To reframe it in a positive light, or in a way that leads to greater understanding of what else is happening within a situation.
Imagine a photo of people crying outside a church. Tears of sadness at a funeral? Or tears of joy at a wedding? Our understanding and response to the photo is completely driven by the frame we set.
Research shows that positive reappraisal arouses the PFC and correspondingly dampens the limbic system. Which is great – but reappraisal is difficult. It requires quite a bit of PFC function to look at a situation and see alternatives , especially one in which we’re deeply embroiled. (Just one reason why coaches, mentors and other support professions exist to help another person get to a new perspective.)
Reappraisal is a skill and a discipline that comes with practise, though. So build the habit of being your own mentor for a moment and ask:
- How could I think differently about this issue?
- What different perspective could I take when thinking about this?
#3 Direct Experience
I could have titled this third technique “mindfulness”, but decided there might be a little too much baggage with that word. And whilst there are studies that show those who regularly practise and develop mindfulness have improved emotional regulation, you’re unlikely to start meditating in the middle of a tense meeting.
So instead, I choose to talk about “Direct Experience”: that quality of being wholly present in the moment; of being aware of (experiencing!) experience as it happens in real time – and simply accepting what you see.
Like regular meditators, those who practise direct experience become adept at noticing the differences between the “default” experience we most-often and unthinkingly accept, with a deeper, more attuned experience. And in the moment, that’s useful. So in the moment, ask:
- What is present for me in this moment?
- As I talk about this, what am I noticing about myself?
The habit of emotional regulation
These techniques are no different from other personal development tactics: behaviours that can be learned, practised and ingrained until they become part of our autopilot.
Make a commitment now to become adept at emotional regulation.