As many of you know, I am passionately curious about listening and the impact it has on us individually and in groups. I am also curious about how we listen to ourselves both in terms of what we say to ourselves and noticing how we feel.
Managing our emotions is a critical skill both in life and in business because it will save us from being our own worst enemy when in stressful situations.
Understanding the way our brain has evolved over millions of years can be helpful in understanding how we react emotionally to stressful situations. Simply put, our brain is made up of three layers:
- The lower reptilian layer is the region which is all about acting and reacting, with little thought. It is also known as fight or flight and can sometimes can leave us frozen, just like a rabbit in the headlights.
- The middle mammal brain is where our emotions live and some refer to it as your ‘inner drama queen’. This is where powerful feelings such as joy, love, sadness, anger, grief and jealousy arise.
- The upper primate brain, otherwise known as the pre-frontal cortex is the part that weighs a situation logically and rationally and generates a conscious plan to act.
All of these layers are interconnected but act very differently. Knowing this is helpful when you want to manage your emotions. For example if you are feeling hyped up whether through frustration or anger, you are less able to think clearly and logically and consequently will respond in a way that often is less helpful to you and others. If you feel threatened by another perhaps due to their status, power or position, you might retract from the situation and just give up. Neither of these responses are particularly helpful, especially if you want to progress. The key is move from the lower to the upper brain where you can generate a thoughtful response.
Dr Mark Goulston, in his book ‘Just Listen’ provides a practical and easy 5-step process to managing your emotions. When I read this, it reminded me of a situation where I momentarily lost my daughter in a garden centre when she was only 5 years old – you can imagine that was a pretty stressful situation. Here is what happened and how this process unfolded:
- Reaction phase
‘This is a disaster! I really messed up – I can’t fix this’. My heart was racing even skipping beats.
- Release phase
‘Oh my, this is a huge mess and what will others think of me?’ At this point I took a deep breath, several of them, slowly and through the nose. You might even want to close your eyes.
- Re-centre phase
‘Oh, its alright, I can fix this but it might be difficult.’ I kept breathing for several more beats, at least 5.
- Refocus phase
‘Oh, she won’t be far, here is what I need to do to make it better’. I needed to think about who could help me find her and get to her quickly.
- Re-engage phase
‘OK, I am ready to fix this’ – I need to tell my friend who was with us and contact a member of staff immediately, which I did.
This process took less than a minute! At the same time I found a member of staff, my name was called over the tannoy system and my daughter was waiting for me at the customer service desk. What a relief – there were smiles and hugs all round.
During this situation I discovered the power of managing my emotions and moving from the primitive to the primate brain layer to be able to think clearly about what to do.
This process can work particularly well if you are prone to tears when you feel under attack, threat or even unfairly treated. Moving from phase 1 to 5 helps you shift from what you believe is the way the world should or shouldn’t be to being ready to respond to the way the world is.
The key is to get familiar with the 5 phases. Think about a situation when someone enraged you or made you feel frustrated. Practise the phases in your mind, identifying each stage. Give yourself time and practise, and you too will be able to shift from start to end in a matter of minutes and thereby manage your emotions.
What have you discovered works well for you when you want to manage your emotions? Leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you.