What happens when employees feel subtly insulted or unintentionally disrespected?
How do people communicate when strong emotions arise?
If you’re looking for tips on how to manage strong emotions at work, you’re in the right place.
In the context of an increasingly diverse workplace, the ability to observe, notice, regulate, and communicate through strong emotions is an interpersonal skill that is often overlooked and highly desirable.
I recently delivered a DEI professional development retreat for a client whose workplace challenge was related to microaggressions, triggers, and intergenerational differences in communication style. Naturally, below the surface of all of these dynamics is conflict.
As a facilitator who has been working in the DEI space for the past seven years, I can tell you that, whether done well or poorly, any DEI training is going to make people feel something. As a Black woman, I can tell you that those feelings hit different when you’re someone who lives with trauma. When you add the inability to effectively resolve conflict into the mix, you’ve got a real mess on your hands.
Emotions are a fact of life, like breathing and eating, and yet it isn’t often that adult learners are actively taught how to effectively manage strong feeling states and develop emotional maturity. Instead, many of us are socialized to suppress our emotions and focus on what we’re thinking not how we’re feeling.
Strong Feeling States: What is happening?
Subtle moments of disrespect may trigger emotional responses that are often linked to past traumas. If left unchecked, this spiral of hyperarousal can look like persistent irritability and hypervigilance, and result in risky behavior. In the professional world, that could translate to aggressive emails in response to a seemingly neutral interaction or uncommon (or out of character) displays of anger.
When a person is emotionally triggered by a perceived threat (read: belittled, disrespected, insulted, or invalidated) their executive brain functions are centralized in the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages our flight, fight, freeze, and fawn responses. While in this complex stress state, we are not able to think rationally or show up as our best selves.
Communicating across Generational Differences
The truth is everyone’s best self is going to be different; that is the beauty of diversity. While older generations may not lead with their emotional state at work, younger generations tend to be more open to discussing mental health challenges. More than gender, ability, and ethnicity, an individual’s age is one of the most common predictors of attitudes and behaviors (Geiger, 2023).
Beyond diverging preferences in formality or face-to-face versus digital approach, generational differences in communication style add a layer of complexity to managing strong emotions in the workplace.
Developing Emotional Maturity: Self-Coping Strategies
The ability to notice, observe, regulate, and communicate strong emotions is not inherent, it’s learned. The first step is awareness. The more attuned we become to our emotional triggers and what hyperarousal looks like for us individually – the more likely it is that we will respond rather than react.
To say it simply, when you have a plan for yourself, you’re more likely to take action. So here are some somatic practices that you can try when you’re hooked by strong emotions.
Deep Belly Breathing
- When we practice breathing into the belly, we are using our lung’s full capacity. Unlike rapid, shallow breathing that sends a message to our adrenal glands to pump out more stress hormones. When we leverage deep belly breathing, we encourage a full oxygen exchange that slows the heartbeat and stabilizes our blood pressure (Harvard Health, 2020)
- You read that right. Humming offers healing benefits that calm the vagus nerve, middle ear, chest, lugs, and gut. The act of making gentle sounds with our voices “creates a positive state of relaxation and social engagement” and “has a calming, soothing effect, and promotes rest and restitution” (Kimble, 2023).
- While it might seem obvious, consider this a gentle reminder that physical activity shifts energy and enhances our well-being. Changing our environment for a brisk 10-minute walk increases our mental alertness, energy, and positive mood.
Developing Emotional Maturity: Organizational Practices
Leaders, there are also cultural steps you can take to create a workplace environment that is safe for strong emotions. Consider implementing the following practices:
Designate De-escalation Spaces
- Consider creating quiet spaces where employees can go when they feel emotionally escalated. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be private and peaceful.
Provide access to creative resources
- As a person moves from the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, to the executive functions it is beneficial to have access to creative resources such as a coloring book, but paper and crayon work just as well. This kind of creative embodiment activity relieves stress, calms the brain, and helps the body relax. Research shows that coloring can decrease body aches, heart rate, respiration, and feelings of depression and anxiety (LICSW, 2022).
While emotional triggers and hyperaroused states are a fact of life, we can develop the ability to regulate our emotions while treating others with compassion. Consider these tools as stepping stones on the path to a healthy workplace.