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Emotional Outbursts: Liability or Tactic?

Scientists have yet to determine exactly how emotions happen, let alone how we differentiate between our experiences of them. 


University of Connecticut professor Ross Buck, expert in emotion and nonverbal communication, explains that at the biological level neurochemical systems contribute to emotional experiences much like musical instruments to the performance of a symphony.  As a trained ear is necessary to truly understand what is going on in symphonic music, a keen sensitivity is necessary to read the subtleties of human expression.

As individuals, we differ in our capacity to express emotion, and to interpret emotion as well.  We vary in what we allow ourselves to reveal.  As an example, when we learn that expressing certain types of emotions in public is not appropriate, we adapt.

How does what we do (and don’t do) to manage emotions influence our professional and social effectiveness?  It’s important to a full and successful life to explore these things in ourselves.

To what extent are we in tune with what others expect of us in the types of situations we typically find ourselves?  When those expectations don’t fit with how we tend to emote, are there ways we can change our expressions without stifling ourselves in ineffective and even unhealthful ways?

Just as “There’s no crying in baseball” there’s an unstated rule in most business establishments that there is no crying at work.  Yet many people, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, do cry easily at work.  While Speaker Boehner’s public aspect and his senior leadership position may make his emotional reactions seem a sign of weakness to some, it’s to his good fortune that his tears seem instigated by observably sentimental situations rather than some less politically acceptable cause.  

We aren’t all as fortunate as Speaker Boehner, in that we don’t have access to public venues where we can compensate for tears at one time by engaging in admirable expressions later on.  What steps can we ourselves take if we cry too easily, are too quick to anger, tend to roll our eyes when we are bored or frustrated, or display any number of other inappropriate, out-of-sync-with-the-situation emotional expressions?

Well, here are a few options:

Avoidance - Most obviously, to the extent possible avoid the stimulus that usually causes your inappropriate emotional expressions.  Stay away from the people or events that elicit them.  Often, of course, that’s easier said than done.  But once you recognize the triggers for types of emotional expressions that otherwise seem nearly spontaneous for you, it’s possible to begin limiting your exposure to such triggers.

Reframe the situation - Train yourself to change how you think about a person, situation or recurring event that triggers the emotion you’re attempting to attenuate.  Fearsome situations can be reframed as challenges, learning opportunities -- even adventures.  People who elicit undesirable or inappropriate emotions can have their power to do so reduced if you can find something to like about them, less to fear, more to understand, or by redefining their importance in your life.

Substitute another expression – The process here is to consciously replace the emotional reaction with a more appropriate one.  If crying (for example) is spontaneous for you under certain circumstances, there may not be enough time for substitution.  But if feelings that tend to lead you to an overt emotional expression can be sensed early enough, you may be able to employ another, pre-rehearsed expression.  It’s possible to substitute an expression of puzzlement for annoyance and it can help to confirm the substitution with a complimentary verbal comment (e.g., “I don’t think I understand.  Can you tell me more?”).

Account for the expression  - In communication lingo, accounts are excuses or justifications.  They attempt to make illogical or inappropriate behavior seem logical or appropriate.  Some people are highly proficient at accounting for their behaviors:  “I started to overreact there,” “I tend to be somewhat overemotional about things like this,” “I’m pretty tired today,” “I’m certainly still an emotional work in progress” are examples of accounts.

Reframe the emotion – Consider giving your emotion a different definition.  “I’m quite passionate about this issue, as you can see” may be used to describe an intense expression  -- essentially to cast what might otherwise be seen as a negative emotional expression (like anger or frustration) in a more positive light. 

John Boehner recently used this approach when tears came to his eyes while praising the Boys and Girls Clubs.  He said, “Some of you know how I am about these things.”  If it’s a good enough tactic for someone who’s gotten as far as he has, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Photo: PathDoc/Shutterstock.com

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