Get a grip on yourself! Managing your involuntary emotional reactions

Who doesn’t know the fear of “losing it” during a job interview or a presentation! Due to how the brain works, we have very little influence on when and how intensely an emotion will grip us. As a rule, in a stressful situation we are “attacked” by our emotions and the thoughts that accompany them. Especially intense feelings trigger involuntary reactions.

However, we can influence how we manage our responses: We can notice which thoughts, behaviors and conditions strengthen such involuntary emotions, making us weak and unready to deal with the situation, and which ones reduce those emotions to make us strong and ready.

Conscious self-regulation entails stopping ourselves for a moment to become aware of what is going on. This moment of mindful self-perception slows down our normal automatic reactions and opens up a variety of possible ways to respond. There are numerous techniques of self-regulation:

Physical strategies

  • Get fresh air, take a walk, get rid of excess energy before the encounter
  • Feel the floor/ground beneath your feet
  • Breathe in and out deeply
  • Do an inventory of your five senses: What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste?
  • Change your posture, stand up straight with your head up and shoulders back
  • Change your body tension, consciously tighten or relax parts of your body
  • Change your voice volume or pace

Cognitive Strategies

  • Step aside and take a look at yourself and the situation from the outside
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Create a positive image of the outcome, visualize it and anchor it with a gesture
  • Talk yourself into a good mood or outcome
  • Relate this experience to others (everything is relative)
  • Do freewriting to unburden yourself, naming and describing your feelings
  • Focus on your goals and visions rather than on yourself

Communicative strategies

  • Repeat and/or ask to check what you heard (clarifies and buys you thinking time)
  • Switch to the meta level (draw the other person’s attention to the process)
  • Express your feelings through I-messages if appropriate (draw the other person’s attention to your perspective)
  • Take a break
  • Cancel or cut short the exchange and reschedule for a later time

Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.