Dear Crucial Skills,
I struggle with showing my emotions when I’m confronted with a tense conversation or situation. What’s worse is that once I start to get emotional, I get mad at myself, and that only makes me more emotional and makes my eyes well up.
After ten years of corporate experience, I still struggle with ‘watery eyes’ during crucial conversations. How can I keep my emotions in check when I’m facing a crucial conversation?
Dear Emotionally Overcharged,
I know a man who once said, “I’ve got a problem. I cry at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a supermarket . . . one that I don’t even shop at.” Likewise, a woman who recently shared the same issue with me said, “I don’t cry; I just can’t stop my eyes from getting wet.” And I had a fellow once ask me how to control the “red splotches” that flushed on his neck and head when a conversation became personal or heated. All of these people, like you, have obvious physical responses that seemingly interfere with the effectiveness of the conversation and can damage a reputation.
So what are some ways to solve these problems? I’ll focus on three categories.
1. Coaching. Find someone you trust and who sees you at times when you show emotions you are uncomfortable sharing or perhaps aren’t appropriately displaying. Ask the person to notice the conditions in the room. For example, is someone more powerful present? Is the topic controversial? Are you taking the topic personally?
Next, try to identify the trigger points. What are the early warning signs? At what point in the conversation did you start to well up or flush red? Did particular words cause the reaction or was it the tone of voice?
Finally, ask your coach to share what he or she observed about your behavior. This feedback will help you notice conditions and triggers early on and give you time to catch the issue before you get too emotional. Ask your coach to help you practice responding to triggers. Try learning to step away from the content to regroup your emotions or showing more enthusiasm by asking questions.
2. Master My Stories. Often, the emotions we share are the result of the stories we tell ourselves. By mastering our stories, we give ourselves a better chance of mastering our emotions.
Before I tear up, I’ve often told myself a story. For example, I have this mantra in my head while I listen to the other person, “Here it goes again. Why do they have to be so selfish?” Prior to that thought, I often have a physical signal. I get what I call a half breath. If I can catch the half breath, I can catch the resulting thought by asking the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that?”
Being aware of this process helps me control my emotions. But what if the red splotches or tears are the first indicator? Even in this instance, the trick is to listen and watch carefully for any kind of preceding thought or story you’re telling yourself. Try to talk it out with a friend. Then try writing out a script.
In Crucial Conversations, we teach the left-hand column exercise. Divide a paper in half. In the right-hand column write what was said. Then, in the left-hand column, write what you were thinking and feeling at the time these things were said. Also write down what you were thinking and feeling before even coming into the conversation. Often, we can find early warning signs that will help us choose different reactions when we actually get in the conversation. But not always. So…
3. Acknowledge the Situation. A couple of years ago, I was accused of being upset or too serious in certain conversations. This came as a surprise to me, but I soon realized the reason for this feedback. When I am in a conversation and start to think seriously, I frown. I find I can’t really help it. So what do I do? When I know that a conversation will require serious thinking, I stop and admit that frowning is something I am working on. My acknowledgement goes like this: “I have been told that when I start thinking deeply, I have a tendency to frown. I‘m working on it, but if you see me frowning, it’s not that I’m upset, it’s that I’m thinking.” Then I smile. Often, that acknowledgement causes me to smile more or causes someone to say, “Al, you’re clearly thinking now.” And I smile again.
So, I hope you didn’t get teary during the time you read this response. If you did, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not sad or weak, and I hope you’ll give yourself that same benefit of the doubt.