Wednesday, 28 November 2012 08:05

How to Mindfully Manage Emotions

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The ability to manage emotions is critical to successfully manage conflict and relationships in general. Managing conflict and relationships are critical to successfully manage projects.

A reader raised a number of questions regarding my September article “Managing Conflict and Emotions”. Among them was the question "It's good to say that we should be disciplined and recognize the rising emotion in ourselves and others, but how do you do it?"

The answer is to cultivate the ability to step back and observe your own thoughts and feelings as well as the cues other people exhibit. Mindfulness is the quality of mind that enables this step back.

“Mindfulness is objective awareness of thoughts and feelings. It is the fundamental enabler of self-awareness, self-management and relationship management.”[1] Mindfulness is the foundation for cultivating Emotional Intelligence, which is the ability to be aware of your own and other people’s emotions and to avoid being emotionally reactive.

Everyone is mindful to some degree. We have the ability to observe and self reflect. Over time this ability may be weakened and we may become less and less consciously aware of what is happening in and around us.

Cultivating mindfulness is done by doing mindfulness meditation. The process is simple:

  • Find a relatively quiet, private place and set a timer.
  • Sit or stand comfortably erect, eyes open or closed, your hands resting comfortably.
  • Take note of the sensations of your body.
  • In particular focus on the sensations of your breath.
  • Thoughts will arise; there will be sounds, smells and visual images.
  • Simply take note of them and bring your attention back to the sensations of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.
  • As soon as you realize you’ve become distracted or lost in thoughts, bring your attention back to your breath.

It’s that simple.

Do it for, say, 30 minutes a day. If that is too much, start with five or ten minutes and gradually increase.

Even if you don’t formally practice, you can purposefully stop for a moment every so often and feel you body and breath before reengaging in what you are doing. Train your mind to be consciously aware.

This exercise will improve your concentration and over time will increase the degree to which you are aware of the arising of the feelings that trigger emotionally driven behavior. You are training your mind to be more sensitive to your thoughts and feelings. As you do this, you become increasingly aware to whatever is going on around you, including the way others are behaving. Mindfully observing your own thoughts and feelings does not mean closing down to what is happening around you. You become increasingly aware of the subtle events in your environment.

How it works in practice is that because you can see the cues within yourself you can short circuit the impulse to raise your voice, lash out at others, withdraw or otherwise react. These cues may be a felt sense of constriction in your gut or chest, a tightening of your throat, etc. I assume everybody reading this article has experienced emotions.

Because you are more aware of subtle changes around you, for example the change in tone of another person’s voice, increasing reddening of their complexion, a shift in body language, etc. you can moderate your behavior to more effectively communicate and possibly cut through whatever may be triggering the other person’s reaction.

So we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to our own thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and perceptions, as well as to the way others respond.

This sensitivity to discern what is happening within and around you is a critical success factor for controlling your behavior, but it is not enough in itself. There is need for the intention to not be reactive; to not indulge the righteous anger or withdraw in fear or act out of the strong desire to win at all cost. In addition, there is the need to have the self discipline to change your mind, to be able to stay with the felt sense of the emotion without reacting. Not suppressing the emotion but feeling it completely.

That leads into the answers to some of the other questions posed in response to the original article:

  • How do you distinguish what might be an emotional response from what might be merely expressing some feelings in an objective way?
  • What does one do, specifically, when there is an emotional reaction, especially at the early stage to prevent emotions from getting the best of the discussion?
  • What does one do when one discovers that one is getting emotional to stem the emotions and remain on an even keel and keep the discussion objective?
  • In monitoring, what tips or tells will let us know the conversation is moving into an emotional area and it is time to take action?
  • You mention that emotions are often disguised as content, and that people don't always know they are getting emotional or that someone else is doing so. How can you cut thru the disguise and how do you read the subconscious signals?
  • Finally, most organizations ignore addressing emotions because it (theoretically) has no place in the business. So what is an organization to do to address emotions?

I’ll be addressing these in future articles. Stay tuned.

[1] Pitagorsky, George, Managing Conflict in Projects, 2012, PMI Publishing, p. 32.

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