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« Stacy Cohen's guest comments on using a Flip Camera during coaching | Main | Self-coaching on Listening: It Ain't Easy »

Are your emotions pushing you around?

Our next communication challenge is about controlling destructive emotions.  I’ve created a simple little strategy for this. Name it! (recognize that you are in a situation that might push your hot buttons), Reframe it! (see yourself as a listener, learner, game player, or as a detached observer to detach yourself from a potentially emotionally taxing situation), and Tame it!  (keep your emotions under control by buying time, paraphrasing what you’ve heard, avoiding vicious cycles like “what happened conversations”, making sure the conversation feels equal, and avoiding making assumptions.

When I posted this challenge, I was careful to suggest that we could tackle either experiences in real time or look back to events from the distant past, just in case our emotions don’t get stirred up in the next two weeks.  My thinking was that events that stir up our emotions would be pretty rare.  In fact, I expected that I would have to go back to ancient history to find an event to talk about.

Well I was wrong, wrong, 3 times wrong. We are only a few days into the challenge, and what I have learned already is that I let my emotions push me around way too much.

Here is what I have experienced. Driving through a city recently, I found that my lane and the lane beside mine were kind of merging together (although there was no indication on the road).  Beside me there was a fellow driving a pick-up truck. He made it clear that he thought I was merging into his lane, and he wasn’t happy.  Indeed, he gunned his F-150, and communicated his message non-verbally and quite simply (it only took one finger).

We have driving experiences like this frequently, and I’ll never see the guy again, but what I noticed was how much it bugged me. That simple incident, with a fellow I’ll never see again, hung over me for several hours, like a black cloud. I knew I shouldn’t let it bug me, but it did.

Second event:  Sitting at my desk, writing, my phone at KU rings, and on the line is a telemarketer.  I try to listen patiently, but she continues, (she also called me Joe) and since I knew I wasn’t interested in what she was offering, I politely explained that I wasn’t interested.  She said OK in friendly way, but then before hanging up, for the benefit of her co-workers, she swore under her breath at me, and hung up the phone.   Again, that little interaction with a complete stranger infected my day, like a nasty disease, and I felt down a notch despite my best attempts to put these events behind me. It still bugs me as I write this, actually.

What I am learning is that our interactions with others (even complete strangers) have a big impact on our emotional well-being.  A complete stranger can move the needle back a lot, and random acts of kindness, I suppose, can move it forward.  Somehow, though, the negative experiences seem a lot more potent than the positive.

Third event: I was in a meeting about a project, and it looked like someone on the team wanted to change our project’s direction.  I started to get emotionally messed up (OK a little angry) inside thinking that the person was just making the recommendation without considering the data and the considerable work I had put into making the plan.  Then I remembered our communication challenge, and it really helped. 

I realized that I was just making assumptions, and I was getting all stirred up with no real idea about what my colleague was thinking. I reframed the situation so that I saw myself as a learner and shifted to asking questions. My whole experience of the meeting changed.  Not only did I save myself from being rude, but I learned a lot (and I am continuing to learn). 

I recognize now that much of what upsets me may have nothing to do with reality.  My big take away so far is that I need to stop getting worked up about assumptions.  By being the learner, by asking questions instead of assuming, I can get a lot more out of my interactions, and I can decrease the likelihood that I’ll act like a jerk.

So all in all, destructive emotions push me around a lot more than I realized, and the benefits of controlling those emotions are huge.  What are you learning?  Are your experiences similar or different?  We’d all love to hear your stories.

Reader Comments (20)

A very dear friend used the phrase "assume innocence always." When you find your anger flaring up, just say it out loud... "Assume innocence." We don't know the reason for someone else's irrational behavior, but we sure have the power to keep it from getting the best of us. (works most of the time anyway)!! :)
April 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterws
After I read the Controlling Destructive Emotions strategies and self-coaching instructions, I had a similar thought as Jim did about perhaps needing to use a conversation in the past for one of my reflections, but about 5 minutes later something on the news brought up the topic of cafeteria food and its unhealthiness. My husband started criticizing school cafeteria and I became surprisingly protective of the school cafeteria's image. I'm not sure why! Fortunately, only 5 minutes had passed, so I immediately started "playing the game." That was my only hope, I had to decide that I was going to win by staying calm. I also focused on becoming detached, really why did I care so much. Well, it was not the topic, but the idea of having a difference in opinion with a loved one that was really getting to me. Also, my husband knows how to push my buttons. What a great experience for me! In the end, I stayed calm. We still disagreed about cafeteria's current healthiness, but agreed that the food could always be healthier.
April 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJocelyn
Being very new to instructional coaching, with little training, I have been attempting to retrain my brain in the emotional department! It is so difficult in some situations to keep personal emotions outside the coaching session. The motto I have come to depend on this year is this: This isn't a problem, it's a process. Tough to do all the time, but has saved me from inserting foot in mouth a few times.
April 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandy
After reading Jim's blog about his experiences with emotions, I decided that I do a pretty good job controlling my emotions at work, but not at home.

My husband has been gone each morning this week, so breakfast and making lunches has been up to me. Needless to say my son is a very picky eater. He wants his biscuits doughy and sausage burnt. My daughter decided she wanted pancakes for breakfast, so master chef MOM cooked breakfast this morning. I lost track of time and let my son's biscuits get a little too cooked, so I immediately apologized for overcooking them. The teenager's smart mouth started. I exploded! I ranted about how I was trying to juggle everything this morning and I didn't appreciate his sarcasm etc. I stopped in mid sentence and remembered what I read this week about our destructive emotions. I had applied it at school in stressful situations, but not at home. You know the saying, "We hurt the ones we love the most." I apologized for exploding and explained the proper way he should have responded when I apologized. I tried to separate myself from the situation and be logical instead of emotional.

At work, I have colleagues that I go to when I need to vent, so I can stay in control when I converse with teachers. I am working on self-coaching because they may not always be around. I need to be able to name it, reframe it and tame it on my own. I have come a long way in the seven years that I have been an instructional facilitator, but I know I still have areas to work on. There is always room for improvement when communicating with others.
April 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
Like Jim, I thought I would need to reflect on an older experience to come up with a time when my buttons were pushed. Surprise!!! It happened during a goal team meeting the very next morning. I was able to pause, a bit, and begin asking questions (but sadly this was after I firmly stated "That's not what this is about") Because the strategies are short and easy to remember I am finding that I am increasingly able to step back and coach myself by reciting them. Adding the phrase "assume innocence" or "assume goodwill" helps me, too. Thanks, ws, for that suggestion.
April 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
Thanks for all you are sharing. It occurs to me that assuming goodwill or innocence costs us nothing and yet it can save us a lot of negative energy. Thanks!!
April 2, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
This week I had the pleasure of using the Controlling Destructive Emotions strategy in a unique way. It was used for myself, a teacher I was working with and even her students. Here's the gist of it: A parent disrupted a co-teaching lesson and verbally undermined the teacher (a new teacher) in front of the students. I was feeling indignant and angry for a moment but when I saw how devastated my teacher was, and how disengaged the students had become, I knew I had to get over my feelings in a hurry in order to help her. So, we quickly named it, re-framed it in a way where we were sure the parent had no idea how important that lesson was or that her comments would have created a negative effect with the students. We were able to try and put ourselves in her shoes and then comment to the students about how hard this parent works to help the school and how disappointed she was that we chose to do 'work' rather than participate in the 'fun-day' activities she had worked so hard to plan. It helped both of us calm down and get on with the lesson and you could feel the students begin to relax as they saw how we handled it. We all went home that day with no hard feelings. If that had happened before this challenge, I don't think it would have turned out as well at all. So thank you for this timely challenge and for the easy to remember steps to implement it.
April 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley
I'm finding that this assignment dovetails very nicely with the work I've been doing using HeartMath. One of the HeartMath techniques, for example, is Freeze Frame in which you shift out of your head (where you are busy formulating a defense) and into your heart. In these few seconds, you recall a positive feeling (having these at the ready is helpful) and you feel that fully in the moment. You ask yourself sincerely what you can do or say to change the situation or minimize the resulting stress and go with the answer that your heart generates. This technique builds resourcefulness so that we are not at the mercy of situations. Some of us will use the phrase "assume innocence" which is very much aligned with the theory behind this technique.
April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMickey
Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences. I am convinced after these two weeks more than ever that this is important work. In particular, asking questions, it seems, is an important part of this activity. When we jump to conclusions based on nothing more than air, it leads to all kinds of self-constructed barriers. IF we can work to truly understand about friends and colleagues, I think, it can truly bring us closer together. Thanks.
April 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
I would really like to share this article with some other mentors, but I am not sure how. When I clicked SHARE i was hoping for something easy like email instead there are lots of applications that I am not really familiar with. Any suggestions? Bonnie
April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie Gelke
Hi Bonnie, I sent an email about this. If you don't get it, please let me know. Thanks... Jim
April 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
Well, I had a huge opportunity to practice controlling destructive emotions and I failed miserably! These were the challenges I found: I approached the situation thinking I am going to stay calm. I am going to be a listener and a learner. I am going to seek to understand. So, I was listening intently. REALLY, REALLY listening. What I heard was a gross misunderstanding. AND I heard an unwillingness for clarification. So, I felt powerless. Then, I started thinking about just being a listener. So, I just listened. I could feel my frustration build- I could feel I was getting upset. So, momentarily I tried to think of the strategies for controlling emotions. Being a learner came to mind. So, I tried to learn about the other person's point of view. I struggled though. Because his point of view was taking something that I had said out of context and he was stuck on the words that I chose. He kept saying over and over "and there is no use in you going back and trying to explain or justify it. THere is no other way to interpret that. I will not have it." I was not given an opportunity to ask questions to try to get to the root of the misunderstanding. It was so frustrating.

So, my question is this: As I work on my communication skills- I can see improvements in myself. My entire coaching team is working on self-coaching so, at work I am surrounded by people who are working on these skills. We constantly have cameras in our faces and spend time taking apart how we are being perceived. But then, I go forth into the world and continue trying to practice these skills. Being in the conversation that I just mention was a lot like playing a tennis match by myself. I don't want to make sweeping generalizations- but I am feeling an awful lot like when I try to practice these skills with people who are not good at communication- I fail.

Funny thing about the conversation that produced all of this turmoil in my life.... I was asking for increased communication between two Christian Bands that I play in- one band stemmed from the other. So all of the members of one band are in the other, but not vice versa. I was asking for clarification, increased communication, expectations and roles to be better defined because the commitment level has dramatically increased recently.
What I got was my walking papers! They decided that it is in the group's best interest if I don't continue on.

So, although it is entirely possible that I am such a poor communicator that I just don't get it, it seems to me that I meet success when I am in an environment of people trying to work on these same skills but when I am trying to practice these skills in other arenas- I struggle to make sense of it all.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!!
April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJen Long
Hey Jim, felt pretty good about my experiences with the listening exercises but this one on controlling my emotions . . . I'm learning a lot. I'm a high school principal and the issues we (professional staff) face are so often related to the inability to control emotions. True for both adults and students. I am really excited about this work and how we might use it with our kids who deperately need strategies to keep minor issues from becoming larger ones. Much of our time is spent dealing with a student's inability to control what comes out of his/her mouth, escalating the situatuion way beyond where it started, the proverbial mountain out of a mole-hill. So, not only is this good for me, but I've got to think about it in terms of delaing with our students. For instance, today one young man threatened to "kick an assistant principal's backside." Later of course, he apologized, but at the time he was so out of control that it never crossed his mind that maybe he should think about this before it comes out of his mouth, no brake in his mind that says stop, no thinking about where this is going. Good stuff, please keep it coming.
April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergreg
Jen, You are right sometimes it is difficult to practice communicaiton skills on people who are at the beginning of their own learning curve. In the case of your band, you may want to keep in mind that in some cases "rejection is protection" and maybe it's time for you to move on for your own best interest.

If you think about it, the bottom line when working with people is respect. When there is a lack of respect the other party feels attacked and continues the lack of respect as the situation spirals out of control. When you break the sprial and respond with respect it often takes the other party off guard and completely changes the situation. A perfect example is a recent situation where my sister -in-law passed on an e-mail to me from my nephew's teacher. The teacher described his behavior during a fire drill in a very nasty tone and suggesting that she be informed if he needed some behavior requirements added to his IEP paperwork( my nephew has autism). It was painfuly obvious that this teacher still does not understand autism in that she gave all verbal instructions and completely ignored the mother's previous pleas to use visual supports. My initial reaction was to fire off an e-mail chiding this teacher for her lack of follow through and her mean-spirited attitude. Instead, I decided to respond with respect and offer an example of a visual fire drill procedure to my sister-in-law to pass on the the teacher. My sister-in-law sent the procedure. The transformation was shocking and immediate. The teacher responded with excitement and admiration for such a tool to use!! The teacher and my sister-in-law have been communicating in a positive way ever since!
April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarla
One thought I'd add to all of this is that there are some conversations that may not be improved by listening. If the other person is verbally abusive, most counsellors would suggest the best remedy is to disengage to protect ourselves. If you think you might be in a verbally abusive relationship, there are many books on the topic that are quite helpful. Patricia Evan's books, The Verbally Abusive Relationship and Controlling People are both good places to start.
April 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
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