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Emotion as Communication

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

We don't tend to think that when we're "all grown up" emotions are communication. When we're grown up we tend have improved ability to manage our emotions and behave in better, more grown up ways. Although research does suggest that other people think we only manage it about half of the time; but that is a story for another day. However, we understand this with kids; and when we grow up we are just kids with more experience (give or take some prefrontal cortex).

So what do we see when someone else is having an "emotional outburst"? Do we see a person having tantrum, or sulking? How do we react? With our own tantrum or sulk, or plain avoid them? Most of us don't do the hard yards (me included) and dig in and try to understand what is happening. Why? Because that other person should have grown up and learnt to control themselves. Again, research says that half the time most of us don't control ourselves.

Human factors research from the HSE lists a whole host of "performance influencing factors" (PIF) (see here) and these are but the tip of the iceberg. What do these PIFs do? They wear away at our ability to handle any emotional triggers. Let's face it, we all know we know we can't handle that annoying stuff when we're tired; like after the neighbour's teenagers have been partying all night. Mum used to call it, feeling fractious. And in that word I see fractured. Your ability to handle the slings and arrows of life has been fractured. Your defences are down and you hurt and the self-defence mechanisms kick in.

So we end up with grievance procedures and complaints systems. Not that these are superfluous, rather we tend to fail to connect with the other person. For sure the other person may well hurt us, and it MIGHT even be their intent in the moment. But grinding them down with "the system" is likely to embed their emotion; to enforce their need to justify their reaction because otherwise they have to admit to being flawed, and that won't happen if they don't feel safe.

You don't have to be their parent; especially in the Transactional Analysis sense. You need to let them know they've been heard and let them realise that you have not made a 'value judgement' on their behaviour. Chances are they know they "overreacted" and can apologise for their loss of control.

That is the (truly hard) path of the servant-leader; who also has to be aware of when they lose control and apologise AND even harder, to not be triggered by someone else.

Remember, that outburst might be telling you that the person is under stress, unhappy or afraid even if those aren't the words you're hearing.

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