Have you ever walked into a meeting and immediately felt anxious?
If you are like the rest of us, you probably start thinking of all the things that you have to be anxious about. Maybe you remember that Bob from accounting is there today and often asks tough questions about your budget, or perhaps you read into your boss’ sour demeanor a criticism of your sarcastic email humor. Or perhaps you begin to wonder whether you have forgotten that today was your day to do a presentation. Whatever the thought, chances are that you will believe that the anxiety is coming from you. This is because we think that our emotions are self-contained and that they are response only to things that happen outside of us. This belief leads us to look for evidence that justifies our emotional state.
Chances are pretty good, however, that these emotions are not yours.
Let’s assume that you were having a great day before entering this room. Let’s assume that you were actually quite happy walking through the hallway leading to the meeting and that you didn’t start to feel the anxiety until you opened that door and walked in.
(I have wanted to use this gif for a looong time)
The answer is emotional contagion. You may have read about this from my previous posts or if you have read any of Daniel Goleman’s writing about leadership and emotional intelligence. The concept was pursued by psychologist Elaine Hatfield who did research along with John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson to see that people’s emotions were impacted by what others said and by their body language. Daniel Goleman gives an example of one experiment that had two people in entirely different emotional states (ex: calm and agitated) sitting next to each other in a room without speaking. After approximately fifteen minutes, whichever was the the stronger emotion of the two would infect the other, leaving them both in the same state. In other words, emotions are like an airborne virus that can infect people in your vicinity without you even saying a word to them. (Hence the Twilight Zone reference above.)
How is this useful to us?
For starters it helps us to know that the emotion that we are feeling at a given time might not be our own. It can be confusing and crazy-making to try to understand the root of our anxiety or anger just by looking at what is happening in a room. If you know that emotions can infect us, then you can start to check in with yourself. Is this my emotion or is this someone else’s? Was I feeling this way before I stepped into this space or is this new? This kind of cognitive awareness requires that you have a working sense of what you are feeling at any given time, something that adults often struggle to have. Here are some “primary colors” of emotions to choose from:
If you are willing to take the time in your day to “check in” with yourself and notice these emotions, you will find that you have both more awareness of what is going on with you as well as more of an understanding of what is happening around you. I find that people often struggle to name an emotion that they are having right now (try it) and that many people try to deflect the notion of emotions altogether.
This behavior creates problems because it cuts you off from a deeper understanding of what is happening under the surface of your actions (and the actions of those around you). Here are a few basic premises that could help you to understand this process and learn more about the emotions in your body as well as for those around you.
- Discussion is deflection. Anytime you ask someone a straight question (example: are you angry about this decision?) and they respond with a lot of words, they are deflecting. They might be doing it because they don’t know whether they are angry, it could be because they are scared to answer the question directly or it could be because they want to dissemble their true feelings. Whatever the reason, nothing they say in discussion is helpful to getting an answer. Name it and ask for a straight “yes or no” answer.
- Everyone has emotions all the time. I meet people who say that they do not have emotions (I’m looking at you, engineers), but that is simply not true. We are sensate beings and without emotions, we would not have survived to get to the top of the food chain. Emotions drive us to seek security, understanding, connection and solutions. The more aware you are of those emotions roiling under the surface, the more control you will have over your brain and your actions.
- Feelings are not facts. (Facts are facts). This one is perhaps the hardest to figure out early on. Our emotions are running through us all the time and are not necessarily tied to anything that is actually happening right now. We could be responding to an old memory that was triggered by a smell or a sound, which reminds us of a time when we did something embarrassing or someone did something to us that made us angry. The lack of self-knowledge in this moment can often lead to us attaching our emotions to what is happening right now. We think that the emotions are a fact, so we look for evidence. I am feeling angry, it must be what you are doing. Investigate your emotions and you will have more awareness and therefore more control.
Emotional intelligence is one of the key factors in being able to navigate many of life’s challenges. It helps you to be calm while other people are reacting out of fear, and it gives you insight into other people’s behaviors and comments. The more aware you are of your own emotions, the more likely you will understand when you are being swept up in the emotions of a group. The more that you understand how emotional contagion works, the easier it will be for you to work on calming your own nerves, relaxing your body and being an emotional anchor for the room.
Or you can just be this guy: