Of course, just because you feel angry, doesn’t mean you have to express it. And the real issue is not whether you reveal your emotions or not. What’s most important is that you have the ability to choose whether or not to share your feelings. This isn’t always easy because when we’re having an argument with someone. Too often we feel as if we are in the grip of the emotions and they’re dictating what we say and do, rather than the other way around.
Under these circumstances, you’re not able to make a smart choice about what to say and do. You need to put space between what’s happening (the disagreement) and your reaction. Here’s how.
First, recognize that conflicts at work are usually not one-off events. Many people I work with in my practice describe being caught off guard by a disagreement. They might say “I didn’t see it coming” or “I was blindsided.” But most conflicts have an element of predictability to them in that they have the roots in prior behavior. Chances are that the current argument you’re having is tied to a pattern of behavior, what usually upsets you about that person (or people in general). For example, you might work with someone who you feel makes unfair decisions or takes advantage of others.
When we get upset, it may be because we’ve sought evidence that proves these patterns. When you feel like someone is a slacker, you’ll look for ways that they aren’t carrying their weight. If you worry that your manager is unfair in her treatment of the team, you’ll be on alert for signs that she’s showing preferential treatment.
Recognize these patterns so that you’re not caught off guard next time. Instead of feeling surging anger, you might realize, “This is something I often get worked up about.” If you’re more attuned to the conflicts that arise in you and around you, you can be more emotional agile.
Then, when a specific conflict arises, you can make a conscious choice about if and how to express your emotions by asking yourself these four questions:
Who’s in charge—the emotion or me the person experiencing the emotion? Ask yourself if you are making thoughtful decisions about how to react or if the emotion is driving your reactions. If your thoughts and emotions are in charge, it’s a sign that you’re hooked by your feelings and you’re going down a path that is unlikely to help you resolve the argument and more likely to make it worse. If the emotion is dictating how you act, it will be difficult to do what you need to—take the other person’s perspective, have compassion, clearly articulate your narrative of the event.
What exactly am I feeling? When you feel angry (a common emotional response to a conflict), what’s often sitting beneath that anger is a more nuanced emotion, such as betrayal, feeling unseen, or disappointment. Before you can decide whether to express your emotion, you need to better understand it. Ask yourself: “What is it that I’m experiencing exactly? What is the emotion beneath the emotion?” And when you come up with an answer, ask yourself, “What are two other emotions that I’m experiencing?” The accurate labeling of emotions is a critical step to moving forward effectively.
What is the function of the emotion? Remember that emotions are signals. What is this sense of betrayal telling you about what matters to you? What is the sadness signaling? Perhaps it’s that you care about loyalty from your team members, or that you value equity. This will help you figure out how to talk to your counterpart.
Telling someone you’re angry is far less helpful than explaining that you’re disappointed that they didn’t follow through on their commitment and that reliability is important to you. You can also ask yourself, how does what this emotion is telling me relate to what my counterpart feels is important? If you can identify overlapping values or interests, you’ll be in a better position to work through your disagreement.
To what extent does expressing my emotion serve me in this situation? Finally, after you’ve decided whether you’re hooked by your emotion, labelled it, and considered what it might be telling you, you want to ask yourself whether saying “I’m really angry” or “I’m frustrated by this situation” will help you in your goal of solving the conflict. Psychologists talk about “hot” and “cold” emotions.
If you’re experiencing a “hot” emotion, one that comes with an urgent sense of entitlement or even revenge (“I have to tell him exactly how I feel!”), you’re hooked and it’s better to find a way to calm down first. If the emotion is “cold,” in that you can manage it, and the intention behind it is to make the situation better (“I want to tell him how I feel because it might help him understand my perspective”) then it’s probably OK to express it.
It’s best if you can go beyond just naming the emotion to explaining what matters to you. Telling your counterpart that fairness is important to you, for example, is the first step in developing a shared set of values. Perhaps fairness matters to her too and then you have a starting point for resolving the conflict—and avoiding future ones.
Of course, there is always a risk that you will express an emotion or sentiment that’s important to you and the other person doesn’t reciprocate or even retaliates. This has to be a chance you’re willing to take, and you’ll be much better equipped to accept the consequences if your intention is to develop mutual understanding.
Conflict is never one-sided, and neither are the emotions that accompany it. If you’re going to express that you’re angry and feeling betrayed, you have to consider what the other person might be feeling as well. This perspective taking—and the empathy and compassion that it triggers—is extremely important to solving conflicts.
So if you decided to express how you’re feeling, it’s best to follow up by asking the other person about their emotional experience. This doesn’t need to—and shouldn’t—turn into a competition about who’s most hurt by the situation but it can be a way to get your emotions and interests out on the table and find a path forward.
Author Susan David is a founder of the Harvard/ McLean Institute of Coaching, is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Agility.