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« 5. How to express negative emotions at work »

Written by Rachel Green, Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute, accredited user of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso-Emotional-Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and internationally recognised Emotional Intelligence Coach.

What is your EQ when it comes to expressing negative feelings?

Developing emotional intelligence and EQ can involve many different emotional intelligence competencies and many different emotional intelligence activities. In this article the focus will be upon competency two on the Genos emotional intelligence model - emotional expression, i.e. your ability to express your feelings clearly, accurately and safely.

Here are five tips on how to develop this aspect of your emotional intelligence so you are clear and skilled in expressing your feelings at work, particularly those of anger and frustration. Anger management techniques are covered in other articles.

If you are designing an EQ program for yourself or your team at work, activities which focus on how to express anger and other negative emotions can be very helpful.

This is the first article in a two part series on emotional expression at work. This article covers tips 1-5 on expressing negative emotions. The first article covers tips 1-5 on expressing feelings generally at work.

Want to know what levels of emotional intelligence you have and identify areas of possible improvement and receive coaching from a top emotional intelligence coach? Sign up to have the MSCEIT conducted and receive coaching on your results. It could change your life - for the better. Click here to find out more.

Developing EQ: 1. Know how you are feeling - exactly.

Emotional intelligence or EQ has many layers of skill to it. The first level is being aware of your feelings and doing this in each moment as they arise and change.

This isn't always easy when you are busy and interacting in meetings, negotiations or functions, as it requires high levels of sophisticated self-awareness.

However, if you are to express your feelings well it is essential that you know how you feel.

There are also many different feelings, and to become sophisticated in emotional expression means being able to differentiate between one feeling and another, and quickly. Knowing exactly which feeling it is can help you to understand why you have it, how to express it and how to best manage and move through it.

If you are going to express your "negative emotions" intelligently at work then naming the exact feeling is important.

Just calling it "anger" may not be exact enough. Rather, it means you need to be able to select out the correct emotional word, such as, "I feel ...":

  • hurt,
  • humiliated,
  • dismayed,
  • put-down,
  • resentful,
  • embarrassed,
  • cheated,
  • insulted,
  • annoyed,
  • isolated,
  • thwarted,
  • frustrated,
  • exasperated,
  • slighted,
  • bitter,
  • furious.

In some instances you may find there may be more than one emotion at the same time. They don't fall out of the hat in single order, one at a time.

Developing EQ: 2. Separate out feelings from judgements

It is very easy to blame others for your unpleasant feelings at work. However, part of being emotionally intelligent is being able to take responsibility for how you feel at work, to own your feelings as yours, and not to blame someone else for them. It also means being able to work out how you contributed to these feelings arising.

If you are to express your negative emotions well you need to be able to separate out expressions of your own feelings from criticisms of others. Here are some examples to show you how feelings differ from judgements:

  • If you hear yourself complaining, "You were so aggressive", you are judging others and discussing a behaviour, not a feeling.
  • If you say, "I felt vulnerable", you are describing your own feeling.
  • "You make me so angry", is blaming someone else.
  • "I am angry", is owning your own emotion.
  • Saying, "Your behaviour was wrong", has no feeling or emotion word in it at all and is simply an accusation that is likely to make another person feel defensive and angry.
  • Saying "good work, well done" is not a feeling; it's a judgement.
  • Saying "I'm proud of you for meeting the deadline under such tough circumstances" is a feeling.

Separating all these different aspects will help you to express your feelings more clearly and wisely, so that you build rather than destroy working relationships. This is one of the benefits of being emotionally intelligent.

Developing EQ: 3. Work out why you feel as you do

When you know how you feel and you've identified the specific emotion or emotions involved, the next step is to work out why you feel the way you do. This will give you guidelines as to the most appropriate way to express the emotion. There is no one right way to express your negative emotions; there are many ways. The best way will depend upon the emotion, your situation, the "cause" of the feeling, the history behind the feeling, the people involved and so much more.

If it is an unpleasant feeling it may appear to be because of a specific action that someone else took at a particular time. However, our emotions are seldom so simple.

Sometimes they may build up one step at a time until finally a strong emotion "pops out" at an incident. It may seem like that incident is fully to blame for your reaction but on reflection it may not be.

We often take our history with us to an event at work and it is the history that may primarily be contributing to our emotional reaction rather than the actual incident itself.

We all have emotional triggers. What lies behind each trigger can be a multitude of contributing factors. When you separate these out you are in a much better position to work out the best way to express your feelings so that you build rather than destroy working relationships. This is all part of being emotionally intelligent.

Developing EQ: 4. Choose the vehicle of expression

There are many ways to express "negative" emotions at work or about work. Expressing unpleasant feelings, in particular, does not need to involve anyone else, although it may. There are many options. You don't automatically have to tell someone.

Generate many different options, don't just express your feelings in one way.

For example, if you feel angry, you might:

  • Write down a free flow of consciousness in a journal, writing down how you feel and why.
  • Yell at the ocean.
  • Write a letter to the person involved and then trash the letter without sending it.
  • Talk it through with a colleague or direct report.
  • Discuss it with HR.
  • Simply name your feelings.
  • Start a presentation explaining how you feel and why.
  • Use it to motivate you to correct an injustice.

I have also used paintings at home to express feelings. I used to stand on one side of a room and throw paint onto a canvas from the other side of the room. It's a far more intelligent way to deal with rage than thumping someone, and so much more fun.

There are many ways to express negative emotions at work and about work. The more options you allow yourself the more chance you have of expressing feelings in the best way possible. This is a key emotional intelligence skill - being able to generate options to best manage your feelings.

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Developing EQ: 5. Expressing feelings in writing

Let's look at one way to express feelings in more depth. Feelings can be expressed by writing them down. However, there are many ways of expressing feelings in writing.

For example, you might be furious with someone. Getting out some blank pieces of paper and writing down all your feelings about the situation, what was said, what happened, and about the people involved is a valid way of expressing feelings. Please note though, this does not mean you send it to them.

I have often used this way of expressing feelings and find it quite cathartic. I express everything safely. I don't hold back. I can "say" what I want, about whom I want, safely.

What I've found by doing this, without editing, without planning and without stopping, is that my emotions move through me. I then come out on the other side with a much greater understanding of what was going on for me in that situation, and all the complexities, influences and triggers of my feelings.

I also find that I move through the feelings quickly and they dissipate. I have acknowledged the feelings. I have understood them and I have expressed them safely. I then need to do nothing but crumple up the piece of paper and put it in the bin or the fire (safely), or even flush it down the toilet.

Just because you feel it doesn't mean you have to tell someone. Having a high level of emotional intelligence in terms of emotional self-expression does not mean you dump your emotions on other people.

What is your EQ when it comes to expressing your feelings?

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