Emotional self-regulation is a key component of emotional intelligence, which Dan Goleman’s research shows is highly correlated to effective leadership. Many executives know this – but our behavioral style can often make this difficult regardless. I have many coaching clients who are emerging leaders in their organizations and who have directive, dominant, action-oriented personalities. For these clients with “get it done” behavioral styles, anger is easily provoked whenever they feel impeded in some way by colleagues. I often work with them to help them develop a strategy for managing this anger – and thereby inviting greater followership within their organizations in the process. As we know, people don’t want to follow an angry leader when that anger is directed toward them.
So how does one learn to respond to strong emotions like anger that arise in us? Mindfulness provides a powerful solution here. The definition of mindfulness I subscribe to is non-judgmental attention to, and awareness of, present events and experience. A mindful solution will include recognizing when the emotion arises, withholding any self-judgment, and being fully present to the experience of that emotion. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple 5 step methodology for how to do this:
- Recognizing the emotion. Begin by clearly seeing the emotion. If we are angry, we can think to ourselves, “I know that I am angry right now.” If we have trouble becoming self-aware in the moment of that anger, we might look to our body for cues. For some of us, we might feel sweaty palms, increased heart rate, tightness in the chest or shoulders – or there might be other clues we can sense in how our body is reacting. If we have a list of the types of situations, specific people, or behaviors of others that tend to push our buttons, we can revisit that list in our mind to see if any of these patterns apply here.
- Accepting the emotion. When we are angry, we don’t deny it – we accept what is present right now. Our instinctive behavior is typically to keep the focus of our attention on the trigger (situation, person, or behavior) that we are reacting to, pushing our anger to the back of our minds. This is what evolution has wired us to do: keep focused on the threat. Instead, we briefly focus on our ourselves, our emotional reaction, and let go of any self-judgment about it.
- Embracing the emotion. We imagine our anger is a best friend or close family member who is going through a personally challenging time. What would you do in that moment to support your friend or family member? Put your arm around the person? Put your hand on their arm or shoulder? Imaging doing that for your anger, and just sit with this visualization for a little while. This simple exercise has an almost magical ability to soothe strong emotions. It may take longer for some than for others, but after a moment you will feel that the emotion will pass.
- Looking deeply at causes. When we’re calm enough, we can then look deeply to understand what has caused this anger to arise. This is a critical moment to reflect back and boost our self-awareness of our triggers. What about our own mental state contributed to the anger arising? Usually, we find that we were predisposed to the anger (perhaps due to lack of sleep, hunger, or another trigger earlier in the day) before this trigger appeared. Build a list of the situations, people, or behaviors that drive you batty – and write it down for future reference. I know many executives who keep this list in their smartphones, for instance, and use it to prepare for challenging meetings.
- Developing insight and compassion. Once we understand the causes for the emotional reaction, we can develop some insight on what to do about it. Often – and especially for directive and dominant executives – it can be restorative to seek a compassionate explanation for the other person’s behavior. Suddenly we remember our colleague has an unusually stiff workload because she is covering for someone else on sick leave, or she just lost her mother and is still recovering from that. With some insight and compassion for others, we will know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.
All executives who wish to optimize their ability to influence and lead others learn how to regulate their own emotions. While it comes more easily for some than others, this is a skill that can be developed just like any other. And that means the more this is practiced, the easier it will become.