Has one of your off-hand comments ever had unintended consequences? Of course. It’s happened to all of us.
Welcome to your emotional wake.
Like a pebble dropped into a pool of water, we create wakes. Gentle swells of gratitude, ripples of concern, or even crashing waves of drama and rumor. Everything we say, especially as leaders, leaves an emotional wake. It’s what someone feels and remembers after we leave. It’s the atmosphere we create not just by what we say, but more by how we say it. A raised eyebrow, dismissive hand gesture, a smile that reads more like a smirk, or those polite but disinterested vocal tones all create subtle communication undercurrents that ‘speak’ more loudly than the words themselves.
Your emotional wake is often unintentional. Perhaps you had a difficult call with a client and immediately go into an unrelated conversation with someone else. That person may walk away thinking you’re angry at them or they did something wrong, when the reason for your tone, abruptness, and sour facial expression is the left-over emotions involving the client.
Think of our emotions as a contagion that others can ‘catch’. Sometimes people catch positive emotions, like those we carry with us after a really productive meeting, a meaningful compliment, or a sweet conversation with our child. Other times the emotions we carry are more negative. In these situations we’re like Pig-pen of Peanuts fame, but instead of a mound of dirt following us wherever we go, it’s an aura of negativity which infects others with uncertainty, confusion, or resentment.
The reality is, our interactions are not always smooth sailing. We’re going to have to deal with angry people, unfair situations, and difficult meetings. So how do we avoid infecting others with the negative emotions which result? A few ideas:
Self-Awareness – Being aware of your current emotional state and what caused it is the first step to ensuring it doesn’t impact others.
Compartmentalize – Being able to sequester the feelings and thoughts about the prior situation is essential before moving on to the next. Those feelings and thoughts will still be there to consider later, when they won’t affect others around you. And by the time you get back to them, your feelings about the situation may have lessened.
Take a 30 second pause to regroup – When emotions run high, our heart rate and blood pressure go up and our breathing becomes short and shallow. This decreases our ability to think clearly and feel calm when moving into our next conversation. Taking 3-5 long, deep breaths (in through the nose so that your abdomen fills with air and then out through the mouth… very slowly) will bring calmness and clarity. It will help you compartmentalize and proceed without letting the past influence the future.
Transparency – When you realize your mood is impacting a conversation, state what’s happening and let the other person know that your emotions aren’t about them. They’ll appreciate the openness and will respond in kind.
Reflection – If you find yourself filled with negative emotions frequently or get feedback from more than one person that you seem angry, harsh or critical (etc.) more than you should, think through what’s happening in your personal or professional life that could be the root cause. Talk to family, friends, a coach, or even a therapist if you believe the cause may be linked to your past. When you live in a perpetually negative and unfulfilling world, the risk isn’t just for people on the receiving end of your wake, but for you as well. Beyond the possible physical impact (e.g. heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression), others will be less likely to open up to you and offer support. They will be more likely to reflect your negativity which will result in a team that is unmotivated, uninspired, and doing the minimum necessary to get by.
Focus on others – Asking questions of the people you’re meeting with, and truly listening and caring about their responses is one of the simplest and most powerful things you can do. Beyond ensuring others feel heard, it has the added benefit of getting you ‘out of your head’ and focused on someone other than yourself.
Be aware of emotional wakes, not just in yourself, but in others. When someone is reflecting an emotion that isn’t consistent with the reality of your relationship, your work, or the subject matter of the conversation, keep in mind that what’s going on likely has nothing to do with you. Resist allowing your emotions to get hijacked. Stop yourself from becoming defensive, fearful or negative. Don’t take on the other person’s distress and make it yours.
Beyond awareness, taking responsibility for your behavior and the impact it has on others is one of the keys to demonstrating emotional intelligence, which in turn is one of the most important aspects of successful leadership. Being clear eyed in looking at your impact on others can be a tremendous opportunity for engagement, improved relationships, more successful teams, and personal growth.