Mastering Workplace Emotions – Developing Your Emotional Vocabulary.

by David Hinde on 08/06/2018

Mastering your emotions is a key skill in any workplace. Emotions like anger or frustration can drive you to inappropriate actions and behaviour. Negative emotions can interfere with your performance, furring your thinking, decreasing your energy and creating stress. Understanding both your own and other people’s emotions help you to build strong business relationships.

In her recent book, How Emotions are Made, psychologist Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett explains the latest research on neuroscience and how we can use it to master our emotions. She shows that we all create emotional concepts in our heads. So my version of “happy” might be quite different to your version of “happy.” All humans across the planet feel differently when they decide to be “happy”. In fact there may be humans from some cultures who don’t even know the concept of “happy.”

The brain doesn’t come hardwired with these emotional concepts. We construct them over the years. When faced with a situation we decide which of our emotional concepts to use and this drives how the brain will decide to prepare our body for that situation. Will it need to increase our heart rate, increase blood pressure or alternatively send us to sleep! Given what the brain does to our body we will “feel” something and start to behave in certain ways.
Using this knowledge, how do we get better at mastering our emotions? Dr Barrett describes studies that show that spending just twenty minutes per week improving your knowledge and use of emotional words can have a dramatic effect on your performance. The more words I have, the more emotional concepts I can create. If I have only one emotional concept to cover difficult situations in work called “stressed”, then my brain has only one action plan. But if I realise that in some stressful situations I might be better to use the emotional concept “discouraged” in others I could use “trepidatious’” and in others I could use the concept “excited” I now have three action plans that I can start to use in a far more tailored way that “stressed.”

Dr Barrett recommends looking at other languages to find concepts that aren’t described in your own. For example there is really no English equivalent for the Dutch word “gezellig” which means togetherness. Or if you can’t find a word make one up or use a silly word. For example, when I’m feeling overloaded with work, I used to describe this as “stress”, but using Barrett’s technique I now have invented a new term “work collywobbles”! Firstly it’s a ridiculous term which is hard to take serious, which makes me feel better right away and secondly I’m starting to construct a more appropriate reaction to it than to “stress.”

There is far more to Dr Barrett’s book than I – as a non-scientist – can do justice to in this brief article. Take a look at her book or alternatively to her TED talk.


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