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How do leaders handle difficult emotions?

Have you ever felt rage, or any other difficult emotion, so deeply and intensely that it threatened your ability to operate normally? If this happened in the workplace, how did you manage that?

Rage is a difficult emotion

The rage I felt was cold and deep. It sat on my chest with such weight that I felt that if I didn’t get out of the water I’d forget how to swim. My rage, an emotion I have rarely felt (I’ve been angry, but this was very different) was one of many emotions I experienced in the last month of my mum’s life. It manifested itself after Mum agreed to go in aged care.

I was elated that, after a year of negotiating this next step with my very switched on and independent mother, she had finally agreed that she could no longer look after herself and would make the move to aged care. In that year, Mum had been hospitalised four times, two because of significant breaks from falling over. In that year, my siblings, their partners and myself had tag-teamed being with Mum in her house, because we knew that she was no longer safe to be on her own.

My rage came from feeling that we’d all wasted a year delaying the inevitable. That in that year, Mum would have found a new lease on life, perhaps not fallen as much and we would have been saved months of worry that lay beneath every decision we made.

Now, I know there may be people who will decry my feeling such a thing in the face of Mum’s impending passing. But emotions have no moral value. They are neither good nor bad. They just are.

But what we do with them is key.

How can we handle difficult emotions?

Usually we have three choices with emotions, be they easy to handle or unpleasant.

  1. We can resist them and push them down – only to have them rear up when we least expect them to.
  2. We can give vent to them in an unrestrained and unfiltered way with accompanying consequences (even unrestrained joy can be difficult for those around us to handle).
  3. Or we can acknowledge what we feel and then decide how we want to respond.

With my rage, I got out of the water because I knew I had to focus on what I was feeling. I went and sat in my car and explored not only what I was feeling but dug into the why, and then returned to Mum’s place and chose not to act out of that emotion. I understood why she resisted the move for so long and it was important for me to hold both my own emotions and my understanding of my mother in balance – and then choose how to deal with the situation.

So how do we apply this as women who lead?

What can a leader do with difficult emotions in the workplace?

In any situation where we lead others we will be triggered by their actions, attitudes and emotions. That is unavoidable. And, unfortunately, women and their opinions are unfairly dismissed as being too emotional and thus less valid. But the strength of women is that ability to tap into their emotions. Emotions are indicators of things happening at an unconscious level that, when identified, can bring deeper awareness to a situation.

When a situation arises as a leader that triggers a deep emotional response:

  1. Allow the emotion its space to just be – give time to recognising exactly what you are feeling.
  2. Try to identify what the trigger was and why this event has elicited this particular emotion. However, don’t judge yourself or the emotion.
  3. Decide how to respond both to the emotion and the situation that triggered it. What you do with the emotion is key to your growth and effectiveness as a leader.

Emotions can be wonderful tools for self-awareness and self-leadership. Acknowledge the presence of emotions. Allow them space, let them pass of their own accord and in their own time. Use emotions to lead others, and yourself, well.

How are you handling your difficult emotions?

You can develop skills for handling emotions in the workplace. To find out how, schedule an initial session by filling in the form below.

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