Many of us are getting ready to spend time with family over the holidays and celebrate our work friends in social gatherings. Some of us dread these somewhat forced social interactions — it’s possible we feel drained by them, or we want to avoid close contact with people we find difficult or toxic. And it can be a mixed bag – we enjoy socializing with some people but not others. Group gatherings don’t really give us the ability to say yes or no to who we get in close proximity to.
If there is an influx in your social calendar in the next few weeks, it’s worthwhile to revisit the topic of emotional contagion – how others’ emotions influence us and how we do the same in return. If you’re a leader at work, chances are you’re sending out year-end messages or crafting your inspirational message for 2023 to rally the troops or set the tone.
I once met with a senior leader – just a few levels down from the top position in his corner office. I remember being invited in because I had indicated I had feedback I thought was important for him to hear. I remember looking at the sheer size of the office and the various awards that were on display. I sat in a chair with a heavy, old-fashioned wooden desk separating us. I had this odd feeling that I was being called to the principal’s office, and this man was looking at me as if I was something distasteful. There was just something in his facial expression that made me think I was entering a lion’s den. He invited me to sit, yet I felt unwelcome. I was picking up on his body language, which was not congruent with his words. I had trusted him on his open-door policy, and I felt it was urgent to tell him what no one else seemed to want to put their career on the line to do. I told him that people in the office feared him and, as a result, weren’t being honest about projects being late or having unrealistic timelines. His people were afraid of him being honest with him. People had told me that he yelled at them and humiliated them in meetings. They said he did things they found to be demeaning. I cared about my coworkers and the projects, and I thought it was worth it to be candid about how his behaviour made others feel.
I felt I could be direct – that’s how men talked to each other, especially at the senior levels. Couldn’t I do the same? I know I came from a place of respect and sincerity, and I was candid but in a caring way. Yet this man got so angry. I felt his anger energy enter my body across the desk – as if it was coming at me in waves. I put both hands on my stomach to try and comfort myself – to know I was safe and to stay strong. I became mindful of my emotions and breathed into them, knowing they were a natural and human response. I remembered I was doing this out as my professional responsibility, and my intention was good. In mindfulness of breathing, I remembered this was a risk I knew could happen – a worst-case scenario was being realized, and I was trained as a project manager to recognize this. Yet, the tears came because my emotions were overwhelmed by his anger, and as a high-empathy person, I can’t help but feel others’ emotions strongly.
He never acknowledged I was crying. He kept talking — actually, he was berating me. He picked up an award and waved it in my crying face, telling me he got that from someone who praised him on his high level of empathy. He said I was completely off base to indicate anyone feared him. High empathy? He had no genuine warmth. He couldn’t even see that he was upsetting me. This man could have just said thanks for the feedback. I’ll take it into consideration. But he had to lecture me and show me how wrong I was.
People in positions of power over others have a higher degree of spreading their emotions. Emotions work on a more primal level than thoughts do. So while we speak or write words of positivity, what gets communicated is the sender’s warmth – or lack thereof.Tweet
I left his office, thankful that I never had to be in his presence as a part of my daily job. I felt empathy for all of the people who interacted with this man and an unpleasant side of him, as I did. How does a leader become so disconnected to think he has high levels of empathy and that his staff couldn’t possibly fear him?
I recently found an online assessment to measure your charisma – how you come across to others and influence them. The definition of charisma in this assessment is the balance of warmth and competence. So many leaders in the tech industry get to where they are because of competence alone. It’s a lesson to all of us — including me. Awareness is not a leadership competency for just the extreme cases like that man in the corner office with his awards. We all have off days when our energy is not going to be great. We need to know how we impact others. We must become aware of the warmth in our communication and what really gets communicated to others on a primal level. These two gurus of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, say it well in this 2-minute clip:
So practically, what can be done if you care about what you really communicate? Become aware of emotions within yourself. Practice mindfulness of emotions – there are many apps and techniques. Also, parents and spouses have even more influence over their family’s emotions than at the workplace – there is more at stake in our most important relationships.
For me, this is an easy mindfulness practice to help me be a better communicator:
1. I pause and do mindfulness first. I follow the breath and say,
>>>>”Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I relax my body.”
Using this for a few breaths helps me get to the right mindset to feel my emotions. Sometimes I’m not aware that I’m anxious or angry about something. But mindfulness opens awareness, and I come to see the emotional state that was in my subconscious.
2. Now I can say,
>>>> “Breathing in, I allow myself to be <___ insert the emotion, e.g., anxious ___>. Breathing out, I breathe out <___ insert the emotion, e.g., anxiety ___>.”
Substitute whatever comes up for you – it could be joy, love, despair, or dozens of others. [Check out this list of 51 mental states your mind could be experiencing right now. ]
3. Often a mental state is associated with an emotion, and becoming aware of your emotion can help you amplify it (such as joy) or attend to it, so it lessens (such as anxiety).
Any emotion you feel in the moment is the real communication you send, in spite of what words you use.Tweet
If you practice mindfulness of emotions, it will allow you to send “true” communications — communications where people are not confused about what they are hearing and what they are sensing from you. Every social interaction involves emotions. So at this time of year, when our social calendars are busy, aim to become more aware of emotional states – both as a sender and a receiver.
Negative emotions are okay – we are human to feel them. Crying in that office was actually a healthy outlet for all the negativity I was absorbing. But awareness allowed me not to get down on his level and enter a war of words. I stayed silent because I knew nothing I could say would result in any change. He was an old-school leader raised in a business world where underlings knew their place. In his world, his anger was justified. I stayed with my integrity and focused on the warmth of my hands. It was on me to speak the truth. Those tears washed away the toxicity of that interaction, and staying mindful of emotions kept me in a good place for such an experience to unfold. I didn’t internalize anger at his anger. I didn’t take this home to my family.
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