It’s normal to experience emotions at at home or at work: frustration, anger, fear, excitement. But how you handle these feelings can go a long way toward building — or destroying — your relationships. It’s essential to develop the ability to regulate your emotions, but perhaps not in the way you might think.
Take this example: A soccer team is playing in a critical game and is down by one goal. Just before half-time, a player gets fouled in the box and the team is given a penalty kick — a great opportunity. A leading player on the team steps up to take the shot. At first, it appears perfect as it soars to the corner of the net but then it rebounds off the goalpost. Defeated, he walks off the field to meet his team for their half-time meeting.
The team is upset. The coach is too. The coach’s goal is to get the players over this hump, ready to return to the field feeling pumped and motivated. Should he master his frustration, put on a fake smile, and ignore the incident altogether? Or should he be honest and fully express his feelings? Which one of these is going to help him meet his goal?
Neither, it turns out.
When You Regulate Well, You Do Well – and So Does Your Family and Workplace
Research on emotional regulation suggests that the coach’s ability to manage his emotions will determine team morale and motivation. Emotion regulation is the “master skill” of emotional intelligence, explains Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the book, Permission to Feel.
But how a leader or parent manages emotions is critical in determining whether the outcome for the team or family will be positive or negative. Research has found that people tend to regulate their emotions in one of two ways: suppression or reappraisal.
Suppression is what most people do: hide their feelings, bottle them up, and pretend not to feel upset. While this is probably the most common strategy, it actually leads to a host of negative outcomes. Bottling up emotions only strengthens them. The activity in the emotion centers of the brain (amygdala and insula) increases. Similarly, your “fight or flight” response is further activated: heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance (skin sweat). Research shows that suppressing emotions elevates other people’s stress response. If a mother bottles up her anger, for example, her childrens’ blood pressure is likely to rise. They may not consciously know that she is angry (since they can’t tell objectively), but they are physiologically registering the anger and that sets off a stress response. Suppression also leads to fewer close relationships, more negative emotions, less social support, lower satisfaction with life, poorer memory, and elevated blood pressure.
Given the negative impacts of suppression, you might think that fully expressing our emotions may be a more effective strategy. Doing so, however, can obviously also be problematic and destructive. Think of a parent who fully unleashes his rage on a child – the impact can be traumatic and the memory of the event can last a long time – as evidenced by the fact that the brain focuses on the negative and remembers highly emotional events. If the coach fully expressed the frustration he was feeling in the moment, he probably would have destroyed the confidence of his players. Instead of inspiring connection and motivation, he would likely leave the players feeling fearful and dejected.
Reappraisal, or taking a broader perspective, may be the most effective strategy in this situation. For example, a mother could reminder herself “this child is just tired, she didn’t really mean to hurt her little brother.” As a result, she calms down and is able to attend to her children with greater ease. The coach could remind himself that “the game is only over when it’s over”; that this is just one game in the season. There will be other opportunities for his team to shine. Reappraisal helps him calm down. As a consequence, he might perceive that the players were already disappointed and that, instead of more dejection, they need encouragement. He may start the meeting acknowledging everyone’s disappointment but emphasizing that the outcome of this setback depends on the players’ determination to master this challenge and turn the game around for the next 45 minutes.
When leaders and parents reappraise rather than suppress, the results are much better for everyone. We recently conducted a study with 15 varsity coaches and their athletes. Coaches who tended to reappraise more often experienced less negative emotions overall than coaches who tended to suppress their emotions. The reappraising coaches also had more positive team climates, characterized by trust, communication, and motivation.
One of the signs of a strong leader (and therefore parent) is the ability to both manage and influence the emotional states of those around them. Leaders – of families or workplaces – must be able to inspire and instill confidence in their followers to help them maintain motivation and cope in the face of difficulty. To be effective at this complicated task, they must be able to regulate their own feelings effectively. As models for those who follow them, leaders and parents also teach coping mechanisms. A mother who takes deep breaths when she is frustrated teaches her child the same thing by example. A leader who takes a broader perspective in times of losses and disappointments helps others do the same. The result is a better atmosphere for everyone – where emotion regulation is modeled and taught in constructive ways.
The potential benefits of reappraisal are supported by research on leader-follower interactions. One study found that leaders who used reappraisal rather than suppression when delivering bad news were better able to help their followers manage their anger responses. The followers of leaders who used suppression in this paradigm expressed more anger and reported negative attitudes towards their leaders.
Exercise Your Reappraisal Muscle
Reappraisal can seem difficult to do during times of crisis. Here’s a quick research-backed technique that can help you do so: Think about the problem as a challenge rather than as a threat. Mounting evidence indicates that appraising problems as a challenge — rather than as a threat — helps people concentrate on the task at hand and consider the steps they have to take to succeed. A challenge frame builds resilience in the face of stress.
When your own stress levels are high, reappraisal can seem difficult. “A fast way to regain your cool so you can reappraise is through deep breathing,” explains Johann Berlin, CEO of TLEX Institute. “By teaching executives how to manage themselves through something as easy as breathing, you can make an enormous difference to their teams.” Research shows that you can rapidly calm your emotions using just your breath. Inhales increase your heart rate and blood pressure while exhales slow them down. An easy exercise you can do even in the middle of a meeting is to breathe out for twice as long as you inhale. If you have a little more time, try this exercise or better yet, try a breathing class, which takes you through a specific breathing practice that can calm you down quickly.
So how can you be best prepared for high-stake situations when you’ll most need to regulate? Practice these exercises in low-stake situations. Practice them daily. You’ll be well versed when things get stressful.
Finally – remember that your child’s brain is not fully developed until he or she is 25! Your children’s ability to regulate their emotions is limited – which of course is one of the reasons they can set off your buttons, but remembering their limitations can help you gain empathy when you need it. The more you model and teach them healthy ways to cope, the better they will be able to apply those techniques.
Co-written with Christina Bradley – a version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review