When emotion takes over, thinking and communication stumble

People have one recurring misconception about ourselves: ”I am mostly a sensible and rational being. Not other people, they sometimes behave very oddly, their feelings get involved and they cannot see things rationally. But at least I am a rational being!

I used to think this about myself, and most software developers I meet also think this. When your work is logical problem-solving and things make sense inside your own head, it’s very easy to believe in your own rationality and sensibility.

That’s why I’ve began to share this quote from researcher and author Brené Brown every chance I get:

“We like to think we are rational beings who occasionally have an emotion and flick it away and carry on being rational. But rather, we are emotional, feeling beings; who, on rare occasions, think.”

People run on emotions

Feelings fuel all actions. Excitement gets us moving, as does panic. Curiosity makes us active, as does anxiety. Love makes us take others into consideration, as does fear. We’re always having many feelings – others less noticeable, others overpowering in the moment.

When a louder emotion, such as fear, anxiety, stress, hatred, frustration, sorrow, shock, restlessness or embarrassment, takes over, it takes up all our concentration. Our own feelings and needs take up our attention. We can no longer see things from other people’s point of view, because abandoning our position (even mentally) feels dangerous or impossible.

In these moments, our communication usually begins to stumble. Instead of mutual understanding, we dig in our heels in and sound the alarm. It would be important to be able to process your own emotions first, to free up bandwidth to focus our attention to thinking and communication as well. The return of rational thinking is achieved by breathing, taking space and talking about things.

Begin by acceptance and breathing

Everything begins with us accepting that we are emotional. Recognising and admitting our own feelings is the first step in regaining control, and it can usually be done even in the middle of very strong emotions. We don’t try to deny our feelings or change them, we just accept and name them.

The next step is to breathe as deeply and slowly as possible so that our nervous system begins to calm down. It’s hardly a coincidence that ‘nervous’ is a word describing a feeling, since our nervous system has an active role in our experience of our emotions. An emotion is, above all, a bodily message to our brains, and it loses its grip best when we receive the message and breathe calm into our nervous system.

Ask for and take a time-out

Most often it would be better to take a time-out than to try to finish while in the grip of strong emotions. When an emotional reaction has claimed our attention, we end up saying and sometimes also doing thoughtless things. That’s why it’s not weakness – but wisdom – to ask for a time-out.

If the situation is safe enough, the meta conversation can be rather open:

  • ”I notice that I’m reacting quite strongly to this. Can we wake a break?”
  • ”It’s a little hard for me to react to this. Could I think about this for a bit and can we return to this tomorrow?
  • ”This situation feels difficult. I’d need space to process this.”

If you feel that it’s not safe to talk about your emotional reaction, you can ask for a time-out for your thoughts: “I’d like to think more about this before I respond.”

Of course, if we get to begin the conversation, for example when giving feedback or bringing up a difficult topic, it’s best to do so after the strong emotions have settled down.

Talk yourself into being calm

In addition to taking space and breathing, it would be good for us to process our reaction with a neutral person, so that we’ll be ready to take other people and viewpoints into account. It would be especially good if there is someone empathetic near us, who can see and hear our experiences without judging, belittling or exaggerating them.

Sometimes it’s enough that we get to share our point of view and feel that it gets understood. Sometimes we want for someone to help us towards other points of view by asking questions.

When we’ve received enough understanding for our own view, we tend to naturally be ready to listen to other people and their opinions. A calm conversation with a neutral person also helps us to package our experiences into forms that are easier for others to listen to.

We are ultimately rational, after all

It’s reassuring to think that we’re ultimately rational beings after all. Emotions run wild only when we don’t accept, listen to and process them. Feelings have important information for us, and leaving them unacknowledged takes us further away from what is happening within us at any given moment. We cannot develop something that is unknown to us.

When we learn to view the messages brought by our emotions as tools, they actually increase our ability to act rationally. Even if the feeling itself is uncomfortable, it’s ultimately more useful than harmful to us. The information provided by feelings supports rational action.

TL;DR: When emotions are processed, rational thinking returns

  • It’s very easy to think that you’re always rational and sensible.
    • However, emotions affect all of us.
  • When our own emotions and needs demand our attention, we can no longer put ourselves in others’ position. Process your own emotions first.
  • Return to rational thinking.
    • Accept and name your emotions.
    • Breathe as deeply and slowly as possible.
    • Ask for a time-out.
    • Talk it over with a neutral person.
  • Take advantage of the information your emotions bring you, so that you can behave rationally.

Or what do you think?

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