Posted on 11 Aug 2010

How do you feel right now?

Happy? Frustrated? Excited? Annoyed?

Your mood influences your perception, so we see through the filter of our emotions and they colour our interpretation. Positive states of mind literally open up our visual field – we are open-minded and seek out opportunities. Negative states of mind narrow our perceptual field and selectively filter in only negatively reinforcing material.

What does that say about how you lead others or interact in a team? Despite the fact that we consider ourselves in a professional place when we are at work, we are surrounded all day by a myriad of emotions emanating from our colleagues, managers, clients and of course, ourselves. So emotions are unavoidable (and you would be a strange human being to be without them anyway) – but how can we ensure they don’t get the better of us? How can we stay cool when the heat is on?

Neuroscientist Dr Matthew Lieberman from UCLA is at the forefront of research into controlling emotions. Their work has generated new insights into the role that different brain regions play in responding to emotional stimuli. The centre of our emotions is the tiny almond-shaped amygdala: every emotion, good, bad and ugly, can be found in here. An external event, such as an irate customer, triggers an emotion – maybe fear or anger – in you. What happens next?

Option 1: vent the emotion, and yell right back

Option 2: suppress it and stay angry on the inside, or

Option 3: control it by regulating your response.

No prizes for guessing option 3 is likely to yield the best outcome – but how do you do it? That’s where Dr Lieberman’s research comes in. Studies published by his lab show that affect labeling or putting feelings into words, has the effect of diffusing the emotional charge by reducing activation of the amygdala and also increasing activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is where we inhibit our instinctive responses. By naming the emotion, or giving it a label, we literally affect the neural circuitry and are able to cognitively, rather than just instinctively, manage our response.

So how can you put it to work?

  • You’re driving along a busy highway and the car in front of you screeches to a halt. You hit the brakes hard and avoid a collision by millimetres. Your heart is racing and you’re furious. STOP – Label the emotions: “I feel shocked, scared and angry”.
  • A colleague you have been working with on a joint presentation to the executive team suddenly tells you at the last minute that they are too busy to complete their part and you will have to run solo. STOP – Label the emotions: “I’m frustrated, angry and disappointed”.

In each case, the intense activation of the amygdala response, firing an intense burst of emotional energy, will have been tempered by the conscious process of the prefrontal cortex simply interpreting and naming what it sees.

Of course, not every situation will let its emotional content be that easily corralled – there are advanced strategies for more intense or complex situations – more to come on that. In the meantime, try affect labeling… and please, comment with your thoughts or personal experiences.

Neuroscience can provide interesting facets into understanding how people interact, make decisions and work effectively! Keep up-to-date with the latest trends and developments in talent management and neuroscience by exploring our HR Blog here.