How to Be Effectively Emotional at Work


Is showing emotion at work verboten? I’m starting to re-consider the popular assumption that it is.

Crying, laughing, protesting and celebrating are authentic displays of who we are and central to our humanness. The more human we are, the more we can fully engage with others. And as social acumen becomes increasingly critical to workplace effectiveness, displaying emotion is increasingly important in our professions.

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While over-crying, over-laughing or over-protesting are all signals of low emotional resilience and self-control, appropriate shows of emotion build a level of trust that is foundational for working together.

Seeing demonstrations of raw emotion endear and attract us to the person who lets themselves be seen. For evidence, just watch Zach Johnson after winning the British Open, or Ann Curry preparing to leave the Today Show, or President Obama addressing his campaign-winning team (at 3:20).

Emotions aren’t easy to manage. We need to cultivate a genuine and helpful response when they well up inside us. Here are four tactics that can help:

  1. Look for emotional triggers. When someone’s voice or body language signals something meaningful or emotionally charged, it’s best to pause and focus on that moment. The moment usually passes in few words (I’m scared. She died. I love you. We won. It’s really hard. I’m sorry. You’re wrong. How are you feeling? We’re letting you go.). Other times, the words that trigger are our own (This has been a difficult decision. I need to admit something. I’m grateful.). In any case, slow down time and simply absorb the moment.
  2. Allow the moment to go deep. When I coach people in public speaking, I encourage them to show their emotions, because stronger emotion creates a stronger audience connection.
    We experience authentic emotion when it moves from the head to the heart. That’s why releasing inhibitions is an act of leadership—it demonstrates courage and a desire to connect with others. By processing your emotions in the depths of your being, you show people that you are living in the human experience. That’s attractive, and it builds trust.
  3. Breathe. Not long ago I took an improv comedy class. At the height of the practice, I became loud and aggressive, the product of nervous and expectant energy. When I finally breathed and calmed down, I became more flexible so I could manage the creativity and humor in ways that had greater impact. Inhaling and exhaling slowly has a calming effect on the body, and this allows you to steady yourself in the midst of emotion.
  4. Recognize the value. When I show emotion in front of others, I’m tempted to apologize, feel ashamed or just plain want to exit the situation. Rather than rushing through the emotion or feeling guilty that we’re hijacking a situation, seize the moment. Try to perceive the value that your emotion might have on others who can relate to or appreciate your sincerity. When you consider the value of your emotion for others, it may also help you determine when to taper the emotion to make space for others.

Some of us could work on better controlling our emotions, and many of us would benefit from not suppressing them. How could you be more appropriately emotional with your colleagues and clients?

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