In my line of work, I get to hear a lot about people’s problems and related emotions. Be these at work or at home, with family, friends or that demanding boss. Many of us are dealing with challenges that if we let them, can make us cranky. And what we focus on we tend to get. The crankier we feel, the more likely we are to notice the negative things happening around us, which in turn makes us even more irritable. You might imagine that all the anger, frustration, anxiety and shame felt by my clients would surely impact my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Without effective skills to manage their emotions, I have no doubt this could and would occur. Emotional overload, vicarious trauma and eventual burnout. So what can we do to help manage the impact other people’s emotions can have on us?
The first step is having awareness of both our own emotions and the emotions of others. The second is practising skills to effectively manage the impact that other people’s moods and difficult emotions can have on us. And in reality, anyone can do this. So if you find yourself being negatively impacted by other people’s emotions, here are five specific skills I have learned that help me effectively and respectfully handle other people’s difficult emotions. The upside is with practice, you will create new neural pathways in your brain that will enable you to tap into these skills whenever you need to. This in turn will help you keep your cool in all relationships, especially the important ones – your significant other, your boss, kids, parents, friends and work colleagues.
1. Replace judgement with curiosity
I’m not sure about you, but when I grew up, strong emotions weren’t tolerated. If someone was in a bad mood, they were told to get over it ‘quick smart’, particularly if you were a child in the family. Strong emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness were often seen as negative emotions and needed to be fixed. Emotions such as happiness and joy were labelled positive and acceptable; however, negative emotions were judged unacceptable and a sign of immaturity or loss of control. Not surprisingly as a young adult, I found it challenging to deal with other people’s strong emotions and I would often judge them for their inability to get their ‘s%^&t’ together.
It took a post-graduate degree in counselling for me to realise that this judgemental mindset was neither helpful nor set in stone. I recall a lecturer saying that to serve those in emotional turmoil, we need to replace judgement with curiosity. With this lens of curiosity, it’s much easier to acknowledge and validate their emotions, showing understanding and empathy, which is what most people experiencing strong, painful emotions really need.
I learnt that it was essential to be aware of our own self-talk when someone we care about is very emotional. How do we think about emotions? Are they good or bad? Are they triggering something in us that we learnt growing up?
Maybe your go-to position is:
- Can’t they see that these emotions are no good for them?
- Can’t they see that they are having an impact on the people around them?
- How can they be so selfish and self-indulgent?
- I wish they would just get on with it like I do when I am feeling like this – just move on!
Instead, substitute more curiosity-driven questions:
- What is happening in their world at the moment that is making them feel this way?
- What kinds of circumstance might have happened to make them feel this way?
- What is the benefit to them of feeling this way? Are they getting something out of it?
Shifting from a lens of judgement to curiosity changes our mindset enabling us to support others in an emotionally-intense situation. When someone close to you is in a bad mood, try to understand how and why they are feeling the way they are rather than judging them for being emotional.
2. Stop problem-solving and start listening
When someone you care about is upset and emotional, what is your first go-to strategy? Without a doubt, the most common mistake people make in how they communicate with each other is that they get stuck in “Advice giving or fix-it mode.” Especially couples!
When someone close to us is cranky, anxious, frustrated or seems to be down in the dumps, we often think we need to fix them. But as I have learnt the hard way, offering advice to someone who is in the midst of a bad mood is typically unhelpful at best and often counterproductive.
Can you think of a time when you were in a bad mood and started describing how you were feeling to your significant other, a family member or a friend? Before you were three sentences in, they were already coming up with ideas as to how you could fix ‘your’ problem. Offering advice about what you should or shouldn’t do and telling you that being upset about it is a waste of time and energy. How frustrated did you feel? No doubt the person that you were talking to could probably see your pain and struggling, and therefore their natural reaction was to try and alleviate your pain and make you feel better. Not to mention, make themselves feel better.
But here’s the thing, most people struggling with emotions don’t want someone to fix their pain or to find a solution to their problem, they just want to feel heard and understood. This is one of the most counterintuitive but universally true laws of human psychology in my opinion. And once you start believing this and acting on it, everybody around you starts feeling better.
So how can we shift our mindset from problem-solver to helping people feel understood? Reflective listening is the answer. What this means is that when someone tells you something, all you need to do is reflect back to them what they just said, either using their exact words or putting it in your own words. It’s like being their mirror. This tells the person two things, firstly that you are listening and secondly that you understand how they are feeling. If what you say back to them is not accurate, it also allows them to explain it again.
Here are examples to get you thinking of what reflective listening could look like in your relationships:
Your significant other: “You never really listen to me! You’re always just trying to solve my problems and get back to watching TV.”
The usual response: “The last thing I want to hear is all your issues when I get back from work. All I want to do is relax and watch TV. Can’t you talk to me later?”
Reflective listening: “What I hear you say is that you don’t feel heard by me and that all I’m focusing on is trying to solve your problems.”
Your friend: “My boss was so rude to me today and made me feel like a banana in front of my team when he reprimanded me about a report I hadn’t completed properly.”
The usual response: “But why didn’t you finish the report, of course, he’s gonna be upset with you.”
Reflective listening: “It sounds like you were really embarrassed by your boss and what he said to you in front of your team.”
Now, I know you might be sitting there saying “Really!” but it works and is a tool frequently used by counsellors and coaches. The reason is, it’s not about what you are saying, it’s about how they feel and the fact that they are feeling heard. The value of being their mirror is that it helps them feel like you are with them, you’re connected and understand where they are coming from, not to mention that you have their back. By being the mirror to another person’s experience, you’re giving them a genuine connection versus trying to fix them.
3. Putting on your own shoes
Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and ‘feel’ the way they must be feeling. Having empathy is a critical skill for relationship building. Another way that you could do this is through reverse empathy – by putting yourself in your own shoes and trying to remember a time where you perhaps felt the strong emotion the other person is feeling. Maybe it was anger or frustration or a deep sense of sadness. Try and recall a time where you struggled with these emotions, how they felt and what mood you were in.
For example, if they’re really frustrated and angry, think back to when you were so frustrated or angry, you couldn’t even think straight:
- What happened to get you so angry?
- What thoughts and emotions were going through your mind?
- What did the people around you do or not do?
- And importantly, what do you remember wanting, needing, or wishing for when you felt that way?
Often, reverse empathy can help you appreciate someone else’s emotions and struggle because it’s based on your own experiences in the moment, rather than what you think they must be feeling. And the more you can connect with your emotional responses, the better the chance of being genuinely helpful and supportive to the other person, not to mention being less reactive and emotional yourself.
4. Respond versus react
Have you ever found that other people’s bad moods have stirred up emotions in you? Your significant other is miserable, and you find yourself getting frustrated. Perhaps your boss is anxious and micromanaging, which tends to make you feel anxious too. Maybe a parent is irritable, and you respond with annoyance and a sarcastic dig.
Allowing our emotions to overtake how we’re feeling about a situation, means that we have limited emotional and mental bandwidth to deal with the mood of the other person. This is the reason why we often react to other people’s bad moods in a way that ultimately isn’t helpful to them, to us or our relationship.
The best way to manage this is by simply acknowledging and validating our own emotions and telling ourselves that it’s okay to feel this way and that how we are feeling is reasonable. As an example, suppose your significant other has been in a bad mood the whole evening because of something that happened at work. They are impatient, frustrated, and generally painful to be around. There are also no signs of them shifting their mood, and they are totally self-absorbed in their own misery. While you’ve managed to be supportive for the first couple of hours and showed interest in their story, you can feel yourself starting to get annoyed with them.
Rather than 1) allowing your annoyance to get the better of you and saying something unhelpful, or 2) judging them and their inability to get over it or 3) becoming judgemental of yourself for feeling annoyed, you could validate your own annoyance. This could take the form of a few seconds of pause, during which you acknowledge how you’re feeling, remind yourself that it’s okay and natural to feel this way and then ask yourself ‘what is the most helpful way’ you could move forward. These few seconds of pause allow you to calm the emotional centre of your brain and get your rationale brain back in the driver’s seat.
5. Control what is in your circle of influence
If someone you care about is in a bad mood, there is nothing you can do to make them feel better. Now, this may sound counterintuitive because many of us think that if someone’s miserable, we can make them feel happy by doing something, or saying something. In reality, however, the only thing we can control is how we show up. We cannot control how another person feels or doesn’t feel, that is entirely their choice.
A common error I see many people make when trying to deal with other people’s bad moods is to think it is their responsibility to make that person feel better. The reality is we can only be responsible for the things that we can control and influence. Emotions by their nature are not directly under our control, and therefore we are not responsible for our emotions. We are however responsible for our behaviour and how we think as a result of these emotions.
When we feel responsible for things outside of our control, we set ourselves up for unnecessary frustration, disappointment and resentment. However, when we are clear on what we can control, i.e. our behaviour and thinking, then we are less likely to get frustrated. In summary, because you can’t directly control how someone feels you’re not responsible for it. When you stop taking on the responsibility of making someone feel better, you can start focusing your time and energy on what you can do to connect with them in a heartfelt way and become genuinely supportive.
A final word
Humans are DNA wired to connect. We crave belonging, finding our tribe and forging strong relationships. Emotions are part of what makes us human. Being able to understand and regulate our own emotions and having the skills to support others who are experiencing strong emotions is key to healthy relationships. The more we practise these skills, the better we become at managing the highs and lows of human connection. It is like building a muscle. The healthier our relationships and the stronger our sense of belonging and connection, the better our mental, physical and emotional health. So the next time someone close to you comes home in a grumpy mood, question with curiosity, mirror their emotions, put on your own emotional shoes and focus on what you can control!