How to Handle Emotions at Work

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

It’s not that emotions have no place in the workplace—constructive emotions can be motivating and can enhance understanding. But overly intense emotions block effective communication and hinder problem solving.

We can’t change the way others feel and act; we can only change the way we react to them.  The following tips will help lessen the intensity and duration of someone else’s outburst and help you stay calm while dealing with challenging situations.

Keeping Your Composure

  • Monitor your physical response—Keep your breathing slow and consciously relax areas of your body that are tense.
  • If you are becoming emotional, identify the threat to you. What thoughts did you have that created your emotions?
  • Maintain direct eye contact, but don’t stare.
  • Disagree promptly and unemotionally.
  • If you are dealing with an angry person, consider what the “real” feeling is; anger often covers up another emotion.
  • Don’t react too quickly. Determine first if your instinctive response will be the most productive.

Responding to Others’ Emotions

  1. Let emotional people vent; listen to what they have to say.
  2. Get them to move or sit down.
  3. If possible, affirm their emotion without necessarily agreeing with their point. Don’t dismiss their feelings.
  4. Use their name several times to affirm their individuality and importance.
  5. Ask for more details.
  6. Try to determine what the threat is. Do they feel threatened by loss of approval or control?
  7. Do they feel that they have failed? Do they feel taken advantage of?
  8. Lead them to discussing a solution.
  9. Don’t let them interrupt when you are speaking.
  10. If necessary, suggest you take a brief break.
  11. If the loss of control continues, let them know that you take the problem seriously, but that the way in which they are communicating is not acceptable. Insist on courtesy.

Managing Your Emotions
To bring the best “you” to every communication situation, learn to manage your emotional behaviors. To achieve this sense of control, use this six-step process:

  1. Identify and accept your emotion (anger, fear, frustration, shyness, etc.)
  2. Identify your self-talk. (“Here we go again; get to the point, Fran!”)
  3. Identify your physical responses (hot, red face, shaking, etc.)
  4. Affirm your rights. (Answer the question “Who has the right to control me?” with “Me!”)
  5. Replace nonproductive self-talk and/or physical responses with “in-control” responses.

(Example: Here comes Fran. I can keep this conversation productive by assertively posing questions that will guide our exchange. But first, I will take several deep breaths to relax and then I will look directly at Fran while keeping my facial muscles relaxed.)
6. Strategically communicate.

Sam, who reports directly to your executive, always promises to send you information for reports and then ignores your e-mails when you remind him that his data is late.

  • Identify and accept your emotion:  Powerless, scared, frustrated, disrespected
  • Identify your self-talk:  “What can I do? I can’t fire him. He is such a jerk. I can’t stand working with him. I have to get this done or I look bad.”
  • Identify your physical response:  Tight knot in your stomach, jitters, feeling scattered, thoughts racing.
  • Affirm your rights!  Replace nonproductive self-talk and/or physical responses with “in-control” responses.
  • Self-talk: “We need a win-win here. Sam is also busy so I need to assertively influence to negotiate some of his time to get what I need.”
  • Physical responses:  Take two-or-three deep breaths.  Go to the end of the hallway and put your energy into walking. Create a couple of numbered steps to take in order to slow down your brain and give yourself a sense of control.
  • Communicate strategically: “I need to communicate face-to-face and listen to him and the barriers he faces in giving me what I need. I need to listen for feeling, content, and intent. I need to clearly and assertively state my need but in a way that also communicates that I plan to help him meet his needs.”

Maintaining your composure on the job involves managing your emotions and stress and avoiding impulsive judgments and decisions.  It is a key competency for establishing your credibility and professionalism and an integral part of any career development plan. 

©2009 American Management Association.  All rights reserved.  Adapted from AMA’s seminar
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact and Credibility

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.