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Second that emotion with precision

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Second that emotion with precision

The business leaders I coach are thoughtful, high achievers. They make impressive professional and personal improvements while we work together.

One area, however, remains a challenge for us.

I often struggle to get them to express a one-word emotion they’re feeling toward each of the three goals they’ve set and are working to accomplish.

Rather than share emotions, they tend to rush to explain the progress they’re making. Like many of us, these leaders would rather talk about their actions than their feelings.

Yet, when they jump into telling what they’ve been doing rather than stop and reflect on what they’re feeling, they may miss out on some opportunities to improve their thinking and their health ─ and you may be too.

Here’s why you want to be more in touch with your specific emotions for yourself and your team. 

When you pause and consider how you’re feeling in the moment, you’re able to dampen your brain’s limbic system. This brain structure deals with emotions as well as other functions related to memories and instincts, such as your desire to flee, fight or freeze if you’re threatened.

When you dampen your limbic system, you apply a type of hand-brake to your unconscious brain so you can stay in control of your thoughts. When you’re in control, you literally improve your ability to think clearly plus increase your capacity to hold more thoughts in your working memory.

For purposes of a coaching session, reflecting on emotions helps you gauge how you’re feeling toward your goal. Plus, you’re able to concentrate more clearly on the conversation that will follow.

Outside of coaching sessions, naming the emotion or emotions you’re feeling has other benefits too. When you name an emotion — or label it, as the experts call it ─ you increase your self-awareness.

Increased self-awareness helps you regulate your emotions and behavior, especially when you’re aggravated, annoyed, or anxious.  So rather than lash out at others or do something else that you may regret later, you can figure out better ways to relieve your angst. (For more about this, see Leading people through day-to-day living.)

And if you are able to label with “emotional granularity,” you can experience even more positive benefits ─ which I’ve just learned.

As described in the New York Times article, Are You in Despair? That’s Good, people who experience more emotional states and can describe them more precisely (especially negative emotions) enjoy both mental and physical benefits.

Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research shows that when you are able to expand past every day emotional words, such as “sad,” “angry and “afraid” and describe with precision the emotions you’re feeling, your brain actually begins to construct your emotional states.

Even better, your brain also starts regulating your body’s energy needs more proactively, as Feldman Barrett describes. You may still feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, but you can better control the ups and downs. The sense of control you gain contributes to both your improved mental health as well as physical well-being.

So can you acquire emotional granularity?  

Yes, it’s a skill you can learn. Here are three ways to improve your emotional granularity.

  1. Expand the number of emotional words you use. For example, don’t just say you’re stressed. Say you feel scattered, frazzled, or like you’re walking on a high wire without a net underneath you. You can consult this list of feeling words to help you diversify your emotions.
  1. Pause throughout the day and check in with yourself. For instance, after you take a sip of your water, coffee or tea, ask yourself, “How am I feeling now?” Be as specific as possible, avoiding plain vanilla words.
  1. Find a buddy to practice emotional granularity together. By teaming up with someone, you can help each other describe emotional experiences as vividly as possible. Keep in mind the point is not to have the biggest vocabulary, but instead to define your emotions more precisely and concretely.  

 Are you ready to take on this small skill that can exponentially improve your life?

Yes, I recognize you may be agitated with me for assigning you another task, but keep in mind I’m doing it for our better good, including the improved performance of your team and organization.

Maybe this is virtuous accountability I’m feeling…. Will you second that emotion?