If you want to control your emotions better during difficult conversations, do something counter-intuitive: Give up trying not to feel them. Instead, put a label on them.
Recognizing and naming an emotion can have a powerful effect on quelling it. Psych professor Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, calls it “affect labeling.” You can use affect labeling to help yourself and others.
Instead of trying to push an emotion away, the idea is to draw it closer by feeling it, identifying it, and putting a label on it. Instead of indulging a strong emotion that’s damaging a conversation, affect labeling acknowledges the emotion in order to stop being hobbled by it.
Embraced by neuroscientists, mindfulness meditation practitioners, and psychotherapists alike (though they may all use different terms for it), affect labeling seems to pull us out of an emotional quagmire by engaging our executive brain. Using brain imaging, Lieberman and colleagues noticed that when asked to label a strong emotion, research subjects showed less activity in the amygdala and greater activity in a region of the brain associated with vigilance and discrimination.
In essence, the act of considering and then labeling an emotion transforms the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupts the intensity. Control your strong emotions, in other words, not by trying to thwart them, but by examining them while you’re feeling them.
Using it to help yourself
Lieberman suggests three ways to use affect labeling to quell a strong emotion of your own:
- Thinking about it. I have a quick, silent conversation with myself. It goes something like this: What emotion am I feeling right now? Huh. Yep, that’s it: Exasperation. I’m feeling complete and utter exasperation.
- Writing about it. Not only do people who write about intensely emotional experiences show improvements in objective measures of health, but writing is also a very effective way to boost your performance in pressure-filled situations.
- Verbalizing it. You don’t have to exit the difficult conversation to use this emotion-controlling device. Experiment with labeling your emotional state out loud. Be careful not to use it as a weapon. Just state what is, like this: I’m realizing I’m pretty angry right now.
Using it to help others
The last thing someone angry wants to hear is another person judging them for their anger (click to tweet). So tread carefully when using this idea with someone else. Here’s how to do it with finesse:
Option 1: Ask, don’t tell
Since none of us can possibly know for sure what nuanced emotion someone else is feeling, it’s far better to ask if we’ve guessed right than state it as a fact. Asking might sound something like this: You sound pretty frustrated. Is that right? or Am I correct in guessing that this is leaving you feeling pretty distressed?
I tend to avoid therapy language like, What are you feeling? It’s really just personal preference and you may prefer an approach that asks for the emotion instead of guessing at and confirming the emotion.
I use Option 1 most of the time. The exception is utter rage; then I turn to option 2.
Option 2: Talk privately
Professional mediators often use a private meeting, aka caucus, to check out something that’s better discussed outside the hearing of other participants. I might ask them something like, Tell me what’s going on for you right now or My sense is that the conversation is doing some serious button pressing right now. Am I off the mark?
Since the goal here isn’t only to invite them to talk about what’s frustrating them, but also to teach them how to use affect labeling to calm themselves, I’ll often do a bit of coaching here as well: There’s good evidence that actually saying out loud the emotion we’re experiencing helps us keep our balance better. In that spirit, can you name the emotion you’re feeling right now?
I’ll use the response as a springboard to discuss what I can be doing differently that will help them quell the emotion that’s getting in their own or the other person’s way.
In case you’re wondering about gender differences here, I can tell you that I’ve never had a single person of either gender refuse to consider this. If they think it’s balderdash, they’re keeping it to themselves.