When conflict kindles unwelcome emotions, we want relief. There’s a well-researched emotion regulation technique that reliably dampens the effect of unwelcome emotions, and all we need to remember is one simple question.
Emotion regulation is the process of trying to control or change how we’re feeling. In conflict situations, we usually want to regulate unwelcome emotions like anger, frustration, aggression, contempt, anxiety, shame, fear, and hopelessness.
Getting swamped by strong emotions feels lousy. And the overwhelm makes it hard to access our good communication and conflict resolution skills right when we need them most.
One way we can help ourselves and others in moments like these is to take advantage of an emotion regulation technique that’s well-supported by research:
Recognizing and naming an unwelcome emotion has a powerful effect on quelling it (tweet this). Called affect labeling, the process is thought to engage our executive brain, transforming the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupting its intensity.
The idea certainly isn’t new — people have been trying to feel better by writing and talking about their feelings for centuries. But for the past two decades, researchers have been trying to understand whether or not putting feelings into words is genuinely beneficial for emotion regulation and why it works.
In research published in 2007, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman and colleagues concluded that affect labeling seems to diminish emotional reactivity. They noticed that when research subjects were asked to label a strong negative emotion, they showed less activity in the brain’s fear response center — the amygdala, where fight-or-flight reactions originate — and greater activity in a brain region associated with vigilance and discrimination.
Additional research in the years since has reaffirmed the benefit of affect labeling. In 2018, a group of researchers led by Rui Fan and John Bollen turned to Twitter to take affect labeling research out of the lab and into the everyday world. Fan and Bollen found that affect labeling had a rapid calming effect on negative emotions after “I feel…” statements.
And research published in 2021 added a new twist: Affect labeling apparently can make us happier. After research participants viewed positive images (like cute puppies) and were asked to label their emotions, they actually felt more positive emotions. Affect labeling both dampens unwelcome emotions and heightens positive ones.
Using affect labeling to regulate your own emotions
To affect label your own emotions, ask yourself this simple question:
Lieberman suggested three ways to process this question: Think about it, write about it, or verbalize it. One author of the 2021 research cited above cautions that the technique works best when performed — saying the emotion out loud or writing it down.
People who write about intensely emotional experiences show improvements in objective measures of health. And writing is also a very effective way to boost your performance in pressure-filled situations.
To use this emotion regulation technique out loud, you don’t have to exit the difficult conversation. Instead, identify the emotion you’re experiencing and state it, like this: I’m feeling pretty frustrated right now.
Using affect labeling to help others regulate emotions
The last thing someone angry wants to hear is another person judging them for their anger (tweet this). So tread carefully when using this idea with someone else. The objective is to help them affect label as a way to regulate their strong emotion, not call them out.
I’m not a big fan of How does that make you feel? because it’s over-used and feels too therapy-like for some people. I prefer What emotion are you feeling right now? or How do you feel?
Professional mediators may use a private meeting, or caucus, to check out something better discussed outside the hearing of other participants. I might approach it this way: There’s good evidence that saying out loud the emotion we’re experiencing helps us keep our balance better. So in that spirit, what are you feeling right now?
This post was originally published in May 2015 and updated in 2022 to reflect recent research.
Disclosure: One or more links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, which means I receive a few dimes from Amazon if you buy the book (at no extra cost to you). And, of course, I just turn around and spend those dimes on…more books. Which then help inform my writing for you. It’s a beautiful cycle.