One of the ways to improve our emotional intelligence, and therefore improve our decision-making, our productivity. our personal interactions and our well-being, is to expand our vocabulary with respect to emotions.
We experience hundreds of shades of emotion every day. While five to seven emotions are considered basic, combinations of those emotions blend together to produce a multiplicity of emotional experiences. So anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, shame and joy, for example, can morph through combination and intensity into feelings of frustration, rage, distress, sorrow, apprehension, uneasiness, anxiety, embarrassment, mortification, annoyance, contempt, contentedness, admiration, confidence and ecstasy.
In the workplace, emotions tend toward the negative–anxiety, fear, anger, disappointment, resentment, jealousy. These emotions can have profoundly negative impacts on our bodies and minds, particularly if we are saturated with them and their related fight-or-flight hormones over time. Unfortunately, joy and its correlates, which can bring positive benefits, may be the emotion least experienced in the workplace.
Being able to identify emotions is a key step to disarming them. “Naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create.” And managing emotions requires first that we know what emotions need to be managed. As psychologist Dan Siegel has said, “you have to name it to tame it.” Yet a study by TalentSmart found that in a test of over 500,000 people globally, only 36% were able to accurately identify the emotions that were influencing them at any given time.
How accurate are you in naming your own emotional landscape, or that of those around you? In emotional intelligence assessments, lawyers score not only low generally compared to other professions but our lowest score is on the subscore relating to accurately perceiving one’s own and others’emotions, putting us significantly below the general population’s 36% awareness.
Why is it that we are so woefully out of touch with emotions? The emotional vocabulary is not one that is used or prized in our industry. In fact, the law tends to scrub its language of any words that relate to emotion. And unfortunately our workplaces reflect that tendency, not only in the absence of emotion words but also in how emotionally arid they often feel.
Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence promotes a simple acronym for improving emotional intelligence in school settings: RULER, which stands for Recognition, Understanding, Labeling, Expression and Regulation. By giving students a more extensive and accurate labeling vocabulary, the Center has determined that the students are then in a better position to recognize emotions in themselves and others, understand the causes and consequences of emotions, express emotions appropriately and regulate their emotions effectively. In one exercise targeted at expanding their labeling ability, students are encouraged to check in with themselves every hour and write down what emotions they are feeling.
Lawyers can expand their emotional vocabulary in the same way. There are apps that facilitate checking in with yourself emotionally, such as MyMoodTracker for iPhones, which allows you to name, gauge and track your emotions, complete with a reminder on whatever schedule you prefer. Asking a friend, colleague or spouse who seems sensitive to emotions to comment on an interchange by using emotion words is also helpful. Verbally noticing what you or others are experiencing–“I am feeling overwhelmed and distracted by my daughter’s illness,” or “You seem discouraged by the turn the case has taken”–also helps expand awareness and vocabulary. You can try out your emotion vocabulary by watching a movie in another language or with the sound off (great to do on the plane) and seeing how many emotions you can name based on facial expressions and body language.
One CEO who has gone on a personal crusade to be more aware of his emotions confessed, “I still have occasions when negative emotions rise up in me outside of my awareness. The impact shows up in the tone of my voice or my choice of words, and my solution has been to turn to colleagues for help. Any time they sense that I might be feeling negative emotions, I’ve asked that they simply ask me, ‘How are you feeling?’ That’s usually all it takes for me to notice. By noticing, I’m almost always able to manage whatever is going on inside me more gracefully.”
So you can always ask yourself or others, “How are you feeling?”