As the leader of a meeting, organization, committee or project team one of your challenges, especially when dealing with a heated issue, is to be able to channel the emotions that may arise into a productive entity for the group. When an emotion is expressed you must help the person who is expressing the emotion identify the emotion and its source. Then facilitate a discussion that leads them to express the emotion in a way that contributes to - rather than detracts from - group goals and effectiveness.
Now this does not mean that you become the group therapist. On the contrary. The purpose of addressing emotions appropriately is to help the group become more effective at working together. Not to alter people's personality traits. Remember this is all about group effectiveness - not conscience or winning and losing.
Why do we get overly emotional?
Emotions are an important part of data collection on a project. They help people inform each other. When your emotions and thoughts work together you respond more effectively. Emotions often erupt around feelings of fear, threat, guilt, shame, and anger. Situations may drive higher emotions such as a difficult subject being discussed, unrealistic expectations, the triggering of past emotional experience, or the diverse culture of a group.
There is a physiological reason why sometimes people act out without thinking - react instead of respond. The brain has two mechanisms in dealing with emotions - the neocortex and the amygdala. The neocortex helps you to reason what your eyes, ears and other senses take in. The amygdala determines whether or not the situation is potentially threatening. The response is quick, exact and sloppy often referred to by the clich�s of "flying off the handle" or "engaging mouth before engaging brain."
Two Ways People Express Emotions
People express their emotions in two ways: directly and indirectly.
Directly: An expression of direct emotions might be, "I am angry with you." or "You promised one thing and then went back on your word."
Indirectly: People express indirect emotions in two ways: verbally and nonverbally. An example of indirect verbal expression might be yelling, changing tone of voice, repeating a point, verbal attacks, changing of position when accused. An example of nonverbal indirect expression might be dirty looks, crossed arms, negative body language or sighing. One person's outburst may infer frustration while another's may infer fear. Therefore you cannot interpret a person's emotions from their behavior.
When emotions are intense, it is very difficult for the group to comprehend the root of the problem. It is the leader's job to facilitate a discussion that will eliminate any defensive or offensive posturing.
How to Lead an Emotional Group to Effectiveness
First - Manage Yourself:
1. Slow yourself down. Do not intervene right away until you are able to respond in a responsible way without emotion. Breathe slowly. Take a deep breath and release it slowly.
2. Be curious and compassionate to your own emotions. Recognize that you are a learner here as well. Identify how you are feeling. You may feel afraid, nervous, scrutinized, stressed. Boot out the judgmental voice. No judgment allowed. Name your emotions. Ask yourself what you are angry about, or fear?
3. Ask yourself what is triggering the emotion. Ask yourself if an emotion you are feeling has surfaced in other situations. Ask yourself if your own behavior is appropriate for the current situation. If you have overreacted, apologize and let the group know that your own emotions have clouded your judgment.
4. Remind yourself of your skills. You read and study better ways to facilitate groups with ground rules and facilitation skills. You are prepared to handle whatever arises. Remember that.
Second - Intervene
1. Don't shy away from the conflict. When you sense conflict in a group it may be the gift that will bring the group together. It is a golden moment when the stakes are high and everyone is engaged.
2. Name the emotions and their source as they evolve. Someone in your group may say, "The finance department just cuts budgets without caring about what we have to deal with on the front line." to which you might say, "Nancy, you are pointing your finger and sound angry. Is that right?" If she agrees you might say," "It's important for the group to understand what you are angry about. Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened that led you to feel angry about this."
3. Ask the group for their permission to intervene. Here is where you will request buy-in from the group before your intervention so that they are aware that you are being strategic in your facilitation. Remind the group of the core values of the organization and the meeting ground rules.
4. Break down the issue so that they are not one-dimensional. Often the person who is emotional is seeing the issue from their perspective but not in terms of how it affects other people or departments. And the accused party may only be focused on defending their position and the needs of their department. Use your objectivity to list all of the issues.
5. Get curious and compassionate. Ask permission to ask each person in the dynamic, "When you got (feeling), what was your intent?" The answer to this will be an eye opener for the other party. They probably had no idea what the fears, anxieties or concerns really were on the other side.
6. Ask each party, "What did you hear when this emotion was expressed?" Most likely the response will not be what the emotional person intended. People are starting to realize that what is conveyed in an emotional outburst is not always what was intended. And they deduce not to interpret emotional behavior at face value.
7. Ask each party, "What did you think was inferred and do you actually understand now?" The group begins to see that defensive posturing and offensive attacks don't lead to progressive outcomes for the group or for the individuals in the dynamic.
8. Celebrate the group's heightened effectiveness from curiosity and compassion by compiling a list of what was learned from each participant. This list could first be written on individual post-it notes and compiled as a "Group Memory" statement. Or called out in an oral discussion and listed on a board. Honor your achievements!
Effectively dealing with emotions means showing the group how to use emotions to better inform each other rather than avoiding conversations or allowing emotions to drive the project to a brick wall. Start now!
Get Mary Lee's FREE article on Productivity: Don't Manage People - Encourage Insight.
Mary Lee gives executive coaching tips in MONEY MAGAZINE.
Mary Lee Gannon is the president of StartingOverNow.com - Transforming People and Organizations with Goals-to-Results. With more than 16 years of experience as a CEO of organizations with up to $26 million in assets, Mary Lee coaches executives and organizations with a Goals-Accountability-Results system. Read testimonials from her clients. She is a graduate of The Duquesne University Professional Coaching Program and an alumnus of the 2010 Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital Coaching in Medicine & Leadership Conference. Her personal turnaround came as a stay-at-home mother with four children under seven-years-old who endured a divorce that took she and the children from the country club life to public assistance from where she rose to the level of CEO to support her family. Areas of Specialty: Strategic Planning / Board Development / Executive Coaching / Healthcare / Public Relations / Meeting Facilitation / Leadership / Productivity / Life/Career Transition. Her book "Starting Over - 25 Rules for When You've Bottomed Out" is available in bookstores and from online booksellers.
Click here to get the Seven Killer Ground Rules to Effective Meeting Facilitation.