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Emotional Contagion—What Every Leader Needs to Know

August 21st, 2018 · 12 Comments

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“Mom, something’s wrong with my eyes. I have some weird blind spots that aren’t going away.”

My son, 33 years old, was calling. He sounded scared, and I knew exactly why. My son’s father had gone blind with a progressive eye disease that started in his thirties. True, it was a rare genetic condition and the chances of my children getting it are almost infinitesimal.

But still…

My mind immediately jumped to a horrible thought and I brought myself back to the present, to reality. Immediately.

Because I knew my son would be having his own frightening thoughts and my job was to keep him as calm and grounded as possible. To do that, I needed to be calm and grounded.

There are a lot of good reasons to face any challenge, whether a crisis or a more routine problem, in a calm state. We think more clearly, problem solve more creatively, and have greater physical stamina.

For me to stay calm with my son, I had to avoid the impact of emotional contagion, the tendency that we humans have to synchronize our emotions to those around us. Emotional contagion can transmit either positive, supportive emotions, or negative, anxiety-laden ones.

Dealing with emotional contagion is a crucial quality for anyone in a position of leadership, whether it’s in business leading others, in coaching working with upset clients, or in family situations dealing with anything from medical emergencies to agitated toddlers.

In this situation, I didn’t want to absorb my son’s upset and get agitated. I wanted to set a positive tone for him to absorb. I wanted to be the emotional leader.

I do this routinely in my daily encounters with clients and their anxieties and upsets. Before I work with clients, teach a class, or lead a workshop, I make sure I’m aware of my mood. If anything is happening in my personal life that might negatively impact my mood, I will consciously set it aside, and take steps to lift my mood.

Admittedly, avoiding emotional contagion from my son was much more challenging. It’s always more challenging with someone close to us, but it can be done.

Emotional contagion transmits easily in-person, but it can take place over the phone, too. We humans are sensitive enough to each others voices to pick up negativity mood, agitation or anxiety, even when we can’t see the other person or feel their physical presence.

In business settings, studies have confirmed that both positive and negative emotions, spread among employees like viruses. Feelings can be “caught” by others when working together in groups. Not only is employee mood affected, judgment and business decisions are impacted, as well.

Emotional contagion can even take place in writing, over social networks. Facebook drew a lot of criticism a few years ago when it revealed that it had manipulated the news feeds of more than a half-million users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw.

Facebook did this is in a research study with Cornell University, confirming the existence of emotional contagion in this context. The people who viewed more positive posts responded with more positive content and those seeing more negative posts responded with more negative posts. Facebook was accused of violating ethical boundaries by turning users into lab rats without obtaining their informed consent.

And the study proved how easily our emotions are impacted by others.

Because I could think clearly and brought up my son’s mood, I was able to get enough information to help him decide whether he could wait though the weekend until Monday morning, when we could find a better place for him to be examined. We decided that waiting was a better option.

On Monday, he went to an excellent eye clinic and was told that he had a couple of very tiny retinal tears that had no similarity to his father’s eye disease. The doctor he saw was confident that he would fully heal without treatment.

Within a few days, he called to say he could already tell that the blind spots were getting better.

And for an added bonus, he said, “Thanks for helping me through this. I would have really panicked without you.”

This was a very happy ending. It confirmed my commitment that any anxious or distressed person I’m dealing with is going to synchronize to me and my emotions, where I intend to always remain the calm, grounded, positive leader.

Here are some tips I used that can help you stay away from emotional contagion:

  1. Set your intention to be the calm, grounded leader, to stay in a positive emotional state, and to let anyone else you are encountering synchronize to your mood.
  1. Harness your out-of-control imagination. Your mind may want to create a narrative out of the few facts you have. It’s what our brains do automatically to keep us safe. But those narratives are generally based on speculation and predict terrible outcomes. Remind yourself that you can’t know that the situation will have an unhappy ending.
  1. A regular mindfulness practice is really helpful in building the skill to stay away from imaginary scenarios. So can regular use of my heartbreathing meditation. (You can obtain a free mp3 recording of it and a descriptive worksheet by emailing support@terrydemeo.com and putting “Heartbreathing Meditation” in the subject line.)
  1. When dealing with an upset person, put your attention on them, on what they are saying and doing. If you are in person, make eye contact. If on the phone, you can give them your full attention by closely listening to them.This will help divert your attention from your inner world and your mind’s imagined parade of horrible outcomes.
  2. Breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. I use a simple mantra, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.”
  3. Move. If you start to feel distressed, adrenaline and cortisol will be released into your system to prepare you for battle. This is what is known as fight or flight. When you aren’t having to run or fight, you will get a jittery feeling from the hormone buildup. Shake it off any way you can, with physical movement. If you need to go into another room and close the door, do so. This simple tool only takes a few minutes to work.I hold a lot of tension in my arms in tense situations, so in this one, I stood and shook my arms and let my body tremble several times over the weekend when my son was in distress.
  4. Keep this in mind: you don’t need to DO anything to convince the other person to change their mood. Your job is to hold a positive mood. Our bodies naturally want to synchronize. Be the one that gets synchronized to.

Tags: feelings · noticing · stress

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa Remeny // Aug 24, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Great news about Brendi!
    Xo

  • 2 Leigh Fortuna // Aug 24, 2018 at 7:31 am

    Loved this. I definitely will keep it in mind. Thank you.

  • 3 Terry // Aug 24, 2018 at 7:46 am

    Glad you liked the piece, Leigh!

  • 4 Terry // Aug 24, 2018 at 7:47 am

    Yes it was, thanks! Spoke to him yesterday and the symptoms are almost totally gone now.

  • 5 Debee DiMenichi // Aug 24, 2018 at 9:28 am

    I read a bumper sticker the other day that said, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” I spent a great deal of time pondering the thought, turning it around (as I’m known to do). I laughed at what I once believed and came to the conclusion that if I’m outraged, its not possible for me to pay attention to others or myself. Thanks for the reminder Terry. I’m so happy that your son is doing well.

  • 6 Terry // Aug 24, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Debee–I always love your turnarounds. “If I am outraged, I can’t pay attention.” Wow–there’s a whole mountain of truth there. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • 7 Ann Burrish // Aug 24, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    Really well said and relevant, Terry. Thank you. I appreciated your example and especially the seven tips to avoid contagion – or infecting others with our emotional stuff. On a lighter level, your hair continues to look fabulous – as do you. 🙂

  • 8 Ann Burrish // Aug 24, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    So many good turnarounds, Debee and Terry.

    If I am not outraged, I am paying attention.

    If I am outraged, I am not paying attention. (My personal mantra – then I’m busy being reactive rather than present, peaceful, and focused on solutions or acceptance.

  • 9 Nancy McKay // Aug 26, 2018 at 5:10 am

    Thank you, Terry for writing this informative and extremely useful post. I’m learning so much from you. Delighted to hear that your Son is doing well.

  • 10 Terry // Aug 26, 2018 at 7:08 am

    Thanks, Ann!

  • 11 Terry // Aug 26, 2018 at 7:08 am

    Oh, these are so good! Excellent!

  • 12 Terry // Aug 26, 2018 at 7:09 am

    Glad you like it, Nancy. Thank you so much!

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