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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

Roller Coaster

August 20th, 2008 · No Comments

When you’re disappointed, does your mood plunge downward like it’s on a roller coaster?  Yesterday, my new client, let’s call her Susan, had plummeted like she was on the Coney Island Cyclone. She’d sought coaching after a string of business failures.  She suspected she might be doing something to attract this pattern into her life.

In a voice awash with misery and despair, she told me how she’d been incredibly happy this morning at the prospect of landing a fat new contract for her business, but a half-hour before our appointment, she received an email that the deal had fallen through. She was crushed and depressed, and beating herself up.

“So what changed the way you feel?” I asked.

“The company changed its mind,” she stated dully.

“How would you feel right this minute if the email had gotten lost in the internet’s parallel universe, and you didn’t know about it?” I asked her.

“I’d feel great,” she said glumly, “at least until I found out.”

“So what really changed?” I asked.

With some coaching, Susan realized that her thoughts about herself had changed. When she believed she had the contract, she thought she was smart and competent and valued, and she felt energetic and excited about life. When she got the email, she told herself the company had rejected her and she was incompetent and useless. She became listless and empty.

As Susan discovered first-hand this morning, if we attach our happiness and self-worth to external circumstances, like a big contract, a promotion, or our children’s grades, we climb aboard life’s roller coaster. When circumstances are favorable, we are high, excited, exhilarated; when things change, we nose-dive to the bottom.

We hop on a roller coaster to take this ride when we lose touch with our true nature, what Martha Beck calls our Essential Self. Our Essential Self knows that we are always sparkling jewels, treasures of infinite value and worth. This has nothing to do with success in any external form–contracts or promotions or our kids’ grades or any other person or circumstance outside of us.

When we lose touch with that part of us, that all-knowing, peaceful, secure place deep in our hearts, we are at the mercy of life’s roller coaster. Our self-worth gets buried by an avalanche of neediness and insatiable hunger for positive attention and rewards from others.

People change their minds, contracts fall through, and others get selected for partnerships, promotions and awards. That is the nature of life—change and unexpected circumstances are the only constants we can count on.

When we are in deep touch with our value, our worth, and the joy that lives deep inside us, we survive setbacks and challenges with peace and security. A contract can fall through, and we can put it into perspective. We’re disappointed, of course, but we can regain our positivity and hope, and we don’t slide into abusive or self-defeating thought patterns.

Sure, it feels fantastic to land a big contract. But when we are in deep contact with our Essential Self, we never lose touch with our worth and our value, and we can regain our energy and hope. We might even understand that the loss of the contract could, in some as yet unfathomable way, be in our best interests. We save the roller coaster ride for fun and games at an amusement park. And, we realize that the next gift from life may be just an email away.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re on the Roller Coaster

1. Are you having any negative thoughts about yourself?

2. Is this an honest, factual assessment of this situation?

3. What happens to you when you hold on to these negative thoughts?

4. Imagine being in the present situation without the negative thoughts and judgments. Does anything shift for you?

5. Is there a stress-free reason to keep the negative thoughts about yourself?

6. What is an honest assessment of the situation that doesn’t include any negative or abusive thoughts about yourself or others?

7. Does this change the way you feel?

Tags: self-criticism · self-love · self-worth · thinking

The Feeling of Being Loved

June 30th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Karen was ecstatic. She was tired of being single and sent an email to an old boyfriend. He immediately returned the email and told her he was single, too. He wanted to see her. They spoke and made a date for the following weekend.

She was elated on our coaching call. “This might be it!” she told me breathlessly. “I wasn’t ready for him before, but this time I am. I’m so excited.”

I asked her to describe her excitement. “It’s the feeling of being loved,” she told me.

“Where did that feeling come from?” I asked.

“From his call,” she said.

“Oh, did he tell you he loves you on the phone call?” I asked.

“No.”

“So, where did the feeling of being loved come from?” I asked.

“From the possibility of this working out,” she said. “I’ve always been so bad at relationships before. Now I’m ready. He sounds really interested in me. This could be it!”

“So, really let that feeling you got from the phone call, of being loved intensify,” I suggested.  “Where is it in your body?”

“It’s in my heart,” she said.

“So where is the feeling coming from?” I asked her.

“Oh my gosh, it’s coming from inside me!” she exclaimed.

“Yes it is. And what changed to create that feeling?”

Just then, she got it. “My thoughts. My thoughts about myself changed.”

Yep. That’s it. That’s the secret formula. When Karen thought the possibility of being in a loving relationship was on the horizon, she felt good inside. She became happy and excited. Before that, life was ho-hum. She hadn’t seen this guy in years, and all that had happened was one phone call. The old boyfriend didn’t do that.  Karen did–she transformed the way she felt about herself.

So, as Karen discovered, being excited and feeling loved can be generated inside of us. Once we “get” this we can create it for ourselves, over and over, every day of our lives. We can just skip the middleman (in this case, the old boyfriend) and create the feeling of being loved and the excitement of looking forward to life within ourselves.

So next time you are feeling fabulous, really explore it. Get to know this place. What do you feel? Where do you feel it in your body? Describe it. Write it down. What thoughts are you having about yourself? Write them down. Memorize everything you can about this experience.

We don’t have to wait to find the right relationship or the right anything else to feel fabulous. And, as a bonus, when we’re excited to be alive, we can attract exactly what we want–like a great relationship!

Tags: connection · creating your reality · feelings · happiness · love