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Leadership: dealing with those strong emotions


I found leading last week’s leadership and coaching workshop hugely motivating.  It really felt like being part of creating a better world.  Its success was, in part, due to our participants’ willingness to address the topic of emotional intelligence and strong emotions in leadership coaching. Think Feel Say Do  Overall, leadership development addresses four key areas of our lives:

  • Thinking
  • Feeling
  • Saying
  • Doing

Having full access to our feelings and emotions is vital to leadership development. 

Emotions link your left brain logic and ideas to your right brain creativity.  We achieve more, personally and through our people and teams, by tapping into our own and others’ inspiration, enthusiasm and resourcefulness.

We can avoid the paralysis by analysis spiral – or ‘overthinking’ – and get ideas into reality – simply by tapping into emotional connections.

The EQ challenge

As leaders sometimes we kid ourselves that strong emotions have no part in the workplace.  Yet we’re perfectly happy when team members are fired up.

The problem comes when strong emotions arise that we label ‘negative’.  We don’t know what to do; we fear litigation or worse.  The trouble is, the more we shy away from addressing our own strong emotions the more likely they are to pop up in the most unexpected places.  And if we’re not in touch with how we feel, how can we expect to understand the feelings of others?

It’s the feeling piece that leaders find most challenging.  And it’s no surprise that coaches find it challenging too.  On our workshops, we lead up to the topic of emotions by small steps, outlined here.

Participants learn to recognise and put words to, their own emotions.  We encourage them to empathise and check out how they believe other people are feeling.  We encourage them to understand the trigger points for their stronger emotions.

These typically fall into four key areas:

  • Situations – like meetings, deadlines, achievement, or perceived failure
  • Relationships – with particular individuals, meeting new people, like at networking events
  • Hunger – missing breakfast is a typical emotional trigger
  • Tiredness – when we make the connection between sleep and relaxation patterns, we can be at our very best

By keeping an emotions diary, we can identify triggers and start applying what we discover.  This might be in decision-making, time management or delegation skills – making life easier for ourselves and our teams at the same time.

Appreciating the brain science and physiology around emotions is also important. We used to believe that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”.  We now know that’s no longer true.  To our brains hurt is hurt – whether by words or deeds.

Developing our emotional intelligence is not an instant fix

When we get triggered by strong emotions, the chemicals stimulated in the body may stay there for 24 hours.  If you pile negative situations on others, you could be moving into adrenaline overload.  We need to know how to deal with these overload situations and neutralise any negative impact.

When I first trained in EQ with the master coach Marcia Reynolds, I recognised that, for me, this was the start of lifelong  improvements.   Not just because I was starting from a very low point!  Also because gains are easy to make and to repeat, once we know how.

I remember that Marcia taught us two key things about experiencing strong emotions

  • It feels like something is taken away: like our self-respect; our confidence; our personal values
  • It feels like we aren’t getting what we need: clear direction, support, resources

When we’re clear about our self-respect, our confidence or our personal values, it’s easier experience resilience and take a stand for what’s important to us.  Not at the mercy of someone else.  And if we feel like we’re not getting what we need, that’s the time to ask for it.  Yes, it takes courage and willingness.  A bit of gentle persistence goes a long way too.

We start with coaching around leaders’ values.  The things that are fundamentally important to us are often connected to our emotions – we feel strongly about them.

It’s also very empowering for people to understand that, when we get hurt by others’ attitudes, it’s often because we’ve assumed that someone shares our values.  When someone tramples on our values it hurts – and that hurt is a strong emotional feeling.

Shifting our emotions

The good news is that when we learn from experience  – good or bad – that learning tends to stick.  We only need to make small regular gains in self-awareness and empathy to achieve great outcomes.

We have the power to shift emotions.  Yet we can’t practice compassion, forgiveness or patience if we’re fired up with anger, frustration or impatience.  The primitive end of our brain just won’t allow us to make a shift instantly.

So next time you’re feeling those strong emotions that stop you being at your very best, try these steps:

  • Notice, and put a name to, your emotion
  • Own it – take responsibility for how you feel
  • Say it out loud using ‘I’: e.g. “I feel frustrated by this situation”

Avoid at all costs the phrase “You make me feel” – that’s not owning your emotions; that’s handing them over to someone else – and blaming them at the same time.

Ask yourself –

  • What, if anything, feels like it’s being taken away from me?
  • What do I need, right now?
  • What it will take to move on from this emotion?

By the way, fun, laughter and play all help to create natural hormones that will neutralise the adrenaline – and fresh air or exercise work wonders too.  But that’s a blog for another day…

The upshot is that handling strong emotions well and growing our emotional intelligence creates a better world.  Better relationships at home or work.  Better leadership.  Increased resourcefulness, confidence and ‘can do’ attitudes. Better personal and team motivation.  More successful business deals.  The list is endless and the business case for better emotional intelligence is well-documented.  I encourage you to make a small EQ gain in your life and experience the benefits for yourself.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

2 thoughts on “Leadership: dealing with those strong emotions

  1. Helen, i found your paper interesting especially as I very much am bringing more and more EQ into my own coaching practice. I found Stephen Neale et al book “Emotional Intelligence Coaching” really useful as a solid building block and as I am a coaching psychologist working in the area of performance coaching for leaders then you can understand my interest. I share your passion re researching/ finding the best ways to help my clients to reach their own excellence so if you do have any further material you are happy to share then I would welcome that and even exchanging thoughts on this area.
    well done and thank you!

    • Thanks for your comments Peter – it sounds like we share the same commitment around this issue. Have you read Daniel Goleman’s book “Leadership the power of emotional intelligence”? apparently it’s a collection of his writings. BTW if you’re interested in writing a guest review of Neale’s book – we always welcome those on our leadershipzone website ( Best wishes, Helen

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