You’re at work and a coworker unloads about the boss, in front of other colleagues. As you listen, you think to yourself, “He’s so right about how unfair the boss can be.” He may be right in his assessment of the boss, but his behavior is unprofessional. You are thinking, “Oh no, not here, pal. Not now. You are so wrong to do this. You are screwed if this gets back to the boss.”

The idea of professionalism is central to emotion management in the workplace. The workplace requires us to mask our feelings, especially our negative emotions. When we deal with a customer’s unending questions that we have answered already, we must mask our frustration and impatience. You may be disappointed or unhappy from a decision that headquarters made, but you’d best slap a smile on your face! Wait until you get home, where it is safe to unload how you really feel. This may seem emotionally limiting, especially for women. But emotional management in the workplace is in everyone’s best interest. Now, we don’t want to create a robotic image of people acting and talking in a highly prescribed way, but there is a balance between spontaneously expressing emotions and strategically expressing them. Expressing emotions effectively isn’t a simple matter. It doesn’t matter whether it is negative emotions, like boredom or anger, or positive emotions, like love or affection. Showing these feelings is not always wise. On the flip side, always withholding emotions can stunt relationships from growing and developing.

Some emotional rules of engagement can help us monitor appropriate displays at work:

Know thyself. What are you feeling?

Control your impulse to act. (Don’t be reactive. Be proactive.)

Go to that happy place or somewhere else in your head. This might just mean taking 10 deep breaths, going on a walk, or thinking about things that make you happy.

Choose your words carefully. Be intentional, not impulsive.

Sustain and maintain during resistance. Don’t give in to pressure.

Alice, an engineer employed by one of the world’s largest telecommunication companies, had a problematic and alienating communication style. Many of her female coworkers claimed that every time they were around her, they left the interaction feeling out of sorts. Most could not put their finger on what this woman engineer did or said[md]they just felt like they had been “slimed” (one person’s words). They felt bad. One woman thought about it and said that Alice always had a way of diminishing her, making any contribution she made seem meaningless and unimportant. “I would just like to smack her. She is so insulting,” one woman said.

This impulse was a fantasy. All emotions are impulses to act. And this impulse has evolutionary roots. How we choose to act has a lot to do with family history and cultural norms. The root word for emotion is motere, the Latin verb “to move.” So we know we need to act, but the question becomes “How?” What will we say or do? We have a choice. Making the right choice has a lot to do with our workplace success.

Code switch: Controlling the impulse to act is huge. Most of us suffer from impoverished emotional vocabularies. But don’t let something leap out of your mouth as soon as the other person is done talking. Take a moment or two. Hesitate so you don’t come from a reactive place.

Sometimes you may be so shell-shock that you are speechless. Try one of the following suggestions to calm down:

Ask for a break: “I would like to take a 15-minute break” or “Let’s resume this discussion later this afternoon so I have some time to process what you have said.” This gives you time to ponder and reflect. It helps eliminate the possibility of a reactive response. If taking a break is not a practical logistical maneuver for your circumstances, go to another place in your head and have a conversation with yourself.

Practice self-talk: “Ouch, that was mean. But I have my daughter’s graduation to look forward to. My life is full of good things, and this nasty comment isn’t going to dictate my behavior or get me down.”

Develop an “emotional reset” button: When Mandy has something tough happen at work, she has a simple cheer-me-up code with her boyfriend. She sends him a text that says, “Emergency cheer-me-up notification!” He knows that something upsetting happened but that she doesn’t have the time (or the desire) to talk about it. He almost always responds with a simple “I love you” or “Think about how funny Fluffy looks in her new pink sweater.” Just a tiny connection with something positive is like Mandy’s emotional reset button. It puts the issue into perspective. Life does go on.

Take a bathroom break: Another way that women can always buy a little time is a bathroom break. The bathroom can become a place to get centered. That doesn’t mean wailing in the corner or complaining to the next woman who walks in; women love to get each other’s opinions and overanalyze together. But at work, that might be risky and appear gossipy. Instead, take a deep breath, stretch, get some water, and put some space and time between the issue and your reaction.

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