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Managing emotional reactions – how to minimise and manage them

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Have you ever experienced unexpected emotional reactions from staff members? All you did was ask for some information and you were accused of being pushy or condescending? Or you try to provide someone with some constructive feedback and they become sensitive and defensive ? 

People are complex and the way they react to situations can sometimes be a mystery to others so let’s look at what causes emotional outbursts and how we can deal with them effectively. 

So why does one person react to a request with open hostility, whilst somebody else couldn’t be more helpful? It’s all to do with our inner belief systems and how we process information. 

Peter senge conducted a lot of work into mental models and how we make sense if the world. These models determine the way we perceive ourselves, others and situations.

Whilst these models are useful, they are also flawed because we add meanings and interpretations to information to make it make sense to us. We distort facts to make them fit into our world view. Let’s take an example of receiving negative feedback; if we believe that people are well intentioned and we can benefit from feedback, we will be more likely to be open to the feedback without becoming defensive. If, on the other hand, we believe people are mean spirited, judgemental and just want to bring us down, we will react negatively to the feedback.

 “It’s never the people, actions or circumstances that upset us…it’s the meanings that we put on the people, actions and circumstances”

Chris Argyris originated a model called the ladder of inference that can be used to help us understand reactions to events based on the interpretation we give them. Watch the video of a brief explanation of the theory. The premise being we can jump to conclusions based on using selective data and placing negative interpretations on events or actions. This can lead to emotional reactions.

So now we have more if an understanding of why reactions come about, how do we handle them more effectively given that we can’t know what the world view and underlying beliefs and meanings people are using to interpret information? Here are my top tips, particularly if you know some of your staff members are sensitive and prone to emotional reactions:

  1. Lead with your intention

Be overt with the fact that your intentions are positive and constructive. Give context to a situation/interaction. Eg. “I’m not meaning to come across as pushy by repeatedly asking for this information, I need it to hit a tight deadline that’s looming so would really appreciate your help”

  1. Find out why they’re reacting badly

Try and understand how they’re interpreting the situation/communication so that you can clarify the facts. Eg. What’s going on for you as that wasn’t the reaction I’d anticipated?

  1. Demonstrate empathy

Demonstrating empathy is the fastest way to ease an emotional reaction. Acknowledge their position or feelings. Eg. “I know these things can be hard to hear sometimes, I can understand why you’re upset… let’s focus on…”

Here are some tips on what to say and what to avoid saying.

Don’t say:

  • “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …”
  • “What is wrong with you?”
  • “There’s no need to blow a gasket”
  • “Calm down!”

Do say:

  • “My intention for this conversation is…”
  • “That wasn’t the reaction I expected, what’s going on?”
  • “You obviously feel strongly about this, talk to me”
  • “Do you need a minute?”

By saying and doing these constructive things, you will be better able to deal with emotional reactions and have a clearer understanding of why they come about. For more information or training in this area contact


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JEM Management Training

JEM Management Training designs and delivers flexible, in-house management training courses to help  organisations in Perth engage their staff fully in the workplace.

As time is often limited, JEM Training offers flexible half-day management training courses which focus on a specific area of management expertise. These short courses build upon each other over a period of time, chosen by you, to provide ongoing management development.

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