"Oh, boy. This time I messed up."
That's what I was thinking when some years ago, I let my emotions get the best of me. I believed a colleague had stolen something of mine. Not literally; I thought he stole an idea. At least, that's how I felt.
I knew the way I should handle it. I knew I should approach him calmly, state my concern without any type of accusation, and give him the chance to explain the situation.
But that's not what I did.
Instead, I went in like a ticking time bomb, asking emotionally charged questions before ...
I went off.
In the end, it turned out to be a huge misunderstanding. I felt horrible, because the colleague was a nice guy, and up until that moment we had a pretty good relationship. Of course, I apologized profusely, and he said it was OK and we'd consider it water under the bridge.
But to this day, every time I think of that moment, I cringe.
If you've ever had a moment like this one, maybe you can relate. In emotional intelligence terms, we refer to this as an emotional hijack.
In an emotional hijack, a small part of your brain known as the amygdala, which serves as a type of emotional processor, "hijacks" your brain and causes you to react without thinking. In my case, some built-up tension and various other factors caused me to see a situation unclearly, jump to conclusions, and hurl harsh accusations at a colleague.
It'd be great if we could identify the circumstances that lead up to emotional hijacks before they happen, but that's not usually how it works. But learning to analyze an emotional hijack after it happens can be almost as valuable.
I like to call this process the "emotional postmortem."
Just like a medical or project postmortem, the goal of an emotional postmortem is to determine the cause of "death," or failure. When you identify the cause for a hijack, you can devise a plan to help you avoid repeat episodes in the future.
So, how do you carry out an emotional postmortem?
Do the following:
1. Walk away and analyze.
Take a walk, a drive, whatever you need that will give you a change of scenery.
The goal is to clear your mind so you can see things from a different perspective. This will allow you to analyze the situation and identify what led up to the hijack.
In my postmortem, I identified two major causes for my hijack:
- A series of minor problems that were not being addressed, leading to a buildup of stress
- A severe lack of communication
Identifying root problems like these is pivotal because then you can begin to work on solutions.
2. Make adjustments.
Once you've figured out what led to the hijack, you need to make changes, or else you run the risk of repeating the same thing again. After all, your emotional triggers are unlikely to change.
That means you either need to:
- Lessen the chances you encounter a similar situation
- Adjust how you react to said situations
In my case, the problems that caused the hijack were unlikely to change. Sure, I could definitely work on my communication, and I did.
But I found a better, internally focused solution was to switch my focus at work. Rather than concerning myself so much with what my colleagues were doing, I'd concentrate on making my own work better.
After all, ideas are a dime a dozen. How many truly original ideas are out there?
The real value is in the execution.
By switching my focus, I stopped wasting time thinking about imagined slights and things out of my control. Instead, I invested that time into what I could control--building and shipping higher-quality work. And that led me to keeping my emotions under control too.
The emotional postmortem is just one in a series of tools that can help you achieve balance when it comes to your emotions. (If you're interested in learning more, you can check out our full course on the rules of emotional intelligence here.)
Of course, it's important to recognize that tools like these won't make you perfect. Your emotions will still get the best of you at times.
But a postmortem can help you lessen the number of hijacks you fall victim to, and allow you to turn emotional into emotionally intelligent.