Learning to Read and Regulate Emotions
Learning to Read and Regulate Emotions
Has your boss ever told you, “My door is always open”? And if they did: Did you believe them?
If you didn’t, you may have experienced the phenomenon of false connection, says Marc Brackett, PhD.
The founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence wants us to break away from lip service, disingenuous attempts at connection, and the overall lack of psychological safety we feel today in schools and the workplace.
He challenges leaders and teachers to cultivate real connection, and in his book, Permission to Feel, Brackett outlines the RULER program: a set of tools he developed to help us recognize—and regulate—emotions.
If you can be an emotional judge sometimes (we can, too), Brackett challenges you to become an emotional scientist. He explains the importance of moving away from “knowing mode” and into “learning mode,” which calls for us to listen actively and deliberately to the people we want to connect with.
With Brackett, we’ll learn why the true leader is the one who listens. And what the world might look like if we let people have their feelings.
A Q&A with Marc Brackett, PhD
We see empathy as more of a personality trait—that some people are just more interested and more attending to people’s feelings. Empathy is defined as being able to have shared emotional experiences. For example: I’ve felt shame, and you’ve felt shame. Even though it may have stemmed from different memories, we can relate to each other because we’ve both had shame in our life.
However, that does not mean you’re going to be skilled at accurately identifying someone’s emotions or helping the person manage them. This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence is a set of skills designed to help us use our emotions and feelings wisely. It involves the skill of shifting our feelings, whereas empathy is strictly about our shared experience. The important factor here is understanding that if we’re not emotionally intelligent, we may use our empathy in a misguided way.
We might misread emotional cues because we are not yet emotional scientists who can pause, breathe, and check in. We also might project our feelings. When you feel angry, you might look at another person’s facial expression and think something is wrong—when really, it’s yourself. We tend to attribute emotions to people instead of finding out how they’re actually feeling.
It depends on the goal. If the goal is for you to have better skills as a colleague or a parent, it can start anywhere. But what I’ve found in my work in schools and in the workplace is that unless the leadership buys into it, it doesn’t have long-term sustainability. If you want to be more open with your emotions and have better, rich discussions, but the person you report to doesn’t want to hear it, it becomes really difficult. What we’ve found in our research: Organizations whose leaders have higher emotional intelligence have people in those organizations who experience many more positive emotions. If you’re comfortable with who you are, and you’re very skilled at regulating your feelings, you’re going to be open to dealing with other people’s feelings. If you’re closed off, suppressed, or easily agitated, that’s going to be contagious.
The deeper work is that we, as a society, have not acknowledged that how people feel does matter. If you think about our education system, how much time is dedicated to helping students learn about their inner lives? Or building language for their emotions and strategies to regulate their feelings? It could be fifteen minutes a week—if that—and it’s not necessarily done well. But how much time do we spend on math and literacy and teaching other subjects? Probably a lot more. We need to revisit the school curriculum and ask ourselves: If emotional intelligence is so important, how can we spend more time with it?
They should read the research showing that how people feel at work drives their productivity, their creativity, and their performance. Think of an employee who feels disrespected, undervalued, underappreciated, frustrated, or overwhelmed at least 50 percent of their time at work. Research shows that those feelings correlate to a lack of productivity, with time off-task and less innovation. This might make you want to listen to your employees more. Because when you listen more, you are able to learn about how an employee is feeling so that you can help shift it. People do not put in their best when they feel less respected than they would like to. Feelings are the drivers of people’s commitment to their own productivity.
This involves the mind-set that we have around relationships and emotions. In my book, I explain the difference between the emotional scientist and the emotional judge. One of the things that I have learned over the course of my career is that the listener is actually the leader; the talker is not the leader.
“The listener is actually the leader.”
As a leader, if you really want to guide decision-making, you’ve got to find out where your employees are emotionally. Then you can make your suggestions. If you come in as a “knower,” you won’t have the information that you need to make the best decisions.
Being an emotional scientist means being open and curious about how people are feeling. It means understanding how to be in “learning mode” as opposed to “knowing mode.” Having that perspective is critical to building relationships, making the best decisions, and getting the help you need (or the help other people need).
The RULER skills are the things that we do with our feelings. The question is: Are we accurate at recognizing those emotions? The R, the U, and the L of RULER are all about the experience of emotions: Am I aware of how I’m feeling? And am I aware of how other people are feeling? The E and the R have to do with the strategizing: What are we going to do with these feelings?
Recognizing: We pick up on our own emotions by paying attention to our thinking, our physiology, and how our body feels and by paying attention to other people’s facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, and behavior.
Understanding: I may see that your face looks worried, but I have no idea why you’re worried, or I may misperceive how you’re feeling (which happens very often). So the U is saying, “Let’s get deeper. Let’s get at the cause. What might be the reason for that feeling?” What we know in research is that different emotions have different causes. For example, anger is the result of an injustice, whereas disappointment has to do with unmet expectations.
Labeling: This is where we can ask ourselves questions like: I feel angry, but am I enraged? Am I livid? Or am I feeling annoyed, peeved, or frustrated? This allows us to get at the granularity of the emotion.
Expressing: How we express our feelings varies as a function of context. If you’re in a workplace that says, “Emotions don’t matter here,” you’re going to learn very quickly to suppress. In the workplace, we often experience rules around things like race and gender. Women in the workplace monitor how they’re expressing themselves because they don’t want to be seen as either unlikeable or weak. And a man might say, “I’m pissed,” instead of “I’m really disappointed,” even when they may be feeling a different emotion. It’s a masculine way of expression that’s unrelated to their true feelings.
Regulation: What are the strategies I can use to keep or shift how I’m feeling? For example, if I’m having a bad day, what are the strategies I can implement to shift how I’m feeling if my emotions are not aligned with what I am trying to accomplish? The important piece of emotional regulation is knowing how to be a scientist with the strategies you are using. After using an emotional regulation strategy, ask yourself: Did this strategy help me achieve a goal? Is it helping me have a good relationship? Is it helping me have greater health and well-being? Those are the criteria for a good strategy.
If you’ve ever had an argument before work and then found yourself annoyed by certain tasks at your job later on, you might not realize that you are still ruminating in an angry space. It’s not the stimulus that’s in front of you that’s changed. It’s that your mood has shifted, and you are essentially projecting the negative feelings that you have about the argument you just had onto your task at work.
“What we fail to realize is that often our emotions are subconsciously affecting our decisions.”
If you’re not engaging in emotionally intelligent practices—like recognizing and regulating your emotions—you won’t be able to attribute your feelings to the root cause. As a result, this subconsciously influences your decisions in the future. When you attribute your feelings to the correct experience, it no longer bleeds into the future. What we fail to realize is that often our emotions are subconsciously affecting our decisions. To stop doing this, we have to “name it to tame it.” Pause, take a breath, and check in on our mood meter.
We experience opportunities for emotional regulation every day: “I’m tired when I wake up in the morning, and I’ve got to energize myself.” Or “I’m disappointed with my grades, and I feel sad about that.” Taking deep breaths, taking a walk, watching a show, reading a book, or talking to a friend are all ways to regulate. But when we’re tired, hungry, stressed, or triggered by other people, it becomes extra difficult to regulate.
There is a technique we call a meta moment that can be really helpful. The meta moment has four steps:
1. The first is becoming aware that you are triggered.
2. The second step is breathing—creating pause—immediately. Automatically go to the breath. No matter what your urge is to rip that person’s hair out.
3. Activate your best self. This is where you can ask yourself: What kind of partner do I want to be? What kind of mom do I want to be? How do I want to be seen and talked about and experienced? When you start thinking about that, your morals and values come back into play.
4. Then, with your mind focused on your best self, you can shift your emotional regulation strategy and respond through that lens. That helps you to make better decisions going forward.
The key is giving ourselves and the people we love—and even the people we don’t love—the permission to feel. To feel all emotions. We have to let everyone have their feelings, because they are real experiences. We have to strive to become emotional scientists and not emotional judges. We also have to recognize that these are life skills that need continuous practice and refinement. This is an ongoing process.
We also have to give ourselves permission to fail: to apologize to ourselves and to other people. Because otherwise, we’re holding ourselves up to an ideal that is not real. We are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.
“We also have to give ourselves permission to fail.”
Finally, we have to move away from individual, self-focused models and create permission to feel in homes, schools, workplaces, communities, societies, and nations. Because if we’re the only ones taking meta moments, and no one else is, that’s not an effective way to improve the mental health and well-being of a nation.
Marc Brackett, PhD, is founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center of Yale University. He is the lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that has been adopted by nearly 2,000 schools, pre-K through high school, across the US and in other countries. He is also a cofounder of Oji Life Lab and the author of Permission to Feel.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.