Emotion was our first language, babies, and caretakers, communicate and form attachments using the emotional channel. Long before the development of speech, it was tone of voice and body language that counted, this is our emotional channel of communication.
Research shows that adult communication is comprised of approximately 90% emotion, transmitted via tone of voice, posture, gestures, and facial expression. The words or content, account for only 10%. This does not diminish the importance of the content; passing data is an important aspect of communication. However, it is not only what we say (content) it is how we say what we say that makes the difference.
As a simple example, I can say to my dog, in a gentle voice, “Bad dog.” And she will come to me wagging her tail, I can say to her “Good dog” in a harsh voice, and she will sit and look anxious. Congruence between the words and the emotional channel are equally important in human communication. When the emotional channel matched the content, the message is more accurately transmitted. Where there is dissonance, the message becomes confused, and the meaning may be lost. Usually, the emotional channel takes precedence.
An important aspect of child development is learning to self-regulate our expression of emotion. Healthy parenting requires the caretakers to model healthy emotional regulation in their management of the child and in their relationships with others. The child is a learning machine, especially recognising and recording patters. Emotionally Intelligent parents, tend to promote healthy regulation in their growing offspring. Sadly, many parents have some areas of emotion that are not well managed. This in turn leads their offspring to incorporate similar dysregulated patterns of behaviour.
The key areas of emotional Intelligence are:
Self-awareness: Recognising and understanding our emotional states and knowing what they are telling us about our needs. We can look at these emotional signals as Input to our system. The input originates in our limbic system, and is automatic, mostly out or our control. It happens before we have time to think about it. It is automatic because it is our primitive alarm system, triggering the fight, flight, freeze reaction. A part of self-awareness is being in touch with our bodily sensations, our breathing, our heart rate, the hairs on our skin, etc. I believe we often call emotions feelings, because with each emotion we have bodily changes that we sense, or feel, and these sensations can be used to identify emotions. The more aware we are of the physiological changes we experience when we sense an emotion, the more able we are to use our emotions in a healthy manner.
The important take away from this paragraph is that input emotion is automatic, and difficult to manage, or control.
Self-management: This is about how we manage our emotions and their expression. Self-management is how we deal with our emotions, through the management of symptoms. Whilst some bodily symptoms are not directly manageable, our heart rate, the feelings on our skin caused by perspiration and the hairs standing on end, etc, some are controllable. The most important of these is our breathing. When we enter the stress response, triggered chemically when the primitive brain alarm system fires off, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Breathing can be managed by deciding to breath deeply and slowly. This in turn has the effect of slowing our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure, and returning us to a state of calm. It will also help us to manage our emotional state, for example, anger can be brought under control, through the breathing technique, together with managing out thought processes. This is because as well as the primitive brain being triggered by external events, we also trigger it or amplify it through internal means, such as repeatedly revisiting the issue we are angry about. This in turn inputs the primitive fight, flight mechanism and recharges our emotional state. Our ‘inner speak’ can become like the gas pedal in a car, unless we take our foot from the gas, the car simply goes on revving up. Breathing deeply and focussing our thoughts on something healthy and act like the break, helping us to slow down, regain our capacity to think clearly, problem solve and let go of unhelpful emotions. We can in effect turn our emotions both up and down by self-management.
The important take away from this section is that it is achievable to manage the output of emotion.
Are there positive and negative emotions?
There are no good or bad emotions, the emotion is neutral, it is simply information about changes in the environment, sensed by our primitive brain. Emotion alerts us of potential threats or opportunities, generally about relationships, though not exclusively.
What makes emotion healthy or unhealthy is how we express it. All emotions can either be expressed in beneficial ways, or in ways that lead to collateral damage. Even happiness can be expressed in unhealthy ways. The marker is how does the expression either add to and build relationship or detract from and damage or destroy relationship. This leads us on to the next two dimensions of emotional intelligence, relational awareness and relationship management.
Relational awareness: In interpersonal relationships, we also need to have an awareness of how others feel. Human relationships are built upon emotional connections. Bonding and attachment are created and sustained through the expression of healthy emotions. This is so important in our species that the brain has neurons, specifically to aid recognition of emotions in others, these are called mirror neurons. Our mirror neurons are activated through the recognition of facial expression tone of voice etc. The more able we are to recognise the emotions of others, the more capable we are to be empathic. Empathy is an input; it is how we are impacted in the context of relationship. Practice noticing the emotional states of others, check your analysis by asking about how people feel. Avoid misinterpreting others or judging by your own frame of reference. By attuning yourself to others you will become more able to improve communication, enhance the quality of your relationships and reduce miscommunication and misunderstandings.
The important take away from this section is that we are designed or have evolved to be aware of emotions in others. This is to enhance cooperation through healthy attachment.
Relational management: This is about how we share the responsibility to maintain equality and cooperation in our relationships. Seeking to gain awareness and understanding of how others see and feel about things is the high road to demonstrating compassion. Compassion is the output of empathy. Empathy is how we feel about the other when we attempt to put ourselves in their shoes. Compassion is how we respond to them, showing kindness and a willingness to walk alongside them when they are in a bad place. Relationship is a word that indicates two sides of an equation. There is me and there is you, together we have a relationship and that needs to be based upon win/win outcomes. A relationship is the third party, us. Each person is responsible for taking 50% of the share of energy required to maintain the relationship. The best relationship is shown by the equal’s sign. You and I are different, and yet we are of equal value in this relationship. By taking full responsibility for my part, I avoid taking an attacking, blaming or victim position. Rather I seek to cooperate. When we both do this, the potential for effective and efficient relationships is high.
The important take away from this section is that relationship management is about taking full responsibility to be proactive in supporting the health of the relationship. We do this by the application of Emotional Intelligence, which I call emotional Assertiveness. That is, we assert ourselves in a healthy way to contribute to the good of the relationship. It is about self-respect and respect for the other.
Conclusion: In response to those who say that emotions cannot be controlled, my response is no, they cannot, and yes, they can. No: emotion, or input to the system, is spontaneous and occurs before we have time to think about it. Emotion comes before thought and is triggered by the primitive brain. Therefore, it is difficult to control. Yes: we can learn how to manage the automatic physiological responses to emotion, the output from the system. This can be managed by training ourselves to control our physiological response to stressors by applying distress relieving stress breathing. This in turn acts like a break, slowing the emotional roller-coaster to a point where we can use the emotion to problem-solve. It is our adult responsibility to learn how to be cooperative and therefore successful partners in relationship.
The Emotional Assertiveness Model, is designed to provide tools for self and relationship management. If you’d like to find out more about this model, please contact me directly using the below contact information.