In turbulent times like these, the uncertainty that comes with a global pandemic creates fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and doubt for us all. With no immediate end in sight and the prospect of a pandemic being with us for some time, people and leaders will continue to find identifying and managing their emotions challenging at best. We need coping skills for every-day life when our daily experiences are uncertain, ambiguous, and constantly changing.
For leaders, in particular, this becomes a complicated equation of demonstrating emotional intelligence by being aware and able to feel their emotions fully, while managing them appropriately, and simultaneously being available for others in need of some concrete answers to alleviate their anxieties and fears. This may feel in any one moment like patting our heads while rubbing our stomachs, requiring coordination and a unique ability to observe oneself while reading the emotions of others.
There are some practices that we can use in times like this, the most effective of which, is being able to both welcome and manage the peaks and valleys of our internal emotional terrain in any moment. This requires self-compassion to recognize that something challenging has hijacked our emotions and we need to do something with the information our emotions have provided. Our emotions have a purpose to move us to action, and when we listen, we can move to appropriate action. For example, when we feel anger someone or something has crossed a boundary and we want to hold that boundary for ourselves. The identification and welcoming of our positive and negative emotions help us to better understand what is driving our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
This practiced skill is about finding ways to be present to our own changing emotional conditions throughout the day so we can focus on what we can control. A secondary practice follows our emotions that is letting go of narratives or mindsets that affect how we respond. Another effective coping skill that builds upon our narrative is called perspective-taking. Perspective taking is not about being overly optimistic, rather it is about achieving balance in our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
At times balance may be achieved by recognizing the stories we tell ourselves when hijacked by our emotions. Our narratives are often without perspective that lead to automatic assumptions. For example, a CEO may have a narrative about not being able to meet the needs of a demanding Board. Any time the Board wants information or action the CEO may move to an old narrative such as, “our Board is unrealistic, demanding or out of line.” We may have narratives about how to handle certain types of people and their perceived reactivity in relation to our own.
Some CEO’s at one time or another might come to doubt if they’re the right person for the job in this new environment, in the midst of complex change or the CEO feels he/she/they cannot see around the corner far enough to respond to the rapid industry upheaval. The perspective taking in these instances might be to recognize that our emotional state might be driving overly negative narratives. In moments these, it can be helpful to take a step back, take stock of the whole situation or recognize default emotions when under stress.
Another practice that does not come easily to many of us is acting with self-compassion and following that up with acts of self-care. Self-care is different for everyone, so it is important to experiment with what works for you. Many of my clients have come to depend on practices such as sleeping well, exercising, and eating healthy foods - with some occasional guilty pleasures such as ice cream or chocolate.
This practice of calming the immune system in response to sustained stress levels may require more frequent stopping, deep breathing and meditating throughout the day. One of my client’s makes it a point to center herself and take a few deep breaths before walking into the next meeting. She says this clears her mind and settles her emotions to ensure she can be present for others. Another client insists on 50-minute meeting(s) so he has 10 minutes to do whatever he needs before moving onto the next conversation.
These simple practices for every-day life and leadership are essential when facing mounting personal and business pressures. The good news is they can be learned. It is a humbling act to observe and understand ourselves in these times of great uncertainty, to allow our emotions in fully, without minimizing or rationalizing them, or simply numbing ourselves to them. They are mandatory practices to be agile enough to manage ourselves and our relationships for positive outcomes in challenging times.