Anger and Influence: A Good Pair or a Mismatch? – November 2022
First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers
Anyone who has ever said, “Remember, never go to bed angry at your spouse,” has obviously never been married. Sometimes tense situations simply cannot be resolved in the midst of anger. The brain needs an incubation period to sort things out. I am lucky, I don’t remember the last time I went to bed angry at my wife. But influencing in an atmosphere of anger is easily one of the trickiest challenges at work or at home. And your success often depends, not on the conversation between you and your partner, but in who else that person is talking to.
It is no secret that emotions are the driving force behind all decision-making. Apologies to the prefrontal cortex, but its thought-out, logical approach to life will have to wait until humans evolve for a few more millennia. Emotions rule, however, they are not the automatic response to outside influences that we assume. And we are not simply subjects of whatever emotions we happen to feel, we actually use emotions as a tool to guide the behavior of ourselves and those around us.
Humans are so socially connected that we cannot allow ourselves to feel something without trying to cause those around us to feel the same thing. And with increasing intensity. Let’s take a common occurrence. Management is negotiating a new contract with representatives of the working staff. Things start getting heated. It is obvious that the angrier everyone gets, the less productive the meeting. Each side thinks, If only everyone on the other side didn’t stoke each others’ anger, we could discuss this calmly. In these situations, it is easy to label people as over-emotional, easily swayed, or blindly following the group. But the truth is, all humans follow this pattern of behavior.
Researchers at Stanford University conducted tests in which subjects where shown potentially upsetting images, alone and in groups. They discovered that people do try to regulate their own emotions if those emotions are deemed harmful or not useful in solving a problem. So, we are not entirely captive to our emotions. However, if people wanted to use their emotions to support their opinions, they sought out others who expressed the same emotion. So, instead of the group’s emotions affecting the individual, the individual sought out the group that supported his or her point of view. Anger becomes a tool.
We also seek out others to amplify our emotions. The Stanford group also examined nearly 19 million Twitter posts. They discovered that users were more influenced by angry posts about social or political issues than by calmer, more measured posts. These users not only sought out others in their social network who expressed similar intense emotions, but their own responses showed an increased emotional intensity. This let’s see who can top the other pattern is why social media can be so dangerous, and users must be mindful of how they engage with others online.
How can leaders in business influence when so many outside forces are at work? One of the lead researchers in the Stanford study said, “…the best way to regulate your emotions is to start with the selection of your environment. If you don’t want to be angry today, one way to avoid that is to avoid angry people.” We obviously cannot control who associates with who in the workplace, but we can try to control the environment in which we influence others. One-on-one conversations can prevent group anger from hijacking the meeting. If solo meetings are not an option, find ways to address individuals within a group, “Jonathan, I have heard what the group thinks, but I would like to hear from you as an individual. What do you, yourself, think about this?” And make sure Jonathan is allowed to speak by himself.
It is also incumbent upon influencers to monitor their own environment. To be mindful of how others’ emotions affect their own. Many a time I have talked to my fellow directors about a company member and caught myself committing the Twitter Effect: increasing my emotional intensity to outdo my fellow leaders. Later, I realize that the issue did not warrant nearly the intensity I had given it.
Control the environment and you have a better shot at influencing in a calm atmosphere.
An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com
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