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Process negative emotions in 3 key steps

Being effective during a difficult conversation requires getting a handle on our negative emotions. By learning to process negative emotions effectively, we'll be able to access the calm, collected state of mind, which allows us to have an effective discussion.

Step 1: Label the emotion

Research shows that finding the words to label our emotions helps us reduce negative feelings and allows us to access a calmer state of mind. By simply finding a word to describe how we are feeling, our distress response subsides and we are able to think more clearly.

Sometimes, it can be common to confuse emotions with a judgment word. In everyday language we might say "We feel" followed by an interpretation of what someone did. For example we might say "We feel ignored, insulted, or misunderstood". However, these are not emotions because they involve interpretations of the other person's intentions. Instead emotions are words that don't imply anything about another person's intentions and only describe what is going on inside of you, e.g., upset, sad, or frustrated.

Step 2: Identify the unmet needs behind the emotion

Another research-proven method for reducing the intensity of negative emotions is to identify the basic needs that underpin our emotional response. Needs are universal requirements that we all share. Our negative emotions arise from unmet basic needs. Conversely, positive emotions arise when our basic needs are met. Example needs may be:

  • safety
  • clarity
  • autonomy
  • understanding
  • security
  • acknowledgment
  • belonging

Examining the basic needs underlying your emotional response will give you insight into what is important to you in a situation.

Step 3: Find strategies for meeting needs

By analysing the link between our feelings and needs, we can learn to develop better strategies for getting our needs met. Strategies are specific real world actions you could take. There are always a multitude of strategies you can employ to meet the same basic need. For example, if you are needing clarity, example strategies may involve asking different people for clarification, or doing more research on your own by consulting different sources.

Putting it into practice

Journalling can be a useful way to understand the unmet needs that give rise to negative emotions. Conversely, it can also be helpful to think about the met needs that give rise to positive emotions. By becoming aware of how your met and unmet needs lead to positive and negative emotions, you then can start brainstorming a wider range of strategies to get your needs met. Here is a log you can use make notes about events that gave rise to feelings and strategies that can help you meet your needs.

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