Actors are famously described as tempestuous, over-emotional, irrational hotheads. The old stereotype of the actor swooping into the room with a beret, or a flowing scarf, and erupting in a fit of anger, or laughter, or tears has been trotted out on TV, in movies, and even on stage. "They're so dramatic!" people often say.
I'm here to tell you it's not true. Well, not any more true than it is in any other business.
There are hotheads everywhere, in every profession. Overflowing work emotion can turn the most calm and rational employee into a volcano. Perhaps it's a pressing deadline, or hard financial times in the company, or an especially harsh review. It's easy to lose it when work emotion runs high.
I can recall a specific incident in the theatre that threatened to turn me into a hothead. A few years back, I was doing an incredibly difficult play. A multi-character performance, full of quick changes, very fast paced, and physically demanding. And shortly before opening, I wasn't getting it. At all.
Actors often receive notes in a public setting; in front of other cast members, designers, and management team members. In this particular note session, days before opening, nearly every note was for me. I could feel the hurt, frustration, and embarrassment building up, and I could feel my responses becoming shorter, more snippy. I was dangerously on the edge!
Then, a lucky thing happened. A switch flipped in my head that told me it was time to diffuse the situation. Instead of getting frustrated with my director or my colleagues, I asked if we could discuss my questions in private after the session. Of course, my director gladly agreed. I was able to take a time out from the emotion, reassess my questions, and get the guidance I needed. Because I was able to process, rather than blow up and lose it, I not only maintained my working relationships, but created a successful performance, as well.
We face challenges of some sort every day in the office, regardless of what that particular office may look like. It is incredibly important to be able to step back and cool the hotheads when work emotion runs high, whether that hothead is attached to your own shoulders or that of your co-workers.
Here are 4 Emotionally Intelligent tips to help you keep calm in situations where emotions run high:
1. Be honest with yourself about what you're feeling: When you feel your temper begin to rise, before you blow a gasket, ask yourself what you're really upset about. Are you feeling hurt because a project you put a lot of time into has been dismissed? Frustrated because you don't have time to accomplish what's being asked of you? Jealous of a co-worker's recognition? Be honest with yourself about the core of what you're feeling. Simply taking a moment to breathe and take things out of context will give you valuable assessment time, and help you avoid taking things out on the wrong person.
2. Be honest about what you need: That said, there is no need to simply swallow and ignore your feelings. If you find that you have a legitimate work need, calmly ask for it rather than losing your cool: "We're going to have to talk about timelines for this upcoming project. I would like to make my goals attainable." or "I put a lot of time into that project. Can we discuss the good and bad offline so I can learn for next time, rather than dismissing it all together?" Work through problems, rather than throwing a fit and leaving.
3. Take co-workers needs into account, too: Notice the warning signs of a co-worker ready to lose it! Closed-off body language, "commentary-laden" exhalations of breath, escalating volume or sharpness or speech are all (obvious!) signs that a colleague may be having a hard time. Take that into account. A small break in the proceedings can go a long way. So can a simple question: "John, it looks like you're having a hard time with this. What can we do to make you feel positive about this discussion?"
4. Location, location, location: Don't be afraid to take things off-line and away from the group if you need. Just like my director and I did in the infamous note session, be willing to step away from a public setting if things get heated. We are all used to collaboration and group criticism and assessment — it comes with the territory. But remember, you can always take a discussion off-line, away from the group, if you're in danger of losing it. Cooling one hothead is often to the benefit of all.