This is the first of a two part series of posts on asking questions as part of the the Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC).
In Part 1 of this two part series, I will address general issues involved in asking questions to help us master our emotions as strategic tools.
In Part 2, I will further explore the issue of asking questions and will use the emotion of anger as a specific emotion.
This EMC describes both how the emotions we experience are elicited and how we can strategically deploy those emotions as tools to improve our lives and our relationships.
Recall that the EMC starts with our constantly scanning of our surroundings.
This unconscious process is..
- protective in that we continuously and automatically scan for any threats,
- informative as it alerts us to any situation which requires that we quickly take action to insure our “survival” and
- energizing as it automatically prepares our bodies to take the necessary action.
The “survival” focussed emotions are primitive threat detectors and include emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, anxiety. These primitive threat detectors prepare us for “fight or flight”.
Other emotions such as happy, anticipation, and excitement prepare us to engage with what is going on.
Once we experience an emotion, the conscious part of our brain kicks in and provides us with the opportunity to validate the emotion by both accepting that the emotion is giving us information about how we perceive what is going on and examining the extent to which our initial perception matches what is actually happening.
Once, we determine the degree to which what we think is happening matches what is actually happening, we can choose how we want to respond to the situation.
The process of validating our emotions involves asking questions.
While it sounds easy to “just ask questions”, the process of asking the right question in order to elicit useful answers isn’t easy as it involves:
- lowering your arousal level
- focussing your attention on the situation at hand
- remaining both mindful and somewhat objective, or detached, from that situation, so that you can and
- understanding the nature of the informative answers you are seeking.
Indeed, if we don’t ask the right questions, the answers we get won’t be of much use to us in generating an adaptive response to our situation. So, learning how to ask the “right” question is critical in dealing with emotions.
The “right” question is the one that focuses your attention on, and attempts to gain insight into, what is actually going on in your situation that elicited the emotion you are experiencing.
So, let’s take a closer look at both the process of asking questions in the context of gaining insight into your situation by validating your emotions and exploring some examples of questions you might ask.
The Process of Asking Questions
I. Create safety.
Before you can effectively deal with any emotional situation, you have to create some “safety” in that situation. You need to put some physical distance between you and your situation and you need to put some psychological distance between you and your situation.
If you are not “safe”, asking questions will not happen.
So, the first step is to take a step back from what is going on.
Taking a step back from your situation not only creates physical safety, if this is an issue, but it gives you some perspective on what is going on. The creation of space between you and your situation is very important.
But, and this is also critical, you will have to practice taking this step in emotional situations in order for it to be available to you when you need it.
The second step is to take a deep breath (or more).
The deep breath has a calming effect on the body and provides an opportunity for you to increase your objectivity. The more intense the emotion, the more problematic it will be to remain objective or “detached”. But, it is doable and the more you work at maintaining some detachment, the easier it gets.
II. Asking Clarifying Questions
The focus here is to ask questions the answers to which will give you the information you need to understand what you are experiencing so you can make an adaptive decision which will allow you to strategically master your situation.
Identify your initial feeling.
What am I feeling here?
The emotion you initially experience is elicited by your subconscious perception of what is going on. It is influenced by the present environment, the other person’s behavior, perceived differences in status between you and the other person, your own past and any emotional “baggage” you may bring with you into the present. This baggage can involve previous situations which seem (but may not be) to be similar to the present, your insecurities or doubts, your interpersonal skill sets, etc.
The important issue here is to remember that your initial emotional reaction may, or may not, be accurate.
It’s nice if only one feeling comes up but sometimes you may experience several (or mixed) feelings.
You will need to accept whatever answer comes up and avoid judging (in any way) what you are feeling.
Accepting the feeling is the first step to validating it. You do this by remembering that:
- you are entitled to feel whatever you feel
- you may not be entitled to act on the feeling
- this is your initial reaction
- you will be exploring this feeling to see how well it fits the situation
- you can change the feeling.
Clarify the situation.
What is actually happening here?
This is where you attempt to be as objective as you can.
This question encourages you to look at both what appears to be happening (your initial perception) and what might be happening (other ways to view your situation).
Other questions include:
- Could I be missing something here?
- What interpretations or judgements am I making about the other person and what he/she is doing?
- What is the other person trying to accomplish here?
- Could his/her actions be the result of a lack of ability to express his/her needs in a more appropriate way?
- By asking the above questions, you are either redirecting your thoughts so as to change how you perceive what is happening and your feelings about it or you are confirming your initial perception as a precursor to taking action.
- It is important to note that you are not excluding the possibility that your initial perception is accurate and that the other person’s behavior is both inappropriate and represents the actual threat your feeling is telling you exists.
Bring your feelings in line with the situation.
To what extent does what I am feeling match what is going on?
Here, your intent is to bring what you are perceiving and feeling in line with what is actually happening.
Other questions you might ask include:
- Does the intensity of my feelings match the situation?
- Do I have several feelings I need to consider?
Now, that you have decided what is going on and how you feel about it, the next step choose an adaptive response.
Choose an adaptive response.
- An adaptive response is one that takes into account what is going on in the situation, validates the initial emotional responses of both participants, and, where possible, seeks to resolve any emotional issues which exist.
- This is a win-win.
- A direct response may not always be possible and you may be in a situation where only your emotional issues are resolved.
What is the best way for me to respond to what is going on?
What often happens when someone reacts to an emotional event is that they overreact, get a response from others they later regret, and blame the emotion for “causing” them to do what they did.
They might say, “If I wasn’t so angry, I would not have (done something stupid, acted out aggressively, hurt someone, etc.). While it may be true that if the emotion were not present, the inappropriate action would not have occurred, it is NEVER true that the emotion CAUSED the inappropriate action. What we do is ALWAYS our CHOICE!
Other questions you might ask here include:
- What are my options for expressing my feelings?
- Are there “display” issues I need to consider?
- What actions do I want to take?
- What are the consequences of each option?
- What result am I hoping for?
- What if I do nothing?
You have now completed the emotions cycle starting with your initial unconscious perception and ending with your conscious choice of what actions you want to take.
You did this by asking relevant questions, paying attention to the answers to those questions, changing your perceptions as dictated by those answers, and choosing a response.