4 Tips from Psychology to Handle Negative Emotions

Recently I was on a flight heading home from a trip to visit relatives. As we were approaching LAX, it became clear that our flight was going to arrive late. A fellow traveler sitting right behind me was worried that he was going to miss his connecting flight.

He let the flight attendant know he had a connecting flight that was very tight, and asked if she could do something. I don’t think he was asking her to fly the plane faster, but to allow passengers with tight connecting flights to deplane first (btw, if we de-plane, why don’t we de-car?).

Her first response was, “There’s nothing I can do, sir. There will be a gate agent waiting to talk to when you deplane.”

Moments later, I heard the flight attendant on the PA system in an irritated tone: “We are aware that some of you have tight connecting flights, but there is nothing we can do. There will be a gate agent waiting to talk to you as you when we land. Once again, there is nothing we can do.”

Translation: “It’s not my fault; don’t blame me; stop whining and deal with it.”

Needless to say, my fellow traveler became irritated and angry. His wife tried to calm him down, and then the two of them started to bicker.

Emotion Is Contagious

Here’s an important psychological principle that partly explains what just happened:

Emotion is contagious. We catch emotions from others through nonverbal communication. This principle of emotional contagion applies to all levels of the workplace and to life in general.

The flight attendant communicated irritation/anger to my fellow traveler. He then caught that emotion and, unfortunately, passed it on to his wife. He then started venting aloud to no one in particular, and to everyone within earshot, passing on more negative emotion into the emotional environment. All this started with an angry comment by an employee (the flight attendant) who did not handle her job responsibility well.

When we experience negative emotions in response to a situation, or catch them from others, we tend to pass them on to others, contributing to a downward negative spiral. 

If you’re prepared for these inflection points, however, it’s possible to diffuse negative emotion and infuse positive emotion into the situation. This will help everyone involved to think more clearly and act more productively. In order to do this, you have to regulate your emotions.

4 Psychological Tips to Help You Deal with Negative Emotions

Here are four tips to help you contain the spread of negative emotion.

1. Recognize Inflection Points. Starbucks trains their employees to recognize “inflection points”—points where their willpower is low and they’re emotionally overwhelmed—and plan ahead about how to respond to them. This is a great practice to help you regulate your emotions and diffuse negative emotion.

Of course, you can’t identify every possible inflection point, but you can identify the most common ones, and general situations that cause you to feel overwhelmed. Then you plan out how you will respond ahead of time and practice it until it becomes a habit. This way, when you’re willpower is low to manage your emotions, a positive habit can take over somewhat automatically.

Had the flight attendant identified this moment with a frustrated customer as an inflection point, she could have initiated a positive sequence of responses that was planned ahead of time. For example, one of the Starbucks methods is called “The LATTE Method”: Listen, Acknowledge the complaint, Take action to resolve the problem, Thank the customer, and Explain why the problem occurred.

Once you recognize that you’re in an inflection point, that can serve as a trigger to attend to your own emotions and empathize with yourself.

2. Empathize with Yourself. If you’re irritated, angry, or feeling helpless, take a step back before you respond if at all possible. Reflect on why you’re feeling this way with a sense of empathy for yourself. There are undoubtedly good reasons for your feelings. Understanding them and empathizing with yourself is the first step toward empathizing with others. This can be difficult especially in situations where self-empathy needs to happen in real time as you’re interacting with someone. This is something internalized over time as you have many experiences of feeling understood by important people in your life.

If this is a consistent difficulty for you, it might be helpful to reflect on your attachment tendencies and you can read more about that at one of my previous posts here.

So, what might this look like with our flight attendant? Perhaps she was frustrated by a previous situation with a co-worker or another passenger. She could have reflected on this and become aware of it, leading to a sense of empathy for herself in having to deal with several stressful situations. This would help her to separate these feelings out from the current situation, and respond more productively. This could have helped her to be present and really listen to my fellow passenger.

3. Listen and Express Empathy for Others. Even if you can’t do anything to change a practical situation, you can surely listen and empathize with someone’s frustration, feeling of helplessness, etc. The first step in responding in a way that will diffuse negative emotions is often to genuinely listen. This means that you must set aside your agenda and actively try understand the other person’s perspective, and feel with them. The latter part is where true listening blends into empathy.

That goes a long way and can immediately change the feeling tone of the conversation. The goal is that the other person feel heard and understood, even if you can’t “fix” the situation. When people feel understood, they are generally much more patient, even when you can’t “fix” something at a practical level.

The negative emotion is the root cause of a lot of conflict. Genuine human connection is the antidote.

I think my fellow passenger understood that the flight attendant had limitations in what she could do to resolve the problem. That’s not what got him upset. What upset him was that he didn’t feel heard and didn’t feel like she cared about his problem.

If you’re having trouble getting to empathy, try consciously putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Bring to mind a time when you experienced something similar. While empathy is naturally communicated nonverbally (e.g., through facial expressions and tone of voice), it helps to communicate it explicitly and verbally.

Our flight attendant, for example, could have said: “I’m really sorry about this sir. I know it’s frustrating to miss a connecting flight.”

4. Focus on What You Can Do, Not What You Can’t. After listening and expressing empathy for others, it’s important to focus on what you can do and to be responsive. By focusing on her limitations in helping the passenger, the flight attendant gave the impression that she didn’t care about his problem. In addition to expressing empathy, she could have focused on what she could do, and communicated that to him. She could have said, “Sir, let me see what I can do. What is your connecting flight? I’ll check with the gate agent and see what I can find out.”

I’m not a flight attendant, but I’m guessing there’s more she could have done. For example, she could have arranged to allow passengers with tight connections to deplane first. She could have tried to get an update on his connecting flight. She could have personally walked him to the gate agent and made sure he got the information he needed. Even if none of these actions ended up helping in a practical way, putting forth the effort and being responsive to his needs would have gone a long way to show that she, and the airline she represents, cared about him and his plight.

So before you get to your next inflection point, identify typical inflection points and write them down.  Then practice empathizing with yourself, listening and expressing empathy, and focusing on what you can do. I think you’ll be on your way to creating a positive emotional environment. 

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