Navigating Rough Weather: Emotion Regulation Techniques for Change Agents

Kay. C. Dee

Recently, I wrote a post about a change agent colleague who was working on reframing negative feelings into more positive, action-oriented points of view.  This isn’t an easy process.  Although I’d call myself a fairly experienced change agent, I still sometimes wrestle with impatience and frustration when faced with resistance to a change I believe in and am working to implement.  Today I’d like to share some strategies for handling those (perfectly normal) negative emotional reactions, and balancing those emotions with logic – which then allows deliberate reframing of situations, as discussed in the previous post.

The first suggestion is to practice coping ahead of time.  For example, you may know that you will need to have a difficult conversation about your change effort with someone who is highly resistant to change.  Drawing from dialectical behavior therapy skills[1], you might:

  1. In writing or verbally, describe the situation in which the conversation will likely take place. Be as specific as possible, and name the emotions you are likely to feel during that conversation.
  2. Decide what coping or problem-solving skills to use during the conversation. Plan ahead, and describe your coping strategy[2] in detail.
  3. Imagine the situation as vividly as possible, placing yourself in the situation as an active participant.
  4. Rehearse the conversation. Imagine your actions, your thoughts, and the possible responses of your conversational partner.  Practice (out loud) what you will say and how you will say it.  What is the worst, most catastrophic way that your conversational partner might react?  How would you calmly respond to and cope with that scenario?
  5. Relax after you’ve rehearsed, and let any residual negativity evaporate away.

The second strategy will be useful if you find yourself having a hard time coping with or relaxing after the practice outlined above.  It will also be useful if you find yourself experiencing strong negative emotions in anticipation of a meeting, presentation, or conversation.  This strategy is directly quoted from Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets[3] – “Examining our thoughts and checking the facts can help us change our emotions”.  How to check the facts:

  1. Ask: What is the emotion I want to change?
  2. Ask: What is the event prompting the emotion?
    • Describe the facts that you observed through your senses.
    • Challenge judgments, absolutes, and black-and-white descriptions
  3. Ask: What are my interpretations, thoughts, and assumptions about the event
    • Think of other possible interpretations.
    • Practice looking at all sides of a situation and all points of view.
    • Test your interpretations and assumptions to see if they fit the facts
  4. Ask: Am I assuming a threat?
    • Label the threat.
    • Assess the probability that the threatening event will really occur.
    • Think of as many other possible outcomes as you can.
  5. Ask: What’s the catastrophe?
    • Imagine the catastrophe really occurring.
    • Imagine coping well with a catastrophe (through problem solving, coping ahead, or radical acceptance)
  6. Ask: Does my emotion and/or its intensity fit the actual facts?”
    • If the outcome of the anticipated meeting, presentation, or conversation is not critical to your change project, and there’s a small likelihood that anticipated negative outcomes will occur, then your strong emotions probably don’t ‘fit the facts,’ and it’s time to consider what else might be shaping your preconceptions of that meeting, presentation, or conversation.

If your emotions do ‘fit the facts,’ it is then time to decide whether acting on those emotions is likely to be an effective course of action.  The wise decision is most likely ‘no.’ In that case, you can use the strategy above to change your thoughts about the situation – deliberately adopt a new set of assumptions and interpretations (for example, ascribing only positive intent to all parties involved).  Changing your thoughts to fit the facts may, in turn, help moderate your emotions.

You might instead decide to act in ways opposite to your initial emotional impulses.  For example, it is normal and understandable to feel angry at someone who responds to your change initiative by insulting you, casting aspersions on your integrity, or blocking attainment of your goal.  In these cases, anger ‘fits the facts,’ and you may not be able to genuinely adopt a positive interpretation of this person’s actions.  However, lashing out in anger at this colleague is unlikely to be productive in the long term.  Consider instead[4] gently avoiding this person, giving yourself a time-out of a day, a few days, even a week.  Then challenge yourself to be kind to this person.  Prepare yourself mentally for interacting with them by practicing empathy for them.  What doubts and fears might they be holding?  What rumors may they have heard?  Are they likely to perceive your change project as a loss?  As a challenge to their competence, authority, experience?  Imagine very good reasons (or at least empathetic reasons) for their actions.  When you engage with them again, prepare yourself physically by choosing an open posture: unclench your hands, relax your fingers, pull your shoulders back and relax your torso to open your upper body.  Unclench your teeth, and half-smile.

I don’t mean to imply that all academic change projects are besieged by contrary and obstinate colleagues.  I do, however, want to acknowledge that change agents are likely to experience emotions like frustration, anger, resentment, disappointment.  ‘Ignored’ negative emotions can negatively influence the assumptions, interpretations, and interpersonal interactions of a change agent.  Attempts to avoid such emotions might cause a change agent to reduce communication efforts, which can be damaging to the project overall.  Finally, over the long term, learning to accept and then move on productively from such emotions will help change agents avoid burnout and maintain resilience.

[1] Taken and only slightly rephrased from “Emotion Regulation Handout 19,” page 256, of Marsha Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, second edition, The Guilford Press, New York, 2015.

[2] This blog post assumes that you have already developed appropriate and effective strategies for coping with strong negative emotions.  If you’d like a future blog post to focus on developing such strategies, please let us know!

[3] “Emotion Regulation Handout 8,” page 228, Marsha Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, second edition, The Guilford Press, New York, 2015.

[4] Taken and rephrased from “Emotion Regulation Handout 11,” page 233, of Marsha Linehan’s DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, second edition, The Guilford Press, New York, 2015.

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