Working with emotions

A lot of my life involves responding to he emotions of other people. Today I will invest a few hours working at a fund-raising event for a family who experienced the tragedy of the death of their one-year-old son. Obviously the family’s grief is intense and their emotions are running high. My participation, however, is at a different level. The emotions of the community are also running high. The tragedy affects us all. Parents and grandparents of small children have been reminded of how vulnerable these little ones are. It causes us pain to see our friends go through such intense loss and grief. But I also see the positive power of emotions, when compassion moves people to action. Volunteers emerge. People give sacrificially. It is genuinely heart warming to see the power of community rushing in to provide support. There are plenty of positive emotions in the event.

Later today I will meet with a somewhat disgruntled former employee of a small nonprofit in our community. For some reason, the past few weeks have brought a series of similar meetings. I do some human rights consulting with another nonprofit and so have had at least four such meetings in the past two weeks. People want to feel appreciated and they want to receive recognition for the work they have done and the contributions they have made to an organization. The motivation for those who work for nonprofits is generally very altruistic. They aren’t involved for personal financial gain or glory, but rather because they believe in a cause. They want to contribute to a mission. When something goes wrong, or when the time comes for their employment to change or end, they need to hear that their contributions have been meaningful and that their gifts have been recognized. Corporations, big and small, aren’t always good at expressing that kind of appreciation. Feelings get hurt. People become angry. Add to that the elements of uncertainty and fear that come with unemployment and they can be particularly volatile.

I like to think that I have some ability at diffusing emotional situations and de-escalating when anger is present. Doing so requires a strange mix of rational decision-making and emotional compassion. Anger is rarely a stand-alone emotion. People who are angry are often afraid. They often are in pain. Encountering anger with force or a need to win rarely results in less anger.

I’ve witnessed religious leaders who engage in emotional manipulation, playing a crowd and using the power of the emotion to elicit responses. Music and lighting and other effects can be used to stir up a crowd and there has been plenty of that done in the name of religion over the years. Emotions out of control can result in all kinds of terrible results for society. Lynch mobs and market bibles are made of out of control emotions, and there are those who will take advantage of such hyper emotional situations. I hope and pray that I do not fall into emotional manipulation.

Our emotions have positive effects, as is demonstrated by the community gathering to support a family in the midst of their grief. But emotions can also pose a danger, as I am aware when working with people who are angry and hurt. I sometimes think of emotions in terms of positive and negative, higher and lower. We have feelings that bring out the best in us and other feelings that bring out the worst. When working in emotional situations, I try to appeal to the best. Grief can spiral into depression, but it can also bring gratitude for a shared journey. One way to think about these different types of emotions is to think in terms of emotions that pull us out of ourselves and emotions that pull us deeper into ourselves. Self-transcendent emotions include feelings of empathy, gratitude and awe. They bring us out of ourselves. They encourage his to invest in mutual benefits. They enable us to manage complex cooperative situations. They enable us to delay our need for instant gratification and reward. Working for a better community will inspire a team of volunteers to conduct a fund-raising event not for their own personal profit, but to express compassion to a grieving family - to remind them that they are not alone. When we act out of these emotions, we often make decisions that bring forth futures and inspire hope.

When I work with those who are hurt and angry like the former employees, I need to remind myself that they, too, have experienced these “higher” emotions. They too have engaged in feelings that brought them out of themselves. They have a vision of the good of the community. Their vision may not match mine. We may not agree on details. But my denying their self-transcendent feelings does not lead to solutions. When I can sense the empathy of another, we are making progress towards a solution that is mutually satisfying. Empathy, however, can be fragile. It can fade when difference is encountered. People shut down and close themselves, especially when they feel threatened. Part of the process is creating a sense of safety that allows positive emotions to emerge and for empathy to extend beyond our immediate spheres. In the big picture, we are all involved in these small organizations because we care about others. Remembering that is an important part diffusing the situation.

Once in a while, I am aware of the power of awe and wonder in our relationships. I am awed by the power of community coming together. I am awed by the will to survive that enables people to go on even when faced with overwhelming circumstances. The resilience of the human spirit is indeed inspiring. In the rare moments when we experience awe together we can take steps that lead us away from anger and confrontation to seeking solutions.

Awe can come from thinking about the future. When we harness our emotions to invest in the future and recognize the possibility of contributing to making things better, we can become awed at the possibilities that lie head. Hope will emerge.

And that, my friends, is how I’m going to spend my day off today. I may even learn some things that help me do a better job at my work.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!