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This article is the third in a series about steps toward harnessing the power of Emotional Contagion in order to improve our lives. The first article describes what emotional contagion is and the research that led to its discovery. The second article discusses the importance of emotional contagion for human survival from an evolutionary perspective. Please read the first two articles before proceeding.

Social psychologists, like Dacher Keltner and his associates at UC Berkeley, tell us that emotions have been passed on to us through evolution because they are efficient, coordinated responses that serve a variety of basic survival functions. They help organisms to reproduce, to protect offspring, to maintain cooperative alliances and to avoid physical threats. Emotions act to motivate us, and they serve as internal signals to help us understand something or make a decision (such as a “gut feeling”).

Emotional contagion is about having access to the important signals

Social Bonding and Collaboration

Emotions also facilitate social bonding and collaboration, and they serve to display external social signals. Social communication is an important part of our daily lives and relationships, and being able to interpret and react to the emotions of others is essential. It allows us to respond appropriately and build deeper, more meaningful relationships with our friends, family and loved ones. When we interact with other people, we give and receive cues to help us understand how we are each feeling. These cues might involve emotional expression through body language, such as various facial expressions connected with the particular emotions we are experiencing. For example, our faces have around 90 muscles, 30 of which have the sole purpose of signaling our emotion to other people. This is useful information for helping us decide how to behave towards each other.

We experience some emotions as pleasant and other emotions as unpleasant. That does not mean that some emotions are good and others are bad. Emotional contagion is not about feigning “happy” and shunning “sad.” It is about having access to the important signals that every emotion we experience is trying to relay to us.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

The first step toward acquiring the ability to use emotional contagion as a tool to improve our lives is to develop our Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI was first conceptualized in 1990 by two social psychologists, John Salavoy and John Mayer. It refers to the ability to recognize, understand, express and manage our own emotions, to recognize and understand the emotions of others, and to have awareness of how our emotions affect those around us.

Emotions are essential to our survival. We all have them – to get us to do something, to help us avoid threats, and to enhance pleasure. So why do emotions get such a bad rap?

Why Emotions Get a Bad Rap

We all learned expectations at a young age regarding how feelings should be shared or not shared. Many of us were caught in a paradoxical situation. We were taught how to bottle up our feelings from the very same ancestors who passed our emotions along to us. For example, many of us may have been told things like “Don’t cry,” or “There’s no need to feel sad.” Girls who expressed emotions openly may have been called drama queens. Boys who expressed emotions openly may have been called sissies. This advice often came from a good place of trying to soothe or guide a child. Yet, the societal message passed along was that we should please others by trying to avoid our feelings, or at least keep them to ourselves.

The problem emerges when we get so good at avoiding and expressing our emotions that we lose access to the important functions they serve. All emotions, even unpleasant ones, serve important purposes. Emotions are like a phone ringing with an important message trying to get through. They are signals of things that we need to pay attention to in our lives.

Consider for a moment how avoiding your emotions might hamper your ability to connect to your own needs. Understanding this is the first step towards the willingness needed to listen to their messages.

The good news is that EI can be developed and improved with practice. These seven tips will get you well on your way to increasing your emotional intelligence.

1. Develop a Somatic Vocabulary

Train yourself to sense your emotions via sensations in your body. EI requires a somatic vocabulary as well as a verbal one. Consider the following demonstration of the fact that emotions are embodied experiences: When you’re feeling really angry, how do you know that you’re feeling that way? You may be cognitively aware of the reasons for the anger, but those reasons are not the emotion itself.

Signs you’re feeling angry include:

  • Your brow is furrowed
  • Your eyes are narrowed
  • Your jaw is thrust forward
  • Your lips are tight
  • Your heart is pounding
  • You have a quickening of breath
  • Your fists are clenching.

Your body is preparing you for a fight, and that is a signal both to yourself and others that you are angry.

2. Give Yourself the Time to Name Your Feelings

Reflect nonjudgmentally on your own emotions. Emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They are a source of information that helps you gain self-awareness. Sit down at least twice a day and ask, “How am I feeling?” It may take a little time for the feelings to arise. Allow yourself that small space of time, uninterrupted. Acknowledge your emotions, where you feel them in your body, and name them. Besides developing your EI vocabulary, naming an emotion (See Ornish Living article, The Science Behind Why Naming Our Feelings Makes Us Happier) is also a useful method for reducing its negative intensity or increasing its positive impact. Pay attention to what you feel and how those feelings contribute, distract, enhance or challenge you. Self-awareness is the foundation to EI.

3. Be Open Minded to Other People’s Feelings

Try to understand other people’s emotions and be open-minded. Recognize that there are multiple ways of looking at any given situation. When someone does not react emotionally the same way you would, consider why this is, and try to see it from his or her point of view. Listen to debates on television or the radio. Consider both sides of the argument, and look for the subtleties that require closer inspection. Question your beliefs.

4. Be Aware of Your Effect on Others

See the effect you have on others, and ask others for their perspective. Be open to feedback. Other people may view you differently than you view yourself, and vice versa. Again, this is not about right or wrong. It’s useful to consider how perceptions may differ and the consequences those differences can generate. Ask someone who knows you (and whom you trust) how you react when they are emotional. You may or may not agree with their point of view, but weighing their feedback can help you guard against blind spots and assist you in recognizing if your behaviors are having the effects you are intending.

5. Observe Your Emotional Reactions

Observe how your emotions and behavior are connected. Notice how you act when you are experiencing certain emotions. Does feeling angry cause you to scowl or raise your voice? Does feeling overwhelmed cause you to feel anxious and lose track of what you were doing? Do you withdraw or disconnect when you feel embarrassed or insecure?

6.Take Responsibility for Your Behavior

Take responsibility for your feelings and behavior. Your emotions and behavior come from you, not from anyone else. You are responsible for how you feel, how you act and how you respond to others actions.

7. Practice Emotional Honesty

Learn how to manage your emotions. You can only do this if you are consciously aware of your emotions. Practice being emotionally honest and open so that people can read you better.

  1. Share your happiness and joy and tell people when you are upset. At the same time, find a way to control your emotions so as not to hurt others with them.
  2. Listen nonjudgmentally when others share their feelings.
  3. Practice responding rather than reacting. Use “the pause.” Instead of reacting with your emotions, take a moment to stop, process information, and respond after you have thought about the situation.
  4. Breathe deeply. Factors like added stress or a bad day can inhibit your ability to manage your emotions. We experience emotions physically. When we are stressed, we react as if we are responding to a threat. When you feel tense, breathe slowly and deeply for a few minutes. This will likely soften your mind and heart and create a better state from which to have constructive interactions with others.

Improving your EI isn’t a process that happens overnight. It’s a lifetime process. And it isn’t possible to have perfect control over your emotions. Remember our motto: “Progress not perfection.”

Start practicing these steps now. That will help prepare you to take on the next phase of EI, improving your empathy, the subject of the next article in this series.

Give yourself a pat on the back. You are on your way to harnessing the power of emotional contagion to work for you, instead of against you.

What is it like for you to practice improving your EI?

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.

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