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Your Emotions Cost You in the Workplace; Live Up to Your Potentials

by HardTalk™ Team | Perspiration

As human beings we do badly at managing our emotions. This isn’t our fault. It’s how were built. Its like puppies do badly at managing their bladders. The difference is that puppies are trained to manage their bladders whereas we bumble through life picking up a few tips here and there and, more often than not, failing a lot as we work it out (to the extent that we do) through trial and error.

We think we are in charge of our emotions but pretty much every piece of evidence out there suggests that, most of the time, were not. And that is even more true when were under pressure e.g. in a HardTalk scenario where we have to have a difficult conversation.

Behaviour comes from emotions

We make decisions based on emotions and we know this because, when emotions are taken out of the equation and we are left with just rational logic we find it hard to make decisions according to a great piece of research and a fascinating story written by neuroscientist Anthony Damasio. 

We allow other peoples behaviour to dictate ours – even if the other person doesnt have our best interests/results in mind and our behaviour will be to our own detriment. For example in one study participants were unknowingly paired with an opponent who was, in fact, a research assistant. When the assistant then deliberately angered the participant e.g. by making an insulting remark, the participant was more likely to behave in way that worked against their own self-interest.

Most damningly, we think were different: that what applies to everyone else doesnt apply to us. Most drivers think theyre above average, a quality that can be as helpful as it is damaging.

If we dont understand where our actions come from – and, make no mistake, unless youve had some tragic accident, yours, just like mine, come from your emotions – we are doomed to be forever unable to manage them. So if we want to manage our behaviour (and what else is there we can manage?) we need to manage our emotions. But how do we manage our emotions and where do our emotions come from?

Emotions come from our Potentials

Our emotions don’t come from what the people or things around us do or say even if it feels like that. Instead our emotions come as a result of the stories or ‘Potentials we come up with to explain what others say or do. What happens “outside our head” – the Truths – goes through any number of “filters” – our age, culture, language, gender etc  – and, having been filtered through the sum of our experience, comes out the other side as Potentials i.e. judgments on what we see and hear. 


Now these judgements are often useful because they save us time and theyre often right. And the emotions that come from them may very well be appropriate.

But its not about being right in the short term. Its about having self-possession – its about being in control so that you can act in the way that gives you the best chance of getting the results you want. about understanding and making a conscious decision.

So how do we stay self-possessed enough to manage our emotions when we interpret anothers behaviour as, for example, rude or condescending and we feel angry or hurt? How do we focus on responding and not simply reacting in the moment?

Remember you can still be angry, sad, whatever – youre a human and, anyway, emotions will happen! Its about displaying this appropriately, at the right time and making sure its properly understood by the other person.

Weve learned a lot about how to do this and there are many tools which we discuss and put into practice in HardTalk. But it all comes down to building “self-possession”

Potentials come from how we filter the Truths

Earlier we looked at how Actions come from Emotion which, in turn, are a result of the Potentials we create depending on how we filter the Truths.


Many years ago I went home to visit my family over the Christmas holiday. Not unusually, Im afraid to admit, a dislike of shopping meant I arrived, as the Irish say, “hands hanging”. I borrowed my fathers new car, despite my driving capabilities being known to him, including the fact I failed my test 4 times, and successfully went shopping for presents. Driving back to my parents new home I noticed in front of me a huge, wrought-iron gate – a kind of Downton Abbey affair. The gates were open and through the gates suddenly appeared a very large, very black, very expensive looking car. It was driving in the middle of the road and it was driving fast. I assumed the driver would notice me at any moment. But he continued at the same pace and in the same position – in the centre of the road. He was moving very fast. Suddenly I realised that it wasnt going to slow down or pull into his own lane. I swerved wildly and slammed on the brakes ending up eventually on the side of the road. I was shaken and, more than anything else, furious.

Despite my own limitations as a driver Im safe. I wouldnt drive if I werent. I was in a horrible accident as a child and car safety is something I take seriously. I dont like bad drivers. And I really dont like drivers who drive as if they own the road. Particularly if they have big cars.

I calmed myself down and drove the short distance home. Of course my mother knew something was wrong as soon as she saw me (mothers always know!) and listened as I started to tell her what had happened..

“Youll never believe it” I said. “I was a few minutes away when suddenly this big car
came out of nowhere and drove straight at me.”

“Was it
near the big gates?” my mother asked.

I was nonplussed. Why would she care where it happened? Where was the outrage? Ah, I got it.

“What? This has happened before? This guy is known to do this? Thats crazy. Im calling the police!” I jumped up to get the phone.

“What are you talking about? What guy?” my mother stopped me. “The gates are the entrance to a critical care and end-of-life unit and so we know to drive very carefully around there – many of the people coming out will be having one of the worst days of their lives and may not be paying attention.”

My mood changed abruptly. I was no longer full of righteous anger. Instead I was sad and resolved to be more careful when driving in that neighbourhood (unlikely to happen any time soon if my father heard about my near miss!). What had happened to make me change my mind about what the right thing to do – the right action – was? I moved back down the Ladder of Action to the Truths.

Heres one of the big ideas in HardTalk – theres a ladder of action that we climb. And we climb it fast. We climb it so fast were not even aware were climbing it. And as we climb or, rather fly up, this ladder we pass through a number of phases

As humans, we see and hear something – we notice a Truth and then we tell ourselves a story based on those Truths – that story will be influenced by many things – by our filters, our experience.

In the story about the dangerous driver above my filters initially lead me to feel righteous fury and indignation and so want to call the police. When I was (luckily) given more information i.e. my filters changed and the Potential I immediately came up with changed.

So we notice a Truth, we hear or see something, and it goes through our filters and we come up with a story.  And of course its not the only story we could tell based on those Truths. Its only one Potential. 

If a typical, middle-aged Japanese person walked into a training room and saw the trainer sitting on a desk they would likely feel ashamed, embarrassed, perhaps a little annoyed. Because of different filters a typical young American would be likely to see the same Truth i.e. the same facilitator sitting on the same desk and come up with a different Potential e.g. that the trainer was tired or relaxed.

The “Potential” we “choose” is the one in charge – it leads to an emotion and then that emotion leads to an action. The problem is that we dont “choose” it if were not clear that its there. So if we want to manage action – our own or someone elses – we need to manage the emotions and that means acknowledging there are lots of different potentials and going back to the truths.

A potential is the story we tell ourselves about the Truth given that its
gone through all our filters. So, for example, given the “Truth” “he turned up
late” what “potentials” you could come up with: 

– he’s lazy

– disorganised

-had an accident

– was dealing with a sick kid

– is unmotivated

– doesn’t know how to get to work on time

– will get fired etc

But beware – somehow there is a tendency to go negative first! Youll notice that the assumption that people will always make the worst assumption, is a trope in many movies and novels. Maybe because weve learned that were right through bitter experience. Some scientists would say its because in the past we evolved to avoid danger rather than investigate it – the risks involved in going to see what the rustle in the bush was were high and so we learned to avoid it – to assume the worst possible outcome. But that reflex doesnt help us. We need to respond and not react. So we need to control our emotions. Were still allowed to have emotions – we just need to recognise where they come from. We need to slow down our ascent of the Ladder of Action.

We move very quickly from the Truth (what we see and hear) to the Potential that seems most likely to us (based on our filters) and that then makes us feel an Emotion (could be happiness/sadness/anger etc) and we then behave as that emotion tells us to! We dont behave in a way that gets us the long-term results we want. We dont behave as though our executive brains are in charge because theyre not. To manage that we need to be able to spot the difference between Truths and Potentials – its harder than you think! And even harder in “real life” when emotions are running strong.

Being aware of our tendency to see Potentials as reality is a first step in controlling our emotions and sticking to the Truths.

Why is it so important to stick to the Truths?

Because they are conclusive – they are what you saw and heard.  They are non-negotiable. If you were videoing
you would be able to see them. They are the baseline. If they are not accepted then there
s no point in going any further. They are what allow you to SpeakSoft and start the HardTalk conversation in a way designed to reduce defensiveness.

Learn more about how to give real feedback and everything to do with difficult conversations by signing up for the HardTalk newsletter where we share our own research and thoughts as well as that of others interested in conflict in the workplace and using it to make things better.