Are you Contagious? 3 Ways to Manage your Emotional Message

People tend to think of emotion as what is happening on our insides that may be reflected on our exterior:  a frown, a smile, a way of standing or walking.  And what happens inside transfers to the outside in our expressions.

But the opposite is also true – what happens on the outside of other people can influence how we feel on the inside.  In this post we’ll look at the experiment that showed this to be true, and how you can use this fact to communicate more effectively with your team.

Are You Contagious - 3 Ways to Control Your Emotional Message

I talk about how outward physical movement can cause an inward mental change in people in this Two-Minute Tip about Taking Control.  Getting movement in response to your actions causes people to be more receptive to your efforts to lead them.

It also works for emotions and attitudes.  How you carry yourself, and how you portray your attitude can have a huge effect on the way others feel.  We know this intuitively – when a baby smiles, we want to smile, too; when you see someone fall, you involuntarily wince in sympathy.  This concept has even been proven experimentally.

Emotional Messaging:  The Experiment

A man named Howard Friedman, who is a psychologist at The University of California at Riverside did an interesting little experiment * that demonstrated this fact.  He chose a few dozen people who had scored high on what he called his Affective Communication Test – they tended to portray their emotions physically and outwardly.

He chose another few dozen people who scored low on the same test.  He paired a high scorer with a low scorer, had them each fill out a questionnaire about their current feelings, then put them together in a room for two minutes.  They could look at each other, but were not allowed to talk.  After the two minutes were up, he had them fill out another questionnaire.

In his findings, Friedman determined that even without speech, the emotional state of the high scorer had effectively transferred to the low scorer.  If the one was excited, the other became excited too; if the one was depressed, the other became depressed, too.  The high scorer was an emotion “sender” and the low scorer was a “receiver.”

What it Means for Leaders

When you interact with your team, you tend to think about communicating with them using words.  But the emotions that you are also sending can be even more powerful.  Howard’s experiment paired the most charismatic of the “senders” with the people who were much less likely to communicate their feelings outwardly, but you can deduce that the “smiling baby” effect is universal for everyone to some degree.

Armed with this knowledge, here are three things to keep in mind as you communicate with your team:

Control your Emotional Message.  First, be aware of what your emotional state is.  Is it right for the situation?  What message do you want to transfer?  If it is a time of high stress, are you letting your voice rise? Acting jittery? Feeling indecisive and showing it?  Others will take their cues from you and begin to act in the same way, so think about what message you are sending.

There’s a saying in the British Military:  “Officers never run, it might alarm the troops.”  If you want people to be calm, you have to project calmness, slow down, be more deliberate.  If you want people to get excited about something, put some inflection in your voice and add more gestures to get people more animated.

Officers never run; it might alarm the troops. Click To Tweet

Work with your other Senders.  Second, key in on who the other strong transmitters are on your team.  If they are sending the same message you are trying to send, then they will effectively be reinforcing your leadership.  If they are sending the opposite message, they could be undermining it.  Think about who they are and how to interact with them so that your messages are aligned.

Keep your Focus.  Third, be aware that the emotional messages of others may have an influence on you.  This doesn’t mean you have to accept that influence if it doesn’t fit what the team is trying to accomplish.  Best case here is to keep your overall goals and objectives in mind, focus on what is important, not on what you may be feeling, and stay the course.  Everyone will have their ups and downs; it’s natural.  The key to getting through them is to keep your focus on your “why,” figure out what your next productive step is, and then take it.

Focus on your WHY, pick your next step, then act. Click To Tweet

Emotional Messaging – The Takeaway

The key to remember is that a lot of communication doesn’t involve the actual words we are using.  Your actions, attitudes, and tone of voice are all part of the messages you send.

And as Howard demonstrated, part of that message can be emotional.  So think about the emotional message you are sending, work with your other senders, and keep your eyes on the goal in order to keep your team on track and moving forward.

Question: If you have a tough message to deliver that your team won’t like, how can you work with your other “senders” to help keep the team focused on its goal?

* Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio, “Effect of Individual Differences in Nonverbal Expressiveness on Transmission of Emotion,” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior (Winter 1981), vol. 6, pp. 96-104.
Photo Credit: {M&J} via Compfight cc

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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