In his book Working With Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional hijacking” to describe situations in which the amygdala — the brain's emotional processing center — takes over the normal reasoning process. This can occur during difficult interactions with others. When you are emotionally hijacked, you tend to have less perspective and poorer judgment, while making more errors. At the same time, you feel more certain you are right.
Responding more effectively in these situations requires emotional intelligence.
Recognize your feelings. The most powerful tool you have is awareness that you are in the midst of an emotional hijack and, therefore, your assessment of the situation is likely to be overly negative, inaccurate, and not trustworthy. To process your feelings, you might need to step away from the situation. You can say to the other person, “I want to have the best possible conversation about this, but I am not in a place where I can do that right now. Could we talk about this after I take a quick break?” If you can't step away, at least pause and then pay close attention to the words and tone you are using so that you avoid unnecessary defensiveness or hostility.
Pay attention to the other person's feelings. In a tense situation, being aware of the other person's feelings can lead to a more productive interaction. For example, the other person might seem angry, but the underlying emotion is often fear. Just as you may need time to process your emotions, be generous in offering that time to others when you recognize they may be feeling emotionally hijacked. When they are ready, you can engage in a more productive conversation.
Breathe. This is a particularly useful tool if you cannot step away from a situation. A deep, relaxing breath signals to the brain that everything is OK, so your body does not respond with the typical stress hormones.
Think about something you appreciate. During times of stress, take a moment to think about some of the good things in your work and life, instead of allowing yourself to be swept up in what's wrong. Think about a person, place, or thing you appreciate on a deeply emotional level. The amygdala can only process one strong emotion at a time, so focusing on an emotional connection can quickly bring you back to a more reasonable and effective state.
Get curious. We tend to attribute others' behavior to personality traits instead of social and environmental factors. For example, a patient who seems "noncompliant" might simply have misunderstood the proper use of his medication or might be unable to afford a refill. Getting curious about the other person's behavior by asking "What else could it be?" can help you resolve the actual problem, rather than leaving an encounter feeling frustrated and ineffective.
Read the related article in FPM: “Emotional Intelligence: Five Ways to Have Better Interactions and Improve Your Work Life.”
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