Guide to Emotions

by John Ford
(excerpt from John's book "Peace at Work")

Paul Ekman, a psychologist from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), established the universality of facial expressions and identified seven core emotions that all humans are hardwired to display: anger, fear, sadness, contempt, disgust, happiness and surprise.

Mediators need to recognize the different emotions and decide how they influence the decision-making process in a mediation. They need to tune into and sense the emotional states of the participants. Not only does the mediator need to recognize each participant’s emotional state (let’s say, for instance, anger or sadness), but also the intensity of the emotion (how angry or how sad the person is).

This term [negative affect reciprocity] refers to the increased probability that a person’s emotions will be negative (anger, belligerence, sadness, con­tempt, and so on) right after his or her partner has exhibited negativity… Negative affect reciprocity has been the most consistent discriminator between happily and unhappily married couples.
— Gottman

It is worth remembering that there is nothing wrong with any emotion. Emotions convey information about how we experience something. This is vital decision-making information, without which we are rudderless. And, as psychologist John Gottman has discovered with his pioneering evidence-based work with conflicting couples in his Love Lab, the display of negative emotions is not the issue, provided the negative-to-positive ratio is at least 5 to 1. However, what is vital is that there is no ‘negative affect reciprocity’. This is how Gottman describes it:

Anger arises when someone or something is interfering with the attainment of our actual or expected needs. There is a sense of being powerless about a situation. It feels intense and is naturally energizing in the heat of the moment. As a result, it burns a lot of energy and is ultimately tiring.

Anger often begins mildly, as irritation, then grows to frustration and then to anger and rage. When we are angry, we may raise our voices, use a harsh tone, lash out, or seek to inflict pain. We tend to make impulsive and premature decisions.

Fear is designed to guard us against danger and loss, whether phys- ical or psychological. We are afraid of physical harm, and we worry that we will lose what we have – whether it be something tangible, like our home or job, or something linked to our identities, like our good reputations. We often create fear by imagining things to worry about.

We can think about fear as a program that can be applied to any situation we want to ward against. Fear alerts us to remove ourselves from the dangerous situation and to apply protective strategies. Sometimes, if the fear is sudden or severe, we tend to freeze and are unable to function or retrieve data. We get that ‘deer in the headlights’ look. When fear is driven by thoughts of the uncertain future, it can produce a relentless, restless, self-occupied state. With fear, as with anger, there tends to be a continuum – anxiety leads to worry, worry leads to fear, fear leads to terror. People who are afraid often tend to cower and/or struggle to make decisions, in part because of their inability to focus on what is possible.

Sadness conveys a powerful sense of loss. Something is gone. In the moment of grief it is usually debilitating. Things literally slow down (energetically speaking). People in mourning are often lethargic and lack energy.

When we are sad we tend to withdraw. With sadness too there can be a continuum – we are upset, then disappointed, then sad, and finally devastated. As with fear, we are cautious about making decisions.

Contempt can be viewed as a combination of anger and disgust. Contempt is the disdain we have for another’s action, words or ideas. Contempt tends to make us arrogant and give us a sense of superiority so that we are often tempted to ridicule and insult people. Contempt also tends to make us intensely focused, and possibly punitive.Contempt is a particularly toxic emotion and signals strong dis- like. Like surprise, there is no continuum – contempt is contempt. Sometimes, people mistake contempt for happiness. It is difficult and unwise to make a decision when one is feeling contempt.

Disgust manifests when we dislike something intensely. In a social sense, it is used to convey displeasure with another’s behavior. Disgust is used to show that we do not want to associate with someone’s behavior, or that we want to distance ourselves from it. Loathing is an even stronger form of disgust. In circumstances where one feels dis- gust, the tendency is to rush decisions so that one can remove oneself from the situation.

Surprise goes hand in hand with other emotions. Surprise is often the first emotion to manifest, and by definition is fleeting. For instance, we are surprised to hear about a raise in pay, then quickly transition to gladness. Or we are surprised to hear that our benefits have changed for the worse, then quickly transition to anger that there is nothing we can do about it. We are surprised by that which we do not know. When the uncertainty is not resolved quickly, a surprised state can be debilitating as we await the good or bad news.

Surprise is often a very intense emotion, whether it be amazement, awe or shock. Due to this intensity, it is difficult to make decisions in a state of surprise.

Happiness is a sign that we have what we believe we need. We are engaged, energized, optimistic and ready to move forward. When we are genuinely happy, we smile and our whole face lights up, especially our eyes, which is a different thing to pulling back the corners of our mouths in a socially acceptable but unauthentic ‘smile’.

The happiness spectrum starts with satisfaction, moves through happiness, and ends with joy. Decisions are easily made in a state of happiness; in fact, one has to be conscious of being over-optimistic.

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John Ford

John is an experienced work-place mediator and trainer. He is the author of Peace at Work, a guide book on workplace mediation for HR managers.

Resologics provides conflict advising services to organizations to help them avoid disputes, optimize team dynamics for better outcomes, and reduce costs. The resologics team can be reached at 800.465.4141 | |