Know when to hold ‘em, Know when to fold ‘em and know when to walk away

One of the questions that I am asked most often by women in the workplace is  “How can I learn not to be emotional at work?”  It is my observation that it is generally assumed that only women have to deal with emotions at work.  In fact, emotions are not limited to one gender.  Men are just as subject to their emotions.  The difference is that men are taught from a young age to express their emotions in the form of anger rather than tears.  When men’s emotions get out of control, there is often shouting, red faces, and banging on the table.  Women may cry.  The tears can also be accompanied by door slamming and stalking off.  While men are usually uncomfortable with tears, women are equally uncomfortable with displays of anger.  It is the expression of emotion that makes us uncomfortable regardless of the form it takes.  So how can we avoid this discomfort?  The Gambler gives us an ace we can use.

Know when to hold ‘em:  The first step is to know what your hot buttons are.  Be honest with yourself.  What upsets you?  When I was a young manager, a wise older manager asked me just that.  In my innocence, I answered “I don’t have any hot buttons.”  Nonsense.  I had them then, and I have them now.  The biggest one is being criticized by someone I respect.   I also have an aversion to injustice – whether against myself or someone else.  If you know what things are likely to set off your tears, you can endeavor to avoid situations that you know are likely to make you cry.  Even if you can’t avoid the situation, you can prepare for it and not be surprised by a sudden reaction to the situation.

Know when to fold ‘em:  Although you may know what your hot button issues are, you may not always know when they will come up.  You may also encounter something that you did not know was going to be a hot button until it showed up.  It is important, therefore, for you to know your warning signs.  What happens right before the tears?  Does your throat constrict?  Do your eyes burn?  These signs probably have not changed since you were in high school.  You know what they are.  When these signs start, find a way to either redirect the conversation, remove yourself from the situation or calm yourself. 

Know when to walk away: Inevitably, even though you have done everything you can to prepare yourself to avoid an emotional reaction, something will trigger tears.  In this case, you need to know how to get back into control.  What calms you down?  How can you comfort yourself?  It might be walking away, but it doesn’t have to be.  Walking away can seem a little abrupt to whoever is with you.  If you are a mother and had the benefit of Lamaze training during your pregnancy, those same skills of breathing and relaxing can be used to calm yourself in these stressful situations.  Do you practice yoga? Those mental relaxation skills can be helpful here.  Practice your calming skills before you need them.  Walking away is still sometimes the best option, but do it in a professional way.  People generally do not want to see you cry so they are going to let you go.

I would like to insert a small disclaimer here.  Tears have their purpose.  They should not always be suppressed.  There are times when the best thing you can do for your mental health is let the tears flow.  The advice given here is to be used for those times when your tears would embarrass you and those around you.

In summary, put the ace in your pocket.  Know what is likely to set you off so you can avoid it or prepare for it.  Know your warning signs and heed them when they happen.  Know your calming techniques and prepare them ahead of time.  You would not go into a meeting unprepared mentally.  Prepare yourself equally well emotionally.

Song lyrics by Kenny Rogers, The Gambler, 1978.