Over the past couple of months, I have found myself having to engage in numerous stressful, difficult conversations. While I have practiced and taught interpersonal effectiveness skills for years working as a psychologist, I recently hit my skills breakdown point. I found myself so flooded with emotions that I was unable to use my skills. I had difficulty thinking clearly, lost sight of my long-term goals (i.e., the quality of the relationship), and had trouble accurately expressing my emotions. 

In conflicts, anger is often identified as the dominant emotion; however, it is what lies beneath the anger that is important. One metaphor that I love is the Anger Iceberg. Similarly to how an iceberg floats in the water with only the tip visible and the much larger mass of ice below the surface, outward displays of anger can mask a multitude of more vulnerable emotions hidden beneath the surface. During the recent conflict, I went into “fight or flight” mode and was completely caught up in emotion mind. Rather than communicating in a skillful, effective way, I found myself using ineffective strategies, such as making emotional statements or shutting down. Within moments, the conversation was derailed and the conflict intensified. 

Emotion getting in the way of skills is one factor that reduces interpersonal effectiveness. At times, emotions can become so extreme that it makes it unlikely for you to get into wise mind and figure out what to do or say next. When you find yourself too overwhelmed with emotion, the following crisis survival and emotion regulation skills can be useful to stop out-of-control, unskillful responses and reduce emotional arousal.

  • The STOP skill can be used to keep from saying things you might later regret. The S stands for stop. The T is take a step back- this can be both a figurative and a literal step back. During a challenging conversation, taking a step back might mean literally taking a full step away from the other person rather than staying in the conversation and intensifying the conflict. The O is observe, where you will want to take in with all of the senses everything that is happening. Finally, the P is to proceed mindfully, which involves a pause and then a forward motion into the decision of what to do.
  • Opposite action is useful to get yourself to use skills that you might not want to use in the moment but know you need to use. 
  • Self-soothing through the five senses to prepare for a difficult interaction by getting yourself into the right headspace for the conversation. Our senses can ground us in the present moment and help us regulate our emotions. When using this skill, try different methods to soothe using your senses, as some techniques may be more effective than others.
  • TIP skills are useful for rapidly regulating your emotions. Some ways to change your body chemistry quickly include putting cold water on your face, doing paced breathing, or engaging in a brief progressive muscle relaxation exercise. 
  • Mindfulness of current emotions is helpful to become aware of your emotions, specifically the ones that are interfering with your skill usage. Notice how the emotion manifests in your body. The simple act of naming the emotion can help to reduce the intensity of the emotion. Then, it is important to refocus on the present objective.

Emotions, even intense ones, don’t have to derail you or your relationships. With practice, we can experience them differently and be more effective in our communication.