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How do you express negative emotions constructively?

Find the unmet needs and values underlying negative emotions

We often experience negative feelings as being caused directly by what someone did or something that happened. However, the real cause of negative feelings is our brain's interpretation that our needs and values of ours are not being met. For example:

  • Rambling discussions may cause impatience because we value efficiency
  • Conversations we cannot relate to may cause sadness because we have a need to feel included
  • Differential treatment may enrage us because we value fairness
  • Gossip may upset us because we have a need for directness and consideration.

Attribute negative emotions to unmet needs and values

When you express negative emotions, it's best to also highlight that unmet needs and values are the root of negative emotions. This directs attention away from (either explicitly or implicitly) blaming individuals and instead focuses the conversation on universal needs, values and joint purpose. For example:

Instead of saying: Your cc'ing my boss in that email has made me upset

You could say: When you cc'd my boss in the email, I felt upset because I would like an opportunity to discuss the issues privately and directly first.

Instead of saying: When I have many interruptions throughout the day I get annoyed.

You could say: When I have many interruptions throughout the day I get annoyed because I need periods of uninterrupted focus to get my work done.

Instead of saying: When I was expected to cover work of two people I felt upset.

You could say: When I was expected to cover work of two people I felt upset because I need a realistic workload and clarity over what to prioritize

Our feelings and needs lists can help you sort through the needs underlying your emotions.

Also beware of communicating judgments instead of emotions

When we have negative emotions, we tend to think terms of judgments and interpretations. It is not helpful to state our judgment of others, it will likely only inflame them further and they are less likely to respond in a way you want. Instead to convey when something upset us, we need to focus on emotions, these are experiences that completely have only to do with ourselves, that no one else can dispute. If you'd like to practice you can try our feelings vs. judgments quiz.

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