Ever share an update or news with a colleague or boss and receive a reaction you didn’t expect? One that doesn’t fit the severity of the message, and leaves you asking yourself, “What was that about?” Everyone overreacts at one time or another. When you’re the one overreacting, however, it’s hard to recognize it in the moment, says Liz Fosslien, coauthor and illustrator of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work.
“We tend to have strong emotional reactions when we’ve been sitting on our feelings for too long,” she says. “This usually happens because we failed to address a minor issue when it first arose. Sometimes a simple miscommunication can devolve into a long-held grudge, just because neither party addressed the initial issue. When we continually try to push aside our sadness, disappointment, or anger, we are more likely to feel those same emotions.”
While it’s hard to keep your cool when you’re having a strong emotional reaction to something, letting your feelings affect how you treat someone will usually only make a situation worse.
“It’s dangerous to immediately treat intense emotions as facts, because they might be based on incorrect assumptions,” says Fosslien. “Say you’re responding to something a coworker just said or emailed you. It’s important to remember that the words people say are not always what they mean. Immediately jumping to the worst conclusion and acting based on your assumptions means there’s a good chance you’re unnecessarily inflaming a situation.”
Overreacting to data
In addition to words, numbers can be a trigger, says Mark Graban, author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. “People can easily overreact to a data blip,” he says. “They tend to have a recency bias, reacting to what’s happening today. This may cause someone to spend hours looking for a root cause that isn’t there.”
Overreacting can lead to impulsive and bad ideas, and get in the way of finding better ways to improve performance, says Graban. “If something is a rare and unique event, ask, ‘Did something happen today?'” he says. “By taking a step back and looking at the overall system, you can be less reactive in a more systemic way.”
Don’t react to a data point in isolation; look for predictable fluctuations around averages. For example, if a customer service score has an average of 75, anything within a few points is not something to react to on its own. If it hits 60, then it’s worth investigating, says Graban.
“Small blips are considered noise in metrics, where data outside of calculated limits are signals,” he says. “Eight consecutive points above or below random fluctuations is a signal that something has changed and is worth investigating.”
Whether it’s words or numbers, overreacting too often harms your health. In a study at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers asked people to rate how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” Those who felt bad about feeling bad had lower well-being than their more self-accepting peers.
“People who accept and work through their negative emotions, either by themselves or by calmly discussing an issue with another person, are able to better cope with stress and less likely to get mired in their bad mood,” says Fosslien.
Ask yourself, “What could be driving my reaction? Did your colleague interrupt you for the fourth time that day, or is it possible that you’ve simply had too much coffee?” she says.
Also, look for the need behind your emotion, says Fosslien. “One way to do this is to flip your perspective and explicitly state what you’d like to be feeling instead,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to feel?’ If you’d like to feel calm instead of anxious, figure out what you need to do to successfully relax.”
Perhaps you’re irritable because you need to feel confident that your team can meet a looming deadline. Once you pinpoint the need behind your feelings, it’s easier to see what actions you can take to improve your mood, says Fosslien.