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Instrumental Emotions

by Phyllis Pollack
July 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

Benedict Carey has written another interesting article in the New York Times. Entitled “The Benefits of Blowing Your Top” (July 6, 2010), Mr. Carey discusses the effect that our emotions have on disputes.

For example, some people, such as President Obama, deal with a crisis in a very calm, cool manner which exasperates others. In contrast, other people simply and quickly blow-up at the first hint of a dispute.

This emerging field is called “emotion regulation” and looks at how we function in social situations:

“. . .Research in the past few years has found that people develop a variety of psychological tools to manage what they express in social situations, and those techniques often become subconscious, affecting interactions in unintended ways. The better that people understand their own patterns, the more likely they are to see why some emotionally charged interactions go awry – whether from too little control, or in the President’s case, perhaps too much.” (Id.)

Emotion regulation falls into two categories: “pre-emptive, occurring before an emotion is fully felt” and then “responsive” which occurs afterward. An example of the latter is feeling an emotion but, immediately, suppressing it. Two different studies showed that those who suppress their emotions encounter more stressful situations. One of the studies revealed that incoming college freshmen who “. . .scored highest on measures of emotional suppression had the hardest time making friends.” (Id.) An often-used pre-emptive technique is to simply focus on the good and ignore the bad. One study found that:

“. . .people over 55 were much more likely than those aged 25 and under to focus on positive images when in a bad mood – thereby buoying their spirits. The younger group was more likely to focus on negative images when feeling angry or down.” (Id.)

Another study found that older persons were more adept at regulating their emotions; their mood would bounce back quickly to a good one after dealing with depressing thoughts. Consequently, the senior citizen’s ability to shrug off feelings of disgust or outrage may “strike younger people as unauthentic, even callous.” (Id.)

Lastly, but of most interest to me as a mediator, Mr. Carey points out that “people may choose the emotions they feel far more often than they are aware – and those choices, too, can trip up social interactions.” (Id.) That is, “. . .people subconsciously prime themselves to feel emotions they believe will be most useful to them in an anticipated situation.” (Id.) Such emotions are called “instrumental emotions.”

People have “an exceptional capacity to track whether the timing and morphology of an emotion is correct.” (Id.) Thus, the most socially adept individuals are able to project the emotions they want to, when they want to, using varied strategies to fit the situation at hand. (Id.) Thus, a good negotiator will display anger when appropriate and conciliation when that, too, is appropriate.

Disputes are full of emotions; in their creation and in their resolution. While most of us dwell on the “facts” and who is “right” and who is “wrong” in our attempt to resolve a dispute, we must also focus on the “instrumental emotions” of the dispute. The use of the wrong emotion at the wrong time can cause the whole situation to blow up, or be “misread”. (Just think of the public’s reaction to Mr. Obama’s unemotional response to the BP spill: the critics urged he did not care because he did not get angry.)

So, while the substance of a dispute is important, so are the “instrumental emotions” we bring to the negotiations: we must pause and give thought of how to present them. What emotions do we really want to display when? Are they in sync with the situation? With our body language? And, with what we are saying? Are our emotions aligned with our underlying needs and interests? Or our they sabotaging them and thereby making the situation worse?

In truth, there is a lot more to think about than simply the “facts’ in any negotiation!

. . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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