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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Mar 2022

Big feelings at work: Collusion vs Co-regulation

There is turmoil in several of my client organisations at the moment. Contextual turmoil is leading to organisational turmoil which is leading to team and individual turmoil. I am meeting individual leaders, pairs of leaders and teams who have been triggered and have some big feelings.

These feelings range across the Atlas of Emotions*

Fear: anxiety, terror

Anger: rage, irritation

Disgust: distaste, dislike (shame – disgust turned against oneself)

Sadness: grief, hurt

Most leaders know that emotional self-awareness and self-management are important skills. We know that when we are feeling big feelings like the ones above, our threat system we may well have been triggered. We know that our limbic system has been taken over and that our brain’s executive function is momentarily offline. We know that if we act impulsively on those feelings, we risk collateral damage to team trust and reputation.

Because many of us know this, we develop strategies to help us get back to calm and equilibrium. We might pause, count to 10, take a breath. We might sleep on it, get some exercise or write down our thoughts and feelings. We might have a mantra we tell ourselves or a meditation App that calms us down. These are solo strategies that you might call self-regulation.

But some clients are telling me that their usual solo self-regulation strategies aren’t working. They’ve been for a run, they’ve slept on it and they are still angry/sad/disgusted/scared as hell. This is where something new is needed. If self-regulation isn’t working, then what we need is co-regulation. High performing teams can learn to seek and give the right kind of support when emotions run high.

Co-regulation is our human ability to soothe each other’s nervous systems. The simplest example is the hug you might give a crying child. Before children learn to soothe their own big feelings, adults do the soothing. In the presence of the right support, our physiology changes. Our heart rate and blood pressure level out and our hormones (adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin etc) rebalance.

The problem at work is that many of the colleagues we might turn to for support aren’t skilled at co-regulating and often end up colluding instead. So, what is the difference between colluding and co-regulating? Here’s a scenario.

Sam, the COO, was feeling attacked after a difficult Board meeting. He went to John, the CMO, for support. “John, mate, I’m livid! I can’t believe Ann (CFO) could say that to me in front of the whole Board when she said the exact opposite in private. I could punch her right now. I need to calm down otherwise I’m going to write an email I might regret.”

John immediately felt some urgency to do something to help Sam. He had been in the heat of that Board meeting himself. In response to Sam’s anger, his own chest got tight and his breathing went shallow. In an attempt to help himself and Sam feel better he said:

“I know, what a nasty piece of work. She did that at the strategy meeting too. She’s playing the politics. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Mate, what you need to do is…”

This is what I would call ‘unclean’ support. In the short term it might help Sam to know that John is on his side, but John is simply adding his own feelings of disgust onto Sam’s fire of rage. He is also casting Ann as an evil enemy instead of a human colleague with strengths and weaknesses. What is needed is cleaner. John needs to find another way to help Sam that doesn’t pour more fuel on the team drama.

The first thing for John to do, is to take a breath himself. In order to co-regulate someone else, we need to be in control of our own nervous system. Often the only thing we need to do is listen whilst focusing on our own breath and calmness. John needs to remember that his role is not to fix anything but simply to be with Sam as Sam’s cerebral cortex gets back online. This can take between 2 and 15 minutes. Here’s how this might look and sound.

  • John takes a big deep breath and makes eye contact with Sam
  • John: Mate, I can see your are livid. I think I know that feeling. Tell me a bit more about what its like for you…
  • Sam rants a bit more
  • John: What do you need right now? Want to take a walk, grab a coffee?
  • As they walk to get a coffee, John listens to Sam with only nods and “hmm hmms” in reply.
  • He might ask the odd question to help get Sam’s cerebral cortex back online e.g. “What are you saying to yourself about this?” or “What are you aware of now?
  • After around 10 minutes Sam is calmer and John lightly offers to have another chat if Sam needs support to think though his next steps.

As colleagues in a team under pressure these skills are critical. High performing team members can help each other co-regulate. When someone seeks you out for support, notice whether you are staying calm and clean or whether you slip into colluding with them. And when you get triggered yourself, and your self-regulation strategies aren’t working, notice who you go to for support. Do you seek out clean, co-regulating support or do you tend to seek our the counter-productive comfort of a colluder?

* by Paul and Eve Ekman and the Dalai Lama is one of my favourite EVER online resources for personal and professional development. Enjoy!

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