Emotions Are Contagious – Who’s Infecting You?

My family and I spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve at the Blue Note in Milan listening to great music, enjoying a fabulous 7 course meal with specially selected wines.  And of course, since it is Milan, everyone was fashionably and festively attired: men in dark fitted, tailored suits and women in sumptuous outfits.  On the next table sat Marco, beautifully attired like everyone else, but with a little something extra:  he had on the most magnificent sequined dinner jacket, which matched his ebullient personality.  It made me smile.  And, you know me, at first it was almost a knowing smirk – I mean who would wear such an ostentatious jacket.

But here’s the thing, the very exuberance of the jacket – and the person wearing it – seeped out to the next table (ours) and we found ourselves, smiling, clapping and becoming exuberant ourselves.  And then so did the next table, and the one on the other side of him.  His cheerful contagion was infecting us all.  By then end of the evening, we were all very happy.  And although I’m sure the setting, the wines and the music helped, I really attribute much of the spirit and ambience to Marco, the “Patient Zero” of the situation.

Countless years of research have produced a huge body of studies that demonstrate how quickly and deeply humans, usually unconsciously, absorb and then mirror the emotions of those around them and how these emotions impact our state of mind and relationships.

And it’s a two way street.  Just as we are impacted by the emotions of other people, our emotions are impacting those around us.  When we hang out with positive people, research shows that we are more likely to be cooperative, energized and less stressed.  And the opposite is true. When negativity permeates our relationships, our stress levels, anxiety and general outlook in life can profoundly change for the negative.

I’ve seen this countless times with clients — where  “prevalent culture” was defined heavily by the personality and emotions of the person in charge – some created stressful, anxious and draining environments while others created friendly, upbeat and fun environments.

And this should be an easy one to handle, right? Not always.  We are often not very good at recognizing changes in our feelings early enough to do something about it.  So the best thing to do is to start paying very close attention to the emotional climate around you.  For me, when that climate is negative, I feel a tense, sudden malaise, but am not sure why.  That’s my cue to start paying attention to what is going on around me and how I’m reacting to it.  This then allows me to modulate my response.  Learning to listen, understand and react to these weak signals gets easier as you do it more.  The same thing applies for behavior, so start recognizing when your emotions are impacting those around you.  Over the years I have started to recognize when my voice starts heating up, and I get shriller and faster in my response. That, for me, becomes the cue  to slow it down and examine what it is that I am communicating and the impact it’s having on those around me.

So my question is how can we, as leaders, create more a harmonious environment around us?  The key is in being highly aware and attuned to the emotions of those around us so that we can recognize and surround ourselves with relationships and environments that impact us positively and that we, in turn, energize and inspire other with our emotions and behavior.

On New Year’s Eve, I decided that I was going to be more like Marco!

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