Uncontrolled Outbursts Can Lead to Growth

By Jalene Case,

One of my clients recently erupted at a coworker when she discovered that confidential information was shared. Normally, she would have calmed down and scheduled a serious discussion with the employee. Before she could do that, they ended up together in a work space with no one else around. The conversation quickly spiraled out of control.

What if I told you that uncontrolled, emotional outbursts at a co-worker could open the door to growing as a leader?

I had an opportunity to help my client unpack her uncharacteristic response and explore what was behind it. In our first discussion, her emotions were still running hot: she had a splitting headache, felt ashamed, and tears kept coming intermittently. We pressed pause on the coaching session and resumed a few days later. At that point, she was calm, curious, and focused. By the end of the session, she had become clear about the outcome she wanted.

The first instinct might be to tackle the external consequences caused by an uncontrolled outburst, but that doesn’t get at the root of it—that just smooths over what is happening on the surface. Going beneath the surface is what will make lasting personal growth possible.

Exploring Outburst, Control, and Values

In between our first and second coaching sessions, my client did a writing exercise that I suggested. She used a technique called wild writing, written about by Natalie Goldberg. She brought the situation to mind and then used two writing prompts, I know and I don’t know. She used the first prompt to write for exactly 10 minutes, shook out her hand, and then used the second prompt for another 10 minutes. She followed these rules: keep writing no matter what (if you get stuck, simply write I don’t know what to write until something comes), go for the jugular knowing you can destroy it later, and no going back to make any corrections during the 10 minutes.

That writing exercise revealed whales. Literally. She realized that normally at this time of year she and her partner would go to San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico to witness the birth of gray whales. She recognized how deeply sad and disappointed she felt that they weren’t going this year.

Naming emotions is often the first step to understanding more fully what’s beneath those shame-inducing outbursts. It’s part of self-awareness, which is the foundation of emotional intelligence. When you’re aware of your feelings, you can do a better job of regulating your behaviors. Imagine an iceberg. The behaviors are the top part that can be seen. The emotions are the much larger, unseen bottom portion of the iceberg, lurking beneath the surface and driving the behaviors.

After identifying her feelings, we moved on to exploring the results she wanted. We used the Change Theory model to discern her current perception of the situation, the outcome she wanted, and the behaviors that would help cross the gap between her perception and the desired outcome. A surprise popped up.

This one gnarly outburst uncovered a larger intention. While this particular situation needed to be addressed with the employee, she discovered that it was part of a larger issue. What she really wanted was for the organization to be a better team. She began to imagine the behaviors that would lead to that inspirational and impactful outcome.

This led us to her circle of control: the circumstances that she has direct control over. How did she want to show up in the next meeting with the team, including a meeting with the employee? She identified words and phrases that described who she wanted to be during the upcoming discussion. She listed open-minded, respectful, and good listener. Interestingly enough, those words are also connected to her core values—and values point to how you want to show up.

In fact, fun is also one of her core values. That one took a hit when she didn’t get to see the whales in Baja. She realized that even though she didn’t feel comfortable traveling during the pandemic, it was important for her to find other ways to bring more fun into her life.

This led to identifying the values that were expressed or not expressed during the uncontrolled emotional response. She realized that her values of honesty, integrity and respect were not represented during the outburst. Values have a direct tie to your feelings and subsequent reactions. When your values get stepped on in a situation, it can cause an extreme emotional response. For example, if you value honesty and you feel someone is being dishonest, your emotional response can be a seemingly unreasonable amount of anger, frustration, or aggravation.

When you struggle with a response that you’re not proud of, I encourage you to dive beneath the surface and use what you learn to become the kind of leader you want to be. In the end, you will be clearer about what you need to do to achieve your desired outcome. If you have questions about any of the techniques I described, please reach out to me at Jalene@JaleneCase.com.