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Leadership Unlimited

Leadership Unlimited is a career column by Terry Wall, MBA '97. Terry is a recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, who will share his experiences and tips each month.

Alumni are encouraged to send comments, questions or suggestions for future column topics to

Emotional Overload: Animals, the Sixth Sense, and 5 Tips to Prevent an Emotional Tsunami
May 2015

I read an article recently about how animals in the region devastated by the 2004 Asian tsunami seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to these disasters. There are lots of anecdotal reports of animals fleeing the areas well before the tsunami struck.

The theory behind this (which from what I read doesn't have much scientific data to back it up) is that animals had the ability to detect sound or motion waves that arrived well before the tsunami did. These waves traveled underground, and moved faster than the mountain of water.

What does this have to do with leadership? I thought you'd never ask. I believe that by fine-tuning our own senses, we can predict, and even prevent the next tsunami. Not the type that ravaged Southeast Asia. No, I'm talking about emotional tsunamis - the kind that erupt in people, that destroy relationships, and leave emotional wreckage and chaos in their wake.

We've all seen them - the blow-ups where people lose it emotionally, yell, and scream, and say things that get them into trouble. Okay, let's admit it, sometimes WE are those people.

Think about it. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, and an earthquake is the result of two plates grinding together, building up tension over centuries, or thousands of years, until that tension and energy are released with truly cataclysmic results.

Isn't an emotional outburst similar? Something happens, and a person feels slighted in some way, thinks about it, lets it fester, all the while the tension is building and building until, finally it's unleashed in a furious tidal wave of anger, and sometimes rage. That's an emotional tsunami.

Last week I was working with a management team, and while discussing conflict resolution, one of the participants said, "Little things, left unresolved, become BIG things." How true.

We don't really have a sixth sense, but we can develop existing senses to detect the underlying tensions before they erupt in an emotional tsunami. This means listening and watching for visual and auditory signs that tension exists.

Sometimes it's the tone of voice, or the inflection on a particular word that signals something isn't right. Other times, it's the body language, a gesture, or the subtle flash of a fleeting facial expression.

These signals can represent a lot of feelings. Misunderstanding, lack of understanding, hurt, anger, questioning, dismay, uneasiness, and many others. These feelings tell us that something isn't right, that the other person isn't getting our message, or is misinterpreting it in some way.

If left unresolved, that little thing does fester, and eventually becomes something big. That's when the emotional tsunami strikes. Because these subtle signs always exist, we can use them to prevent that next tsunami.

Watch and listen for these subtle signs in the people around you. This is particularly hard for us to do when we are interacting with others, because we're caught up in the moment. So the next best thing to do is look for it in the interactions of others.

I just saw an example of this while I was standing in line at the local deli. I could tell that the customer in front of me was sending subtle signals that spelled F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-O-N. But the guy behind the counter was oblivious.

Had he seen it, he could have avoided the blow-up that left a very bad taste in the customer's mouth. (The other explanation is that he did see it, but didn't care.) And all of this over pastrami - a pastrami tsunami!

If we as leaders practice this skill of paying attention to the signposts of emotions, which by the way is a big part of what is called Emotional Intelligence, we can be much more effective in our personal relationships.

Here are 5 tips for avoiding the next emotional tsunami:

  1. Look for those facial expressions, the gestures that indicate a strong emotional response
  2. Listen for the tone of voice, the inflection, the more emotional words used
  3. In responding, speak slowly and calmly
  4. Verify that you accurately understand the other person's perspective
  5. Demonstrate empathy and understanding

These steps will help to defuse the situation, to gently release the tension, so that you aren't the victim of the next emotional tsunami.



About the Author

Terry Wall

Terry Wall, MBA '97, accelerates success for individuals and organizations. For individuals, he accelerates success through coaching. For organizations, he accelerates success by building winning teams, working with management teams in groups. Either way, Terry teaches people how to improve how they manage and lead, so that they and their direct reports are more engaged in their work, more committed to organizational goals, and more productive in what they do.

That accelerates success. That improves profitability.

Terry specializes in strategic planning, leadership development, change management, corporate culture, and productivity improvement. He works in a wide range of industries, including service and manufacturing, non-profit, and large and small organizations. He is a skilled facilitator who provides coaching on individual, executive, or team levels.

A recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, Terry has a B.A. in psychology from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, and an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is a professional speaker, and a professional writer who coauthored a book on teambuilding, and has been published in many publications.

Terry Wall accelerates success, and improves profitability, for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Issue Archive

October 2009
4 Best Practices to Destroy Employee Retention

January 2010
What is Responsibility Based Management, Engaging Leadership?

February 2010
Do You Have a Leadership Deficit?

March 2010
Trust is the Foundation of Leadership, Teamwork, Sales

June 2010
Look in the Mirror First, but Beware of Blind Spots

August 2010
Five Strategies to Improve Company Profitability

October 2010
The Leader's Role as Teacher, and the Threat to Put My Hand in the Shredder

December 2010
The First 48 Principle of Conflict Resolution

January 2011
Talk Makes People Do Awful Things

March 2011
3 Reasons to Pursue Social Responsibility

April 2011
Visibility is a Great Leadership Strategy

July 2011
Casey Anthony and 4 Dysfunctions of a Team

August 2011
Choice is a Key to Motivation, Engagement

September 2011
Labor Day, and Engagement's Missing Ingredient

February 2012
3 Trends, 4 Questions for Developing Innovative Strategies

September 2012
Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

December 2012
Leaders Use Purpose to Increase Profitability

January 2013
Leadership Model Accelerates Success, Focuses on 5 Areas

February 2013
Look in the Mirror First, but Beware of Blind Spots

March 2013
The Most Powerful Phrase in Leadership

June 2013
Public Speaking As an Important Leadership Skill, and Three Improvement Tips

July 2013
5 Tips to Avoid Snore-Filled Meetings

August 2013
The Adapt or Get Zapped Approach to Innovation

October 2013
Relentless Communication About Purpose
Engages, Motivates Employees

December 2013
3 Rules to Uncover Your Purpose

January 2014
Increased Employee Engagement Leads To Improved Profitability

February 2014
Leaders Should Embrace Conflict

March 2014
To Promote Values, Preach What You Practice

May 2014
Avoid Death by PowerPoint Presentations

July 2014
14 Strategies for Better Time Management

October 2014
Four Best Practices to Destroy Employee Retention

December 2014
Building Trust Requires the Human Touch

January 2015
5 Strategies to Improve Company Profitability

February 2015
"You Want Me to do What?!"

March 2015
Improve These Two Areas to Solve Workplace Problems