Heidi Connal (McIntire ’94) of Vast Sky Leadership on Managing Emotions in the Workplace

Keep your cool. Visionary adviser Heidi Connal explains how to manage emotions in stressful situations—including at the office.

Heidi Connal

Heidi Connal

Heidi Connal is a visionary adviser whose expertise extends across many aspects of strategic and organizational analysis. As such, she’s also very much attuned to emotions, understanding them, and being aware of how greatly they can impact life in the workplace.

She has had her share of overwhelming feelings and life-altering difficulties. She refers back to what she calls “the day my life changed forever”—Feb. 17, 2003—when her husband of four years started coughing up large amounts of blood. “He died five hours later, just out of surgery, from a tear in his pulmonary artery,” Connal says.

Since that tragic time, Connal has taken extraordinary pains to find space for happiness, traveling to all seven continents, jumping out of airplanes, swimming with humpback whales, and running a marathon herself (her 31-year-old husband was a marathoner), among many other personal adventures. “I’ve also worked for some extraordinary corporations—PricewaterhouseCoopers, American Express, Bank of America, and Salesforce—all in New York City and, now, in San Francisco,” she says. “These companies and the leaders I worked for helped me to find myself again, to expand my knowledge and experience, to become a strong and empathetic leader with brilliant teams, to joyfully travel, and to build a life that feels fully lived.”

That empathy led her toward a career as an executive coach.

After becoming widowed, Connal adopted a defensive maneuver in social settings, asking strangers open-ended questions “so they’d do the talking.” By learning about the diversity of experiences from people she spent time listening to, she was fascinated, and eventually discovered a level of empathy within herself she hadn’t known existed.

Ultimately, Connal believes those lessons carried over into the leadership positions she held within various corporations. “I’ve spent over 20 years working for large companies, and through all of my roles—executive, leader, facilitator, relationship manager, change agent, consultant—my underlying strengths were my empathy and my listening skills,” Connal says. “My favorite roles became those in which I could dig deeply into the human nature behind the issue, when I could help navigate the crisis of change and adjustment, and especially when I could help individuals grow and learn and step into who they are meant to be.”

A Vice President at Salesforce, Connal was presented with the opportunity to move to a new role in the company, but she decided to pursue different challenges. “I wanted to help individuals grow and succeed every day. Starting my own practice as an executive coach, leadership developer, and facilitator was an easy decision. In fact, it’s the first time in my life I can say it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

She says her efforts in leadership development and executive coaching can be transformative, helping those with C-suite positions to become more self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and astute to their team’s dynamics. The result? Improved efficacy, performance, and cultivating likeminded leaders who follow in their footsteps.

A key component of growth is tied to individual emotions—and the self-regulation thereof. To explain the crucial connection between how we feel and preserving successful interactions in the workplace, Connal recalls the stressful recession years a decade ago. During that difficult time, she worked for a large financial institution in New York where everything from leadership, personal development, merit increases, and maintaining a reasonable work-life balance took a backseat to “doing what needed to be done—and not getting fired.”

At that institution, one particular coworker, an executive, was notorious for her shrill voice and heavy-handed approach. “We all cringed and braced when she came around, prepared for the sledgehammer of suffering she’d deliver to us and the teams we led,” Connal remembers. “For me, merely the sound of her voice in the hallway evoked a thrumming pulse in the back of my neck. My shoulders would tense, my head would start to throb, and I’d dread the fight that would inevitably ensue as we battled out her expansive requirements and my teams’ scope limitations.”

She retells this unpleasant office interaction to explain an important discovery: The friction wasn’t inevitable. “It was behavioral. Habitual. Reactive. The emotional baggage caused me to react the same way every time she came into my office. And it was controllable,” she says.

Connal remembers the day she “consciously decided to stop the pattern and take a different approach,” intentionally changing how she handled whatever the anxious executive brought to her door by acting calmly, rationally, and even compassionately. “The shift in my behavior eventually shifted hers as well,” Connal says. “Her tone lowered, her stance eased, and our dialogue evolved into a more effective cadence geared toward resolution. It changed the way we worked together, and all I needed to do was shift my thinking.”

Though Connal admits that emotional regulation takes time, practice, and awareness, she insists that it can be mastered, given the proper attention, and benefits yourself, your family, your friends, and your colleagues.

Connal’s Three Strategies for Managing Your Emotions in Most Any Situation
1. “I’m having a moment”: Understand your brain on emotions.

We’ve all had those moments when rational thinking flies out the window and our emotions take control of our actions. It’s known as “an amygdala hijack”—named for that part of our brain that regulates our emotions—and is an instinctive response to our internal fight-flight-freeze instincts. The result is a surge of emotions like anger (fight), fear (flight), or anxiety (freeze) that sucks the oxygen from our brain and shuts down the cerebral cortex frontal lobe that does our rational thinking and problem solving.

The key is to know that this is happening. Know yourself well enough to recognize “I’m having a moment” and give yourself whatever permission and time to adjust. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in this space lies our power and our freedom.” Whether it’s nanoseconds or minutes, that space becomes crucial to your emotional regulation. It changes the response from reactive and irrational to thoughtful and effective.

2. “Take a deep breath”: It’s not just a trivializing phrase.

Though the phrase “Take a deep breath” seems patronizing in the moment, it’s actually spot on. During an amygdala hijack, our brain is working hard to send adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol through our body, so there’s little oxygen in our brain to control rational thought. Deep breaths replenish that missing oxygen and allow our neocortex the space it needs to think rationally.

Go ahead and take that deep breath. Take three. Take as many as you need, and notice how each one reduces your heart rate and relaxes your muscles.

3. “Hello, emotion”: Practice R-A-I-N.

Buddhist teachers use a mindfulness tool that offers in-the-moment support to manage intense emotions. We first have to be self-aware enough to recognize “I’m having a moment.” Then, this quick and easy practice makes the emotion more manageable. Over time, it changes the habitual ways we react and the unconscious patterns we’ve set for ourselves. It does take practice, so put that practice to work the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, a work situation causes lost sleep, or a loved one triggers you. The more you practice, the more instinctive it becomes.

Recognize: This is the self-awareness of “Emotions are happening,” whatever they may be. Notice it. Be aware. Give it a word or a characteristic—anxiety, anger, worry, nervousness—and ask yourself what’s happening inside. Don’t judge the emotion. Rather, let it be recognized.
Allow: Let the emotion be there inside of you. It’s there for a reason, and it’s part of who you are. The process of allowing the feeling to exist makes us less defensive and more understanding about why it’s there.

Investigate: Ask yourself the question “What is happening inside me?” or “How am I experiencing this in my body?” to dive a little further into where and how the emotion manifests. Over time, we notice the correlation of our specific emotions and physical effects, which serves us to further recognize and allow.

Nurture: Give that emotion and your thoughts a gentle welcome and understanding. “Hello, anger. You’re here because you think we’re being threatened” or “Hello, anxiety. You’re fearful of potential failure.” Insert your own emotion and understanding as they apply to you, and give them that space. With this nurturing and awareness of the emotion—and the reasons for it—come the knowledge and (perhaps) the decision that this doesn’t have to drive or define you.

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