What is an Emotional Thermostat?  When faced with an indifferent waiter and disappointing food, how easy do you find it to complain?

When someone at work has produced poor quality work, what do you do and say?  And more importantly, how do you feel?

These feedback moments are challenging for many of us because of the potential for confrontation and conflict.  We need to learn to respond while retaining control of our ancient fight or flight responses.

So let’s get acquainted with our Emotional Thermostat

Imagine we all have an “Emotional Thermostat” which, when we are calm and comfortable, is set at ambient temperature.

When we communicate with other people who do not EXACTLY share our views, or do not want to do what we think is right, our emotional temperature changes.  This reflects our instinctive response to potential conflict.

Our responses are both instinctive and learnt

The fight or flight response is a chemical, bodily reaction. However our responses are also shaped by adults when we are very young.  By adulthood, we often do not consciously register what is happening to us when conflict arises – unless or until the conflict is extreme and our emotions respond accordingly.

Research on the topic of conflict responses, shows how difficult it is for us to respond calmly and patiently under stress.  Stress hormones quite literally prevent us from listening properly and reduce messages to the parts of our brain that deal with rationality. We can easily become irrational.

Our emotional response is instinctive but not pre-determined

It is important to understand that people do not behave in a fixed way – our behavior is influenced by the behavior AND emotion around us.

So we have three choices

The model below shows a temperature dial, with the three key ranges of emotional response.  Our temperature will move all the time in response to the people around us.

emotional thermostat diagram

I deliberately use the positive words “Conviction” and “Collaboration” to describe the two ends of the spectrum around the Constructive Zone. These extreme responses are rarely helpful in dealing with challenging situations.

Excessive Collaboration

From childhood, we are taught that collaboration, along with sharing our toys, is a universally good thing.  As adults we need to recognize that collaboration, without dealing with the underlying differences between two sides, is not healthy in the long term.

Real collaboration means you genuinely buy into the idea.  Remaining quiet, or disengaging, is toxic to group performance.

You are in the Blue Zone if you:

  • Fail to ask questions
  • Rush to end the conversation
  • Start to plan who you will talk to outside of that conversation to solve the problem
  • Feel disengaged, frustrated or powerless

Excessive Conviction

The challenge for managers is that “decisiveness” is a much-valued skill.  It is important to recognize that decisive is not the same as excessively convinced.

You are in the Red Zone if you:

  • Continue to restate your own opinion
  • Insist there is only one way to solve the problem
  • Repeat the facts as you see them
  • THINK but do not KNOW why the other person holds the view they do
  • Make statements instead of asking questions
  • Talk more than you listen
  • Feel impatient, frustrated or angry

Awareness is the first step towards self-regulation

The good news is that you can train yourself to become aware of your emotional response – your thermostat – and exercise control over that response.  When you do this you will feel tension as you are doing something “un-natural”, and you will need to stay focused and self-controlled to achieve this.

Noticing your own emotional responses and being aware of their source is a powerful tool in self-regulation.

You are in the Constructive Zone if you:

  • focus on understanding the other point of view
  • do not interrupt or begin sentences with “but”
  • ask a range of open and exploratory questions
  • listen carefully to the factual and emotional content of the message
  • avoid restating your agenda or point of view
  • have identified which Zone your counterpart is in
  • pay attention to what is NOT being said as well as what IS being said
  • do not make assumptions – there is no “alternative dialogue “ in your head
  • explore and uncover the NEEDS of the other side and try to match them to your own
  • feel tension as a result of focusing on the other person and staying in the Zone

And what do the Constructive Zone signs also indicate? 

Hopefully you will notice that these are all coaching behaviors.  Professional coaches accept that part of their role is to “live in the tension” with their clients and help them navigate through difficult emotions.  As Mary Beth O’ Neill says in Coaching with Backbone and Heart, coaching is about:

“developing and sustaining your tolerance for a host of situations many people actively avoid: ambiguity, daunting challenges, the anxiety or disapproval of others and your own personal sources of stress”

So now you know that coaching might help you stay in that green zone where genuine resolution lies.

How do you rate you and your team when it comes to conflict?

Coaching is the perfect tool to help get you into the green zone and navigate your way through conflict. Read more about team and individual coaching here. 


I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank