A Harvard psychologist says asking yourself one question can help you keep from losing your head at the office

Emotions have an obvious purpose: When you walk into the office and see your cubicle mate sobbing, you know not to pounce on her with a giant grin and a “Hey there, how’s it going, buddy?!”

That is to say, emotions allow us to communicate with other people — without saying a word. Pretty obvious stuff.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that emotions also let us communicate with ourselves.

That might sound weird. Aren’t we necessarily privy to everything we’re thinking and feeling, all the time?

Unfortunately not.

According to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Emotional Agility,” people are notoriously oblivious to what their emotions are trying to tell them. We can feel sad, or angry, or frustrated, and wallow in our misery instead of thinking about why we’re struggling and what we can do about it.

Which is why David recommends that whenever you’re feeling an intense emotion, you stop and ask yourself one question: “What the func?

“Func” here is a nickname for “function,” so essentially you’re asking yourself what the function of your current emotion is. Consider it emotional archaeology: You’re digging beneath the surface of your feelings to figure out why they arose in the first place.

Here’s David:

“The time to kind of ask, “What the func?” is when you’ve got an emotion that’s there, that comes back, that might even come back time and time again around a particular situation. Trying to kind of discern the function beneath that emotion is critical.”

David shared a personal example about a time when she could have made her life a lot easier by asking, “What the func?”

Years ago, David was working as a technical writer in New Zealand. She found the job incredibly unfulfilling.

Here’s what she told me:

“I was getting more and more frustrated and I would go out with a colleague of mine and we would moan at lunch and we would vent to each other and we would do this whole thing which a lot of people do. But then I would come back to the workplace and I would play nice and get on with my job.

“And when I was able to really step back and say, what is the function of this frustration? What is the function of the anger? What is it that I’m feeling frustrated about here? …

“What I was able to discern is that autonomy is really important to me, that being able to make choices and to be able to have flexibility around my time was really important. And that particular job was not going to give that to me.”

Woman surprised shocked listen thinking wonder listening shockStrelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/FlickrYou might be surprised by what you learn when you ask, ‘What the func?’

David took that knowledge about her personal desire for autonomy and used it to inform her job search going forward. In other words, she didn’t just experience the ongoing emotion of frustration — she learned from it.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, but don’t have the opportunity to start looking for another job, David said there are ways to make your current work more satisfying.

Psychologists call this process “job crafting“: You tweak aspects of your job so that it’s more meaningful, and lines up better with your personal values.

Maybe, David said, that requires having a conversation with your boss about your responsibilities. Or, if you’re frustrated with a team member, you might want to have a conversation with them.

Once you recognise what your feelings are trying to tell you, David said, “you’re able to move forward in a way that’s constructive and in a way that’s intentional.”

Read: You’re not blowing up at your colleagues or rolling your eyes every time they speak. The great thing about getting to the bottom of your emotions is that they no longer control your behaviour — you decide how to act in a rational way.

“I’m making a choice about how I want to bring myself to the conversation with them,” David said, “so that I can make things better.”

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