Dealing with emotional contagion: how to reduce sales stress

In today’s complex business environment, sales stress continues to be a major concern. Workers in sales jobs must interact with customers regularly, sometimes dealing with arguments, complaints, and negotiations. Therefore, for salespeople in particular, emotions are high. But did you know that transmitting and catching emotions–what psychologists call “emotional contagion”–can actually impact overall stress levels and sales performance? 

Several studies indicate that the emotional demands of sales jobs and the multitude of interactions plays a big role in determining sales stress. But proper emotion management can reduce interpersonal conflict and felt stress, making customers more likely to buy, and ultimately lead to higher performance.

So how can you as a salesperson or leader reduce sales stress to improve performance? In this post we will focus on specific tactics to teach your employees how they can deal with emotional contagion. We’ll cover both transmitting and catching emotions: 

Transmitting: inflicting emotions on others 

  • Pay attention to voice tone
  • Pay attention to body language
  • Be cautious about sharing negative emotions 

Catching: protecting yourself from other people’s negative emotions

  • Set clear boundaries
  • Acknowledge and label feelings
  • Focus on your body 
  • Use imagery 

As always, our team of researchers have gone through numerous scientific studies related to emotions, emotional labor, emotional regulation and coping strategies in order to provide you with practical, science-based tips on how to reduce sales stress.

What is emotional contagion?

Dealing with your emotions and those of others can be tough, especially in today’s often ambiguous sales environment. It is important to be aware that you transmit and catch the emotions of others during conversations.This process is called emotional contagion, and the ability to manage emotions in conversations is an important element of building good sales relationships, boosting performance, and reducing stress. It is therefore crucial for managers to make employees aware of this process and promote effective sales stress coping strategies. 

download app

The emotional contagion hypothesis explains how emotions can spread just like viruses. Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available information. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence our conversations, thoughts, and even outcomes. When people (e.g., salesperson and customer) communicate, their emotions are transmitted from one to the other via facial cues, body language, tone, and actual word choice. In some cases the contagion can even last days.

Emotional contagion and sales stress

Since salespersons operate as boundary spanners in organizations, it is not surprising that social interactions are crucial in determining how they feel, act, and perform. Emotions significantly shape the initiation, development and retention of relationships over time. The way employees interact with role members is therefore considered to be a key factor in predicting sales performance, satisfaction, turnover, and sales stress.

Being able to protect yourself from others’ negative emotions can help reduce sales stress. This is crucial to combat burnout and ensure salespeople are working at their mental peak.

emotional contagion

source –

Emotional contagion and clients/customers

Emotions also greatly influence consumers. Emotions affect decisions to buy, even when the emotions aren’t related to the actual product or service for sale. Even weak emotional reactions can lead to misunderstandings and have a major impact on the sales context and outcome. It is therefore beneficial for your employees to be aware of how they inflict emotions onto others, both negative and positive. 

There are individual differences concerning the ability of a person either to infect another person with their emotions (called transmitters), or to become infected by another person’s emotions (called catchers). In what follows, we will discuss tips for both transmitting and catching emotions during conversations. 


Tips for transmitters: inflicting emotions onto others

Transmitters–those who easily transmit their emotions–are usually seen as charismatic, colorful, and entertaining. Often these individuals score high on dominance, affiliation, and exhibition. In many cases, being able to transmit positive emotions can make other people more accessible to the intention of the conversation. 

A salesperson’s ability to infect others with helpful emotions can therefore be an asset, because it can reduce stress and lead to higher performance. Although this is mostly an automatic and implicit process, there are ways to teach employees to be better at this.

non-verbal communication

source –


Tactic #1:Pay attention to non-verbal communication

Often 50% or more of the information that is transmitted during a conversation is nonverbal, and nonverbal communication is largely affected by emotions. It’s therefore important for salespeople to be aware of what emotion they (non-verbally) convey.

Intuitively, you can link this to the “social smile” in infancy, where babies reciprocate a smile when they see this in others. When someone is happy, we tend to mirror that emotion. Paying attention to things like gestures, voice tone, eye contact, and posture is important since these signals can convey important information that is not put in words and influence the emotion of the other person and in turn your own sales stress.


Pay attention to voice tone

One way you can teach employees to inflict positive emotions and reduce stress is by educating them about the importance of the tone of your voice. This might be an efficient way to amplify your message and inflict emotions onto others. Your tone can convey a lot of information, running from anger, to enthusiasm, to disinterest. 

Employees can start off with experimenting how the tone of their voice affects how others respond to them and to emphasize ideas. For example, if someone wants to show genuine interest in something a customer is telling them, they could express their enthusiasm by using a higher pitch of tone. Such signals help generate interest in your customers as well.

Some suggestions to become aware of and improve your tone include:

  • Record your voice. You can just use a phone mic. This will give you insight in your own voice tone, perhaps you are unaware of the fact that you speak unusually loud, fast, or under breath.

  • Practice the same sentence with different “tones/meanings.” For example, how many ways can you use your voice tone to change the meaning of the sentence: “I don’t like surprise parties.”
  • Practice deep breathing and speaking from your chest. We are often not aware of the connection of our emotions to our breath, but emotions can show themselves through a shivering voice or vibrating tone. Deep breathing can reduce anxiety and may help you produce a stronger tone.
  • Organize practice sessions where you practice different tones with colleagues and provide feedback (e.g., 2 positives, 2 things to work on).


Pay attention to body language

Another way to make sure that your employees inflict the right emotion is by paying attention to body language. Understanding the body language of others, and being aware of your own, can help you communicate better. If you want to sell something to your customer, you don’t want to unintentionally come across as hostile, disinterested, or worried. Here are some features that you might want to make your employees aware of.

First, it is important to be aware of your posture. For example, crossing your arms might indicate that you are feeling defensive or self-protective, and standing with your hands placed in your hips might indicate that you are ready and in control but could be interpreted as a sign of aggression. An open posture (when you keep the trunk of the body open and exposed) indicates friendliness, openness, and willingness, while a closed posture (when you are leaning forward) may indicate hostility, unfriendliness, or anxiety. Being aware of this might change the way you come across. 

Gestures can also convey a message or emotion. However, especially when you are working in a cross-cultural context, it is important to take into account that gestures are culture specific. (If you are not familiar with Winston Churchill’s “peace sign” gaffe, do a quick search.)

eye contact

source –

Also, consider eye contact. You occasionally want to look directly into someone’s eyes while having a conversation. This indicates that you are interested and paying attention

If you often break eye contact and frequently look away, this might indicate that you are distracted or uncomfortable. However, also be aware that prolonged eye contact can feel threatening, and blinking rapidly might indicate that someone is feeling distressed. 

Think for example of a poker player that blinks less frequently because he is trying to appear unexcited about the hand he was dealt with. 

If you notice that one of your employees is struggling with body language, try to discuss this in a private conversation. Consider gently educating them about these aspects by mentioning what you have noticed and how they might improve.

You could also take a more collective approach in which you organize a meeting and practice body language identification and generation as a group. You could:

  • Watch each other practice a short sales presentation or conversation and provide feedback.
  • Watch a TV/movie clip to ID body language – what was positive, negative, helpful, not? Did body language match the verbal language?

Play the game ‘Guess the Emotion’. As you might expect, it involves acting out and guessing emotions. In this exercise two groups are formed and they each draw an emotion that they have to act out (pantomime) to their team members.

This should be done in a fixed time limit and if the emotion is correctly guessed by the group, they receive points. Also rotate the acting opportunities between the two groups. This will teach your employees to recognize non-verbal signs of emotions and practice ways of how to show them.


Tactic #2: Be cautious when inflicting negative emotions

There are times when it is reasonable or even helpful to express frustration, sadness, or other negative feelings even in a professional setting. Used properly, the wise use of negative emotions can emphasize the need for change or promote bonding and social support during tough times.  

However, more often than not, inflicting negative emotions harms conversations as well as the person you are speaking with. To refrain from inflicting negative emotions onto others, you need to be aware of your own emotional state and make sure that you regulate the expression of any negative emotions. 

When you are aware of your own emotional state, you understand how you are feeling and you can infer how your feelings might affect others. One way to identify your own emotional state is by using an emotion tracker.

You can use an app or simply keep a daily reflection journal where you record when you were feeling good, bad, disinterested, or excited. By also listing the situations or activities that might have caused these feelings, you become more aware of what triggers them. If you recognize these triggers, you can take action whenever you are feeling big emotions like anger, frustration, anxiety or fear. 

The next step is to actually make sure you don’t inflict negative emotions onto others. Once you recognize negative emotions or specific situations that trigger these, you can take steps to “put space” between you, your emotion, and the other people. First, try to label your emotion(s). What exactly are you feeling, in words? Then decide what you want to do about it. You could for example:

  • Step out of the situation by going for a walk or taking a coffee break
  • Take some time to write down what happened 
  • Try deep breathing techniques, practicing empathy (how would I feel if someone was inflicting me with those emotions?), or hitting the gym to exercise your body. 

For more ideas, take a look at our post on how to increase control over negative emotion.


Two caveats: take a holistic approach and beware of unhelpful expectations

However, if you are using these non-verbal techniques to make inferences about another person’s emotions, keep in mind the verbal communication and the situation too.

Taking such a holistic approach is key, since a single gesture can mean many different things, or maybe nothing at all. Signals could also be misleading. For example, in general a strong handshake might be indicative of a strong personality, but a weak one might also be the consequence of something else, like arthritis.

You should therefore look for groups of signals that reinforce a common point. By placing too much emphasis on just one signal, you might come to an inaccurate conclusion about what the other person is trying to say. 

Also, don’t forget the importance of culture, and beware of any unintentional bias you might have. For instance, a calm, quiet voice may indicate nervousness or aloofness in one culture, but respect or wisdom in another.

Similarly, many non-verbal behaviors are gendered. For instance, women smile more in social settings than men do. This is probably due to social norms and expectations rather than any sex differences in happiness. Being aware of these differences can help ensure that you don’t unintentionally judge an unsmiling woman differently than an unsmiling man, when there is no reason to do so.

smile and social settings

source –

Nevertheless, if you are confused about someone’s non-verbal signals, you can politely ask them. It could for example be that someone is giving off mixed non-verbal signals because they have something else on their mind. You can repeat back your interpretations and ask for clarification. For example: 

  • “If I understand you correctly, we should …”
  • “So do you mean that …. ”
  • “Am I correct in saying that … “


Protect yourself when you are an easy catcher

Catchers, those who are more susceptible to the emotions of others, are more likely to make the person with whom they communicate (e.g., the customer) feel relaxed, so that the latter is willing to share more information. There is, however, a flip side to this.

Catchers can often feel stressed, because they can be affected by the negative emotions of others and because more people, especially those with negative feelings, may want to open up to them.

So, although being sensitive to the emotions of others is an asset, it risks increasing sales stress and burnout. It is therefore important to teach your employees to protect themselves from these negative emotions.


Set clear boundaries

One way to protect yourself against negative emotions and sales stress is to set clear boundaries during interactions. When you’re highly sensitive to others’ emotions, it can help to respectfully but explicitly state how the emotions are affecting you and the situation.

Often, transmitters are not aware of their emotional contagiousness. By communicating your feelings, you help make them aware and allow yourself to reclaim control and re-stir the conversation. You may even leave the situation when you feel that emotions are taking the upper hand. Examples of you what you could say are: 

  • “I am feeling a bit intimidated by the way you come across, is that your intention?”
  • “I sense that you are feeling angry, maybe we should discuss this later”
  • “Shall we take a step back and reevaluate why you are feeling this way?”


Address your own feelings and boost positivity

It may also help to acknowledge and label your feelings. When you feel that someone’s negative emotions are taking over, the attention you give to these thoughts and feelings might flood your mind in such a way that you don’t have room to examine them.

Give yourself some room. Examine these thoughts from a third-party perspective. Ask yourself “Is this really how I am feeling?” or “Why do I feel this way?” By labeling it, you will be able to distance yourself from the feeling. 

An example from psychologist Dr. Susan David is that an initial thought or feeling might be “He is so wrong and it’s making me mad,” which becomes more nuanced as “I am having the thought that my co-worker is wrong, and I am feeling anger”. Labeling therefore allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are, namely sources of data that may or may not be helpful. When you put that space between your emotions and you, it’s easier to let them go.

address your own feelings

source –

Another tactic is to focus on your body while having a conversation. By sitting still, your emotions can build up. Standing up or walking around helps to activate the thinking part of your brain.

You might feel awkward doing this, but sometimes you can just simply ask your colleague or customer if they mind if you walk around a bit or stretch a little. You could also do small physical things like crossing fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground and focusing on these actions. These are actions that originate from the mindfulness literature and are also referred to as “anchoring”. Doing this helps you get out of your rumination mode and enables you to  detach yourself from others’ emotions. 

Lastly, try using imagery. As explained in our post on building resilience, guided imagery is a form of relaxation meditation that involves using your imagination to help bring your body into a more relaxed state.

When you feel you are absorbing the other person’s negative emotion during a conversation, you can use your thoughts in a more productive way to get a more neutral and calm state. More specifically, you could imagine yourself surrounded by a ‘protective shield’, sort of a positive energy surrounding you, and imagine how you want to feel when someone drains the positivity right out of you. By practicing you can change the way you internalize the emotions of others during a conversation.


Summary of dealing with emotional contagion: how to reduce sales stress

In this post, you learned how to deal with transmitting and catching emotions during conversations. Because salespeople are under continuous pressure to perform and regularly face challenging interactions, their ability to manage their emotions is an important element of successful performance and crucial in reducing sales stress. 

We focused on several steps to more wisely use emotional contagion and to protect yourself when it’s unhelpful, specifically:

When transmitting emotions onto others 

  • Pay attention to voice tone
  • Pay attention to body language
  • Be cautious about sharing negative emotions 

To protect yourself from catching negative emotions from others

  • Set clear boundaries
  • Acknowledge and label feelings
  • Focus on your body 
  • Use imagery