Colorado Supreme Court

Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.

How to Use Emotional Data

By Kerry McCarthy, LPC

Emotional intelligence (EI) skills are crucial in the practice of law. In fact, those who exhibit EI skills out-perform in both production and revenues,1 and exhibit traits most desired by both clients and employers alike according to the Colorado based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS).2 This is because our ability to navigate the physiological and cognitive impact of our emotions improves our clarity, focus, competency, diligence, and communication skills. Our thoughts, emotions, and physiological state run on a continuous feedback loop. Learning how to interpret the "data of emotions" allows us to direct that feedback loop and improve the skills crucial for both the practice of law and our own mental and emotional fortitude.

Our emotions provide crucial data; they directly influence our focus, logic, cognitive abilities, and decision-making abilities. They signal when we need to act or set boundaries and cue us into what we find safe or dangerous; enjoyable or intolerable; even what we find tasty or disgusting. Pausing to interpret this data helps us gain valuable insights on how to identify, manage, and respond to day-to-day stressors. Like learning any language, emotional intelligence takes practice. This skill is vitally important because we may not realize the influence of our emotions on our thoughts and behaviors until we're dealing with the consequences.

Emotions are individual and nuanced experiences that can be difficult to describe. They are a result of a complex reaction in which we recognize that something important to our welfare or well-being is occurring,3 and are a reaction to things we find personally significant.4 Emotions are not inherently good or bad, though how we choose to perceive and react to them may positively or negatively impact our decisions and behaviors. To illustrate this, let’s examine common reactions to the emotion shame.

First, consider how emotions influence our thinking. Shame is an emotion that involves self-evaluation and reflection.5 When our self-evaluations are negative, we may have thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a failure.” These thoughts intensify and keep us stuck in emotions like shame. In these moments, you can support your wellbeing by considering whether this thought is helpful. Does this thought get you closer to your goals? No matter the evidence you see to support this idea, the truth is we can’t be the best at everything, but to say that you have accomplished nothing isn’t true either.

Strong emotions can also lead to physical changes such as muscle tension, increased respiration, rising temperature, and increased heart rate. Because emotion and physical sensations are linked,6 we can use our physiological functions to calm emotional experiences, such as by focusing on our breathing. When you start to notice your muscles tightening, jaw clenching, or heart pounding, inhale through your nose, followed by a long exhale through your mouth. This will slow your heart rate and keep shame from spiraling.

Emotions also impact our behaviors. Shame for example, may prevent us from making eye contact, engaging in discussions, or being around people after a big loss in court. It can even prevent a client from giving you crucial information about their case. We may also engage in behaviors that attempt to conceal traits or aspects of our personality that cause us embarrassment. Evaluate what you’re afraid others will find out about you. The vulnerability to be authentic even when we have doubts is the emotional risk of exposure and uncertainty; however, it provides us an opportunity to be courageous and honest in the appropriate settings.7 Similarly, you can demonstrate compassion and understanding with a client about their circumstances to encourage them to share information with you.

Emotions are more than feelings. They are data. They communicate information that allows us to appraise a situation and decide how to act and behave. Developing an awareness of our emotions by interpreting their “language” empowers us to make informed decisions in our personal and professional lives. The next time you experience an emotion that is negatively impacting your work or your personal life, take a moment to examine what information that emotion is sharing with you, and use that data to support healthy behaviors and responses moving forward.

For more well-being related strategies visit the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) website at or contact us at or (303) 986-3345 to request a confidential, free well-being consultation.

1 How Emotional Intelligence Makes You a Better Lawyer, ABA October 2017.
2Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) “Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, 2016.
3Ekman, P. (2012). Emotions revealed: Understanding faces and feelings. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
4American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.
5 Tangney, J. P. (2003). Self-relevant emotions. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 384– 400). The Guilford Press.
6 Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Physiological Changes Associated with Emotion. Available from:
7Listening to Shame. (2012). Brené Brown: Listening to shame | TED Talk. Retrieved May 26, 2023, from