When you’re leading a meeting, conducting a conference call, or having a sales conversation, your state is absolutely critical.

No, not your geographical location.

I’m talking about the way you’re being. That means the emotion you’re feeling and the thoughts you’re thinking. How you hold your body and how you move. Your energy level. All of it is important.

Your state is contagious.

Your colleagues, clients, companions, everyone around you influenced by the way you’re being. And their state has an impact on you, too. That means it’s smart to choose your company carefully.

How do you catch someone’s emotions?

You notice their posture, facial expression, the way they move … and you unconsciously begin to imitate them. So, if they’re wearing a frown and glaring under a furrowed brow, you start to scowl and before you know it, you’re nearly as furious as they are.

It all happens in a split second.

And University of Chicago Professor John Cacioppo says the more expressive an individual is, the more likely you are to pick up on what they’re doing and mimic it, without even realizing what’s happening.

“The muscle fibers in your face and body can be activated unbeknownst to you,” Cacioppo told US News & World Report. Those tiny muscle movements then trigger the actual feeling inside, by making your “mirror neurons” fire. That micro-movement creates the emotion just as if you were experiencing it for yourself.

You’ll notice the same thing happens with vocal tone and language. In a conversation, we’re likely to match the emotional charge of the other person’s words. And that’s especially likely when their words are negative.

“Hate” “Anger” “Sad” – those words carry a lot of energy.

At Oregon State University, Psychology Professor Frank Bernieri says it makes sense. “Communication requires the matching of specific words and contents so people can understand each other, so it’s easy to see how language could drive this contagion process.”

It’s natural. But maybe not inevitable.

You can probably remember hundreds of times when you’ve been caught up in an ebullient colleague’s enthusiasm … and you noticed your own state lightened up too.

Then there’s the flip side, when somebody else’s gloomy mood brought you down. In fact, the downward drift is much more likely.

The experts say negative states are more contagious than positive ones. Our prehistoric ancestors who were especially attuned to others’ fear, disgust and anger were more likely to pay attention to a threat. And that made them more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

Maybe your highly evolved self is thinking, “Hmpf. I don’t want to be scared or disgusted or furious just because someone else is.” Might be a good idea to get intentional about this natural, automatic aspect of communication.

So, once you decide not to be infected by a colleague or customer’s negativity (or a friend’s, or a family member’s, or that woman-who-scowled-at-you-at-the grocery-store’s) …

How do you protect yourself?

  • Pay attention to your own feelings. If you sense things starting to go south, ask yourself, “Is this really me – or am I picking up a downer from someone else?”
  • Mind your face when you’re around someone who’s angry or depressed. Aim for a neutral or even pleasant expression. You don’t want to succumb to subtly imitating the cranky one and “catching” the state behind the scowl.
  • Use the power of the imaginary bubble. Yes, really. Picture yourself inside a giant bubble and notice that now everyone else’s bad vibes bounce back to them instead of getting all over you.

Beyond warding off negativity, seeing myself in a big pink bubble makes me giggle inside. My mood automatically gets better instead of worse.

  • Inoculate yourself against negativity. Maybe you’ve heard Shawn Achor’s TED talk about how to be happy at work?
    1. Write an email praising someone
    2. Write down three things for which you’re grateful
    3. Journal about a positive experience for a couple minutes
    4. Exercise for 30 minutes
    5. Meditate for just two minutes.

There you go. We can avoid being sucked into someone’s negativity. It’s even possible to bring them along into your own rosier point of view. How? Remember this …

People are more likely to “catch” a state from someone who’s quite expressive.

The bigger your smile, the more you gesture, the more grounded you are, the more likely it is that your positive energy prevails. When the signals of your lighter mood are strong, the person you want to influence begins to mirror you—and their state lightens.

That can have big business benefits, right?

The experts I coach want to have a bigger impact when they’re speaking, running a meeting, or selling their services. Understanding how they come across to others and learning how to manage their own state is part of our work together. It creates dramatic results.

Imagine your clients genuinely wanting to be with you, looking forward to your conversations, basking in your uplifting aura.

Too woo-woo for you? Give it a little thought. I bet you’ll see the value of warding off negative contagion … deciding what state you want to be in … and staying there. Not to mention the impact of using your own positive energy to shift their state for the better.

You’ve surely observed this emotional contagion in your business—or in your life!

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