This article was based on episode 71 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the guest bonus when you become a member of The Modern Manager community.
Respond, don’t react.
In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to recognize how much power we give over to our emotions, often to our detriment.
According to Ron Shuali, best selling author and top motivational speaker on issues of bullying, our emotional reactions are completely up to us. He proclaims boldly that no one can make you feel any way. It’s up to you to ascribe meaning to the words you hear or behaviors you experience, and therefore you can decide how much emotional weight to give them.
Whether you’re feeling attacked, bullied, or demeaned, or, you’re the one having an emotional outburst at a colleague, you’re in charge of your emotions and not the other way around.
WE ARE EMOTION MACHINES
Ron has extensive experience working in schools and notes the emphasizes how we’re taught from an early age to focus on our emotions. “How did that make you feel?” “Do you feel angry that he didn’t share?” “Do you feel sad that she wouldn’t give you a turn?” We link other people’s behaviors to our emotions, strengthening the idea when other people act or speak, we should be attuned to how it makes us feel.
Where this connection goes awry is that by doing so, we’re abdicating responsibility for our feelings. “She made me angry.” “He made feel sad.” Not according to Ron. Ron says, it’s up to us whether someone else’s words warrant feelings of anger or sadness, or any other emotion for that matter.
RECOGNIZE SIGNS OF YOUR EMOTIONS
We experience emotions in both our minds and bodies. When you’re afraid, your heart might races or your hands might sweat or shake. When you're angry, your face may flush or body temperature rise.
We can use these signals as a trigger to ask yourself: “why am I feeling this way? What’s this really about? Are these emotions really appropriate and necessary? Are they helping me right now?”
Once you do this, you start to realize you have more control than you might think. If I don’t like what I’m feeling, I’m the only one who can change it.
Strategy #1: The 5-Second Rule
Tension can run high in the workplace. Stress, difficult conversations, playing politics, social dynamics, individual identities and so much more can impact our state of mind.
Mel Robins suggests the 5-second rule. According to her book by the same name, whenever you have a choice or feel emotional, count backwards from five and then speak or act. When you count down, you force a natural ending point at 0 and also give your brain a moment of pause.
That simple act can be used almost universally. So, when you feel your temperature rising or your heart thumping or your voice squeaking, try counting backwards from five and responding.
REMEMBER ITS THEM, NOT YOU
There are some moments for which the five second rule may not be enough. Maybe your boss is upset or a colleague has lost their cool. The interaction may have even crossed a line into verbal abuse.
Unfortunately this happens more often than we like. Maybe your boss is giving you feedback and instead of focusing on facts and inquiry, it has become a judgement of your worth.
“You were terrible in there!” rather than, “You seemed unprepared. What’s going on?”
“This proposal is a disaster! how could you send this out? Are you an idiot?” rather than, “There are quite a few mistakes in this proposal. It makes us look unprofessional. What happened?”
“Clearly I can’t count on you to do anything.” rather than, “This is the third time you’ve missed a deadline. This can’t keep happening. What might we do to help you finish work on time?”
Feedback in the heat of the moment can become an attack on the person. When this happens, it totally sucks. Straight up.
But, Ron encourages us to look beneath the surface because anyone who speaks in those ways is hurting. It’s almost always about them, not you.
Maybe they’re embarrassed by your performance because their boss was in the room.
Maybe they’re worried they’ll lose a potential client deal.
Maybe they’re frustrated because now they have to work overtime to hit a deadline.
Maybe they have low self esteem or were bullied in the past.
Maybe they’re overwhelmed by something completely unrelated and are taking it out on you.
Strategy #2: Hum in Your Head
When you’re the unfortunate recipient of such an attack, there’s not much you can do. If you have a strong, healthy relationship with the person, you can try helping them notice their own behavior. Phrases like these can help draw attention to it:
“You seem highly emotional about this. What’s really going on?”
“Can you pause for a moment and decide if you want to keep going down this path?”
“I know you’re upset but the way you’re speaking to me is really unprofessional. Maybe we should take a break and finish this conversation when you’ve calmed down.”
Ron cautions us that most people don’t respond well to having their emotions or poor behaviors pointed out. That’s in part because the portion of our brain that controls emotion overrules the part that controls logic. In short, when our emotions are in charge, they inhibit our logical brain from doing its job.
If you’re the unfortunate recipient of someone else’s emotional outburst or verbal abuse, and you can’t easily walk away or redirect the conversation, it may be better to just listen and let them get it out. Try not to respond as you’ll only feed their frenzy.
If listening is uncomfortable, Ron suggests humming a tune in your head to semi-distract yourself. He recommends looking at the person’s forehead rather than their eyes, which will also make them seem less intimidating.
APOLOGIZE WHEN YOU HAVE AN OUTBURST
We all have moments when we things we later regret. Maybe it’s not as intense or obvious as a full on outburst or bullying. For example, recently a colleague was asking me for help and I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for this right now.” and walked away.
On the surface that might not seem so bad, but my words could be interpreted to mean “you are bothering me” or “you and your problem are not important.” What I should have said was, “I’ve got a lot going on right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow morning?”
It’s small and nuanced, but if you make a mistake and let your emotions get the best of you, try what Ron calls “the cleanup conversation” which goes like this:
“I apologize for...”
“I didn’t mean to do that.”
“I don’t know why I responded this way.”
“I’m going to do my best never to respond this way again.”
As a manager, it’s even more important that we role model accepting responsibility for our emotions and the resulting behaviors. And trying to change. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth the effort.
LEARN MORE ABOUT RON
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