Because leaders are often juggling so many things and are under constant pressure to make decisions, they sometimes function in a mode of overwhelm. And well, overwhelm is not always pretty.
I remember one year meeting with my organization’s treasurer who was a very busy, talented and sought-after accountant. I brought to her a draft budget for the organization, and because of her detail-oriented nature, she proceeded to go through each and every line to identify inconsistencies and mistakes, vs. staying high level and advising on general direction of the budget. It got me flustered, knowing that I had spent many many hours just getting the draft budget together. What I needed was high level oversight vs. nit-picky details that could be worked out later. When I started to get flustered by her approach, it triggered an outburst from her. Before I knew it, she was set ablaze and proceeded to tear apart the budget. It felt more like I was an employee being chastised instead of the executive of an organization.
I am sure upon reflecting on it later, it was likely embarrassing to her; she knew she lost her cool, and we could both feel the discomfort at the level of unprofessionalism of the conversation. The conversation had quite an impact on me, as it felt abusive and unwarranted. In fact, I distinctly remember that incident being one of the only times in the history of running the organization that I actually considered quitting. I also knew that she was extraordinarily pressed in her own business, and fighting the daily demands of being an entrepreneur. SO at a visceral level, I got it. But it still felt bad.
Well, I did not quit. But it was hard to know what to do and how to handle the triggers of the very busy people around me, especially those in a position of power. In the case of the accounting professional, she was my board member and technically had the power to hire and fire. So how does one cope with the ever-stressful business environment of our times? Below are some tips I learned along the way for dealing with people around you that lose their cool. The most important thing I learned is this:
“You do have a choice; you can react negatively and be a victim, or you can turn your victimhood around and be a coach.”
1. Understand that it’s not YOU; it’s them
First off, it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with you. We all have triggers. C’mon – you know you do. One of my triggers happens to be inefficiency and frustration, and when things get dragged out or are overly processed, I can start to feel my blood boil. Human psychology points to the fact that we all have different trigger points. Inevitably, what triggers us has to do with how we were raised, our value systems, our social conditioning and brain patterning and our perception of things. This is why what triggers something in one person may not have any effect on another person. So know that when a person loses their cool, it is often more a reflection of their own perspective and conditioning. And in the case of leadership, sometimes triggers can even be the result of overwork, overwhelm, and just stress.
2. Assess WHAT you are feeling, and WHERE
I know this sounds like some wavy gravy new age stuff, but I assure you, there is science behind doing this. We are not really taught to be in touch with what we are feeling when we are triggered. Doing so can take us out of our amygdala hijack zone and into a more reflective zone.
When someone is triggered and they start to go off, pay attention to where YOU are in it. Are you getting anxious? Is your heart starting to beat faster? Is the whiplash in your neck from that accident 3 years ago flaring up? Are your shoulders getting tighter? The sooner you can reflect on what is happening in you, the more empowered you will be to deal with someone else’s trigger and its impact on you. You don’t have control over the other person, but you do have control over YOU.
Try to NAME the feeling you are having. Is it a feeling of stress, frustration, hopelessness, tiredness? Really identify what is going on for you. This will help you take the attention off of the other person, as they may be bullying you without even realizing it.
3. Take a DEEP breath
Breathing can help calm the nerves and equip you with reflective energy. It is in these moments that you will need to take a step into the space of coaching yourself. Ask yourself (not out loud!): Why am I getting triggered? How can I express this? If you can literally see your higher self step out of your body and into a calm space, that can be a helpful visualization.
(My first roommate out of college in San Francisco used to come home with such negative energy. It was often so bad that I used to imagine a field of saran wrap between us so that everything she was saying and projecting towards me would just bounce back and land on her. So when she'd complain and start dishing out the negativity, I'd just nod and smile, protected by my invisible plastic force field.)
Step back and tell the person what you are sensing or seeing. Stepping back, reflecting, and mentally taking yourself out of the situation helps to get you in a more rational zone. If you are sensing that the other person is upset, you can say, “I sense some frustration here. I’m curious – what is going on for you? What is it that you are feeling?” This then gets the other person to realize and start reflecting on their behavior. It gets them to talk, realize, and process their own feelings, and to reflect.
4. Stay CURIOUS
If any of you have ever taken a leadership 101 course, you’ll already know this is the #1 recommended way to behave in situations where someone is getting triggered. Rather than get defensive and assume a limiting belief that they are getting triggered because of you, it is important to stay curious during this time. This goes the same if YOU happen to be the one losing your cool. If someone is getting on your last nerve, stay curious about them. Be curious as to why this person is triggering something in you. Be curious about yourself.
5. Acknowledge and name their FEELINGS
Acknowledge what the other person is feeling and tell them that you hear them. By acknowledging, you can simply repeat what you hear them say. “OK, so you are feeling frustrated and like we are not valuing your time,” (or whatever the situation may be). Never tell them they are being overly sensitive, or are blowing things out of proportion. Not only is that disrespectful to the other person, it invalidates their feelings. (And frankly, it doesn’t show any real maturity on your part.)
Ask or tell them what your perspective or intention is. Remember, YOU are not responsible for their triggers. (Unless, of course, you know what triggers them and you are doing it on purpose. Again, that doesn’t show any real maturity.) You don’t have to agree with them. Their feelings are their feelings. It doesn’t mean they are right or wrong. Simply acknowledging what they are saying can make the other person feel heard, and sometimes may dissolve any heavy energy.
Remember, your calm and balanced state is important. If you stay calm and balanced, you will not feed into the spiral of the other person’s emotions. Try to stay cool through it all. Cool as a cucumber.
6. Ask a POWERFUL question
Here’s where you swap out victimhood for being a good coach. When you are able to state your perspective, follow up with a powerful question. This will keep the conversation moving forward productively, vs. turning it into a bickering rant. A powerful question could be something like: “What do you see is the best way to move forward from here?” Or in the case of the aforementioned CEO, “How would you LIKE to be involved?” Or, “What do you really want?”
Always ask powerful questions. Listen to what they have to say. Think about what assumptions they may be making of your intentions and remain, above all else, curious. Give them a chance to talk. They may have a perspective they want to share that is not able to come out because their brain has been hijacked by their emotions.
7. State your INTENTIONS (again)
Respond with your intentions and your perspective. Let them know you hear them, even if you do not agree fully with them. Ask a very specific question. Sometimes, you may want to suggest to continue the discussion at a later date or in a few hours, so you both have some time to let emotions rest and can come back to the conversation with a calm perspective.
The important thing to remember is to get aware of what YOU are feeling first, so you can coach yourself through the situation and understand where you are in it. If you remain calm and focused, you influence the other person to do the same. Hopefully, this will bring you both to a better understanding. And if they continue to be an ass and rave and rant away, well just paddle over to a different peak in the lineup. Oops, sorry – wrong post. Good luck! ;)
Have you ever found yourself struggling to self-manage during yours or someone else's trigger? What was your strategy for getting through it? We want to hear from you!