By Nikki Sterling, Mentor Trainer & Organizational Consultant at The Conflict Center
I instantly go numb whenever I hear someone in an organization explain the necessity of keeping emotions out of the workplace.
Okay, let me back up . . .
Emotions in the workplace are not the culprit. Mismanaged emotions that get the better of us are instead what damages relationships and curbs an individual and team from progressing to the next level in efficiency. This is where my pal just mentioned up above makes their statement. In a sense they have evidence: failed teams, hurt feelings, and broken relationships. Pretty good empirical evidence.
But, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Many of us lead and work in conflict-savvy organizations where the culture demands straight talk be coupled with emotions in order to gain better insight and creativity in reaching business results.
However, again, not all of us are so lucky. So, lets take a look on controlling the one variable we know we can ALWAYS control – ourselves. Lets focus on flexing our “emotional muscle” by practicing self-control when we are triggered.
AUTOMATIC STRESS RESPONSE = LACK OF BUSINESS RESULTS
When someone encounters a challenge or disruption too large for their own resiliency, the person experiences a heightened sense of stress and anxiety. I’m not talking about the “butterflies in the stomach” type of anxiety. No. I’m talking about the temple-rubbing, migraine producing, panic attack, numbing type of anxiety that triggers our automatic survival response of fight, flight, or freeze because we are anticipating reaching a perceived breaking point. However, the fight, flight, or freeze response rarely puts us on the right path in realizing our business results.
We have a key concept at the Conflict Center: solve the problem and build the relationship. All of us can be leaders by demonstrating this at work. We can make sure people know the clear path to success. You must know what that path looks like so those around you have a clear path in how to solve their daily problems. Equally important, however, you must also stay connected to your employees and/or coworkers. Relationships that lack trust also lack efficiency and creative thought – the very traits necessary when things go south.
Leaders in the workplace whose stress and anxiety gets the better of them have transitioned into a reactionary, automatic, knee-jerk state, and lose their ability to be creative. You know either you or your boss are in that reactionary state when any connection to others starts to get lost.
So, how do we get back to a centered place of creativity and connection, of presence and resourcefulness?
First, know that conflict, stress, and anxiety are a natural part of life. These emotions alert us that something is wrong, it’s your clue that something needs to happen! In fact, we NEED it to happen so we can learn and grow. We sabotage ourselves and others, however, when we stay in this unproductive state of anxiety and stress. The ability to stay centered and focused on solving problems and staying connected to your fellow employees in the midst of internal and external forces will help train your “emotional muscle” to develop resilience against ambiguity, reactivity, and a chaotic world.
So, knowing conflict WILL happen and in a sense, welcoming it (yippee! I’m going to learn something new!) is half the solution. Being prepared to deal with it effectively is the other half.
Therefore, know thyself! Know where you get hooked, where you are triggered that sends you into a quick mode of reactivity. Do you know why that is a trigger for you? Is it the person who is always late to the office? The person who takes credit for your work? The person who talks or laughs in a way that annoys you? The person who always criticizes your ideas and suggestions? Knowing why something is a trigger for you, isn’t necessarily important but it can give you a little more power over the trigger because you now understand where it comes from.
Now that you know your triggers and hopefully where they come from, now it’s time for a plan.
THINK, SAY, & DO
Okay, what’s our goal, does anyone remember?
While your goals day in and day out may change with what you need to get done, there is always one overarching goal: providing a clear path to success so you can solve problems and stay connected to others in your workplace.
Keeping this goal in mind provides you with a road map for interaction. If your ultimate goal is to solve problems and build relationships then everything you do will center around that goal. Therefore, moving from a reactionary mode requires a detailed plan with your goal in mind giving you the ability to better manage conflict and continue to grow your emotional muscle.
Your plan must include what you are going to THINK, SAY, and DO. What you are going to (1) THINK to yourself, (2) SAY out loud, and (3) physically DO with your body? Let me give an example.
Most of us get defensive when we are personally attacked, especially in the workplace. However, I noticed that most bosses’ and employees’ defensive responses to personal attacks kept both parties from learning from the situation. “Well, Nikki,” I said to myself, “how would someone who is trying to solve problems and build relationships actually respond while also trying to preserve their self-respect by not looking like a door-mat?” Below is the plan I developed.
Nikki’s Plan When She is Personally Attacked in the Workplace
1. THINK – “Oh boy, okay, that hurt. Wowzers. What is this person even saying? I don’t know right now and that’s okay. Obviously this person has a need that is not being met. Can I guess what it is? They said no feelings in their attack, maybe I can guess their feeling as well. This is juicy stuff! Another opportunity for me to test out these hard as hell communication and conflict skills. What can I be thankful for? Well, at least they are communicating with me! Better they say something then nothing at all because I know Information is Nourishment. I need information to grow and make decisions. Right now this is the best way they know how to say what they have to say, which really sucks. But you know what Nikki? You’ve been there before. Just ignore the put-downs and get to the heart of the matter. You can discuss the ‘way’ it was brought up way on down the line. First, they need to be understood. Only then will they want to understand you. Is this going to be uncomfortable? Yup. Is it more important to stick to my goal of solving problems and staying connected to my employees than easing my own discomfort? Yup! Why? . . . . . . Because, what’s worth working at, isn’t always easy.”
2.SAY – What you understand their feelings and needs to be, and then “Tell me more.”
3.DO – Take a deep breath. Maybe two deep breaths while holding them in my eyes. Move toward them with an open stance and wide eyes that convey curiosity and an openness to hear what they have to say. After the conversation I will go for a walk outside to process the event and gain clarity.
Okay, that’s my plan for being personally attacked in the workplace and to be honest, I use the same plan when I think I’m being attacked at home. For those of you who were wondering if I really say all those things after someone hurls a personal attack at me, the answer is yes. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to practice my plan “in real life” a couple of times and I’ve found that my self-talk becomes more automatic each time. This is your “emotional muscle memory.” I’m training my brain to make this my new automatic response that has yielded more creativity and better relationships than my previous reaction of shutting down and calling the person an “expletive of my choice inserted here.”
For those of you up to speed on your communication skills you’ll see that step two is utilizing Active Listening. That means I’m not going to make this about me right now and how hurt I am because it’s obvious to me that the person in front of me could be even more hurt. My mentor at the Conflict Center, Vickie Samland, Manager of School Programs, told me that Active Listening is what you do when you don’t know what to do. It’s true! There is no good way to react to a personal attack without the potential of getting defensive and then missing out on the opportunity to learn. So, I’m comfortable putting my needs to the side in order to hear what needs this person is not getting met.
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t bring up my needs. Toward the end–when the other person feels heard and they are problem solving with me how the two of us can be a better team–is the more appropriate time to bring up my needs. I would express the need for connection with my coworkers and how yelling and hurling personal attacks actually weakens my ability to hear them clearly to get their needs met. And that if I felt that way then maybe others around them have also felt that way. It’s the perfect opportunity to coach and be a leader—no matter what your job! Don’t miss out on the opportunities!
For the last step—“DO”—don’t forget your breath. It gets oxygen to the brain so you can think! For me, purposefully opening my stance and my eyes will help me combat the subconscious fight response I know my body is used to when I’m personally attacked. Remember to always write down what you WILL do, not what you WON’T do. Too often, when folks are trying to change behavior they articulate what they “won’t do.” They won’t get angry. They won’t throw their pen across the room. They won’t narrow their eyes. Unfortunately, saying what you won’t do doesn’t give you the plan of what to do when you are again triggered. So you’ll just fall back on old habits. Instead, think hard of what you will do and put it on paper.
Again, self-control represents one aspect of emotional intelligence. You may want to work on a different trigger, such as being caught by surprise by a change of events or a change in decision that adversely affects you – especially in the workplace! Whatever the trigger may be, remember:
1. Identify your ultimate goal. Again, for us at the Conflict Center, it is to solve problems and build relationships.
2. Identify your triggers.
3. Make a plan.
4. Follow your plan.
5. Make adjustments as necessary once you figure out what works and doesn’t work.
Just keep learning how to flex your emotional muscle of self-control. Emotions are important windows of opportunity. If a leader in the workplace can manage their own emotions effectively while also tapping into the feelings of those around them using active listening, then conflict will be managed quicker and more efficiently so we can all get back to generating business results.Tweet