Anger makes extraordinary people doing ordinary things. Instead of leading with wisdom and skill, they act in ways that thwart their own intentions. This would be astonishing if it weren’t so common. For example, your top customer cancels a big deal. You want to tear his head off. Instead, after he leaves, you scream at two people on your team. Later, when your peer misses a big deadline, you quietly seethe and avoid her. Then, just when things have “settled down,” your boss undercuts you in a presentation. You go numb and forget everything.
Fight, flee, or freeze: Three paths by which talented people act against their own interests. Neuroscience tells us why. The amygdala, stress hormones, and the heart are key protagonists. You may know that certain practices you do at home—like yoga, meditation, mindful strength training, and lots of water—increase your odds of responding skillfully.
But what strategies can you practice on the job? Right when you’re about to fight, flee, or freeze, how can you shift your response? In short, what does it take to lead skillfully when you’re ticked off?
In my two decades of work developing leaders, the following eight strategies have proved helpful, particularly when part of a repertoire of responses applied selectively to situations. In tense moments, they help you do something rather unusual: simultaneously take care of yourself, the other person, and the relationship.
Repeat back what you heard. Your colleague sarcastically says you missed another deadline. You want to defend yourself or attack him. Instead, say, “Bob, let’s make sure I understand you. You’re saying you received the report from me late. Is that correct?”
Paraphrasing may seem like a waste of breath, but it accomplishes two things. First, you confirm what Bob actually said, not what made it through your mind’s filters. Second, you stay connected with Bob just when you feel like fighting.
Ask the other person to tell you more—what happened, what it means, how they feel, etc. “Bob, I’m guessing this had a negative impact on you. Tell me about that.” Or, “Bob, I’m committed to meeting deadlines, so I’m curious: Was this an isolated incident, or are there other examples?”
The gentle probe is so unexpected that it can jolt both of you out of habitual patterns.
Sometimes the difference between carelessness and wisdom is five seconds. This is how long it takes to pause, breath deeply, and consider an appropriate response. When you notice yourself getting upset, try this:
- Acknowledge: “I’m hearing that (rephrase what you heard).”
- Declare a pause: “Give me a moment to digest that.”
Feel your feet on the ground and wiggle your toes to lower your focus of attention. Take three deep breaths. For bonus points feel your breath entering your feet. Now respond. You can combine this approach with any other strategy.
What about those times when neither a five-second pause nor three breaths does the trick? What can you do when you’re so riled up that any action is likely to cause harm? Call a timeout.
- Declare it. Say, “I’m realizing that despite our best intentions, this conversation isn’t going well. Let’s take a breather and come back in 30 minutes/tomorrow/next week. Will that work?”
- Calmly step away, get off the phone, or close out the screen. Graceful exits are nice, but a clumsy exit beats hanging around until things turn sour.
Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, you realize that you just put your foot in your mouth by saying something harmful. Your first instinct? Ignore it or berate yourself. But consider an alternative: acknowledge you messed up and self-correct. For example, when you catch yourself criticizing someone, pause, take a breath, and say, “Wait—let me rephrase that. What I mean to say is___.”
If the conversation appears to be spinning out of control, shift into a lower gear. Slow down the pace of your speech. Pause more frequently. Let others finish—really finish—what they are saying. Whatever it takes to slow down, and however awkward it feels, do it.
Okay, so you’re already familiar with emotional intelligence. But how well can you name the emotion you are feeling right now? Most people react emotionally without knowing what’s driving them. They don’t own their emotions. Their emotions own them. To turn this around, learn the vocabulary of emotions—like the difference between irritation and anxiety or between contentment and joy—and employ it on the job. Name your emotions for yourself. When appropriate, name them for others.
Using these eight strategies in difficult situations can help you improve the quality of your conversations. The people who matter most to you will appreciate this—and trust you in more ways than you can imagine. Also, by deliberately practicing the strategies throughout your life, you will grow—not only as a leader, but also as a human being.
Excerpted from Leading When You’re Ticked Off (2015) by Amiel Handelsman.
—Amiel Handelsman is the author of Leading When You’re Ticked Off and host of The Amiel Show, a weekly podcast for leaders hungry to grow and the consultants and coaches who partner with them. When not coaching executives, he lifts dumbbells, meditates in public places, and lives an Ice Age Paleo lifestyle (Paleo plus ice cream).