Cooling Our Jets in Communication: Responding Rather than Reacting

Last month we took a look at how we can effectively communicate with a colleague who’s defensive.  This month we turn the tables and look at ourselves – when we’re feeling pushed upon by the way someone is speaking to us, or a situation at work – how can we best handle ourselves so that we don’t simply react, but adequately respond?

I call this process of removing that automatic response “un-hooking” because when we get upset by something someone says or does, it often feels like we’ve been “hooked” like a fish – that thing they says just reaches in and grabs us and before we know it we’re off to the races with our automatic reaction, e.g. snapping back, being defensive, resisting, saying that snide thing…  you know what you do.

Take Eric, one of our clients.  Eric works in a high pressure environment as a Senior Project Manager.  His job entails coordinating subcontractors from thirty to forty different companies to produce a single outcome.  He was known for flying off the handle when people came to him with things that weren’t going as expected.  With a large number of moving and seemingly-at-odds parts to coordinate, you can see how that would happen a lot.  Eric’s aggressive reaction was not creating a stable and productive work environment, so we worked with him on taking the following steps:

  1. Learn what your biology is doing.  There’s actual a physical, neurological process that’s going on when we get hooked.  Our body is designed to react to feeling attacked, say by a saber tooth tiger, with a fight or flight response.  That biology is still around.  When we feel attacked, even by someone’s words, we have a chemical response in our body: hormones get released, our heart rate and blood pressure rise – all the things that would give us what we need to respond to that tiger.  Rational thought comes much later.  The thing is most of us are not dealing with actual tigers in the office, so this is an over-reaction.  Since our body still has it, we need to learn to move past this reaction in order to respond with the rational part of our brain.  We do that in several ways:
  2. Identify your hot buttons.  What is it that triggers that response in you?  Is it when someone said they’d do something and didn’t?  Or when you told them you needed the reports created a certain way and they still send the old format time and time again?  Is it when someone questions a decision you made?  See if you can pinpoint what your “hook” is; just knowing when you’re most likely to get hooked helps lessen the impact when you do and gives you a reminder that this is the time you need to wait for the rational brain to catch up.  For Eric, the hook was people not performing things that he thought were simply their job to do right and on time.
  3. Give yourself time to cool down.  The biology of a fight or flight response can take twenty minutes to dissipate.  If at all possible, until you get better at responding rather than reacting, don’t reply to someone during this time.  Go take a walk, take deep breaths, listen to some music, find a punching bag at the gym… anything to let the reaction subside.  Eric became an expert at the phrases “let me get back to you on that” and “I have to think about it first.”  Take heart that you will get better at cooling down faster as you practice.  No one, even that unflappable VP down the hall, doesn’t get hooked once in a while; masters just get hooked less frequently and get un-hooked faster when they do get hooked.
  4. Once you’ve cooled down, remind yourself of the bigger picture and what you’re committed to.  Eric was committed that the work environment be a positive one, that his direct reports felt free to come to him with issues sooner rather than later, and that the projects get completed on time.
  5. Ask yourself what actions are aligned with your commitments.  Eric’s next action was to identify the issue as separate from the person or the frustration.  For instance, Eric learned that while yes, he had expected someone to do something a certain way, now that it had been done the way it was done, he could address the next thing to do with that direct report. (Including perhaps, training him how to do it correctly next time.)  Eric’s old reaction of taking out the frustration on the direct report by yelling at him didn’t get the issue at hand addressed any better, and would have negative consequences on the work environment, the relationship, Eric’s reputation, whether people felt they could come to him with issues, etc. – all things too costly for Eric to lose his temper.  Instead, he could handle the issue itself, separate from his emotional reaction, by giving specific revised instructions to his direct report about how to correct the issue, and have him report back when the new actions were completed.

With these steps, Eric was able to transform his working environment.  When they weren’t risking being yelled at, his contractors and direct reports came to him earlier in the process with issues when they were much more manageable.  As a result, the work got more efficient and there were actually fewer errors.

One final note about being less hook-able: take care of yourself in general.  You know how when you’re tired and hungry at the end of a long trip even minor irritations get under your skin?  It’s the same in our day to day work lives.  The better we take care of ourselves – sleep, nutrition, exercise, spiritual life, time with friends and family, playtime, etc. – the better we are able to ride the waves life brings us.  So don’t step over these important elements!

 Try these steps out for yourself and let us know how it goes!

For a more extensive seminar on Handling Defensiveness, yours or others’,

please call for a consultation.