Free-Falling: How Anticipating and Overcoming Difficult Moments at Work Will Positively Impact Your Leadership

By Nora Infante, PSYD

Yes, that is a nod to Tom Petty.   While I’m using his phrase in a different context, “free-falling” well describes what it can feel like when you begin to lose control of a situation.  For many people, there is a connection between the feelings that precipitated the undesired behavior and a previous negative experience that made a significant negative emotional impact.  It can be a very disconcerting feeling for a leader who has achieved her respected status by demonstrating an ability to project stability and provide insightful direction to suddenly find herself unduly affected by emotions and acting in a manner incongruent to who she normally is.  These moments are stressful and can haunt an executive, leaving him with compounding negative emotions such as shame, regret and insecurity.

I have worked with excellent leaders, who almost always show-up with their predictable sense of balance and perspective.  But the occasions when they have lost that balance and perspective tend to take on tremendous import and create a fear of recurrence along with a confusing, “What happened?”

Most often there is a connection between the feelings that precipitated the undesired free-falling in that moment with a previous negative experience.  So, there is always an explanation to, “What happened?”  Here are some key steps to helping you find that explanation:

Take a step back and examine the event or situation that led you to free-fall. 

  1. At what point did you begin to feel you were losing your sense of balance and presence? What was being said or what dynamic was unfolding?
  2. What emotion did you feel as a result?
  3. What did you fear was happening or about to happen?
  4. When have you experienced something similar to what you perceived was unfolding?

Our brain is designed to protect us from harm.  The mechanism by which it does so is simple, but doesn’t always serve us as intended.  Any time we have suffered a traumatic event, small or large, it is recorded in our brain for future reference.  Quite often when taking a closer look at what was going on with an executive in the very moment of free-falling, we discover an event in the past, and not always a large scale dramatic event, that left him feeling powerless along with any other slew of negative feelings.  Some examples might be a humiliation in front of a senior team, hurtful negative feedback from an important person/s, or a presentation gone awry.

When we find ourselves in situations that resemble the negative one, our brain can automatically elicit a flight response.  It wants us to help us avoid repeating that original negative experience and therefore often provokes the sensation of being “checked out” or “free falling” and in those moments, we either remain silent when we wish we had not, or we speak up in ways we wish we had not.

How do we overcome these moments and prevent them from recurring?

The brain is stubborn and will not likely stop protecting you simply because you tell it to.  Therefore, know that changing one’s automatic reactions to negative events of the past can take time.  Having said that, it is absolutely doable.  I have seen many leaders overcome the fear of the reliving their negative experiences and successfully avoid the consequent free-falls.  Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Know your triggers.

Monitor your emotional responses by being alert and self-aware of your feelings during activities and in interactions with colleagues.  Pay attention to unpleasant feelings, thoughts or memories.  Once you have identified the situations that trigger your free-falls (board meetings where you will present a new idea, having a challenging conversation with someone who has given you negative feedback in the past, etc) you can plan ahead.

  • List ways you’ll cope with triggers

Write down strategies you can use to cope with negative emotions and triggers.  Keep the list handy.  These coping skills should be varied and include ones you can use almost immediately and anywhere.  These interventions can be anything from simple deep-breathing, to practicing emptying or quieting your mind through meditation, to stepping outside for some fresh air and natural distraction, to actively imagining yourself not reacting to triggers, to engaging in an activity that brings you peace and enjoyment.  Sensory distractions like washing your hands or face, smelling a pleasant scent, etc, work well too.

  • Rehearse and plan for situations you know might be challenging

Once you understand what your triggers are, and why, it will be a lot easier to anticipate potential situations that might provoke free-falling.  Use visualization to project yourself having a clear and balanced response to whatever lies ahead.  Imagine the worst case scenario and think your way calmly and clearly through it, knowing the chances are very slim that you will be dealing with that outcome.

  • Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments

It is not by chance that you have the position of leadership you do.  Remind yourself of all the positive credit you have accumulated within your organization.  Fear and insecurity are distortions, not reality.

And finally, if all else fails, listen to some Tom Petty.




For more help with your coaching skills as a leader, contact Nora for a consult.