Your expectations for the project were clear, but the staff didn’t follow them. In the blink of an eye, the voice in your head explodes and you lose your composure. The team exchanges nervous glances and shuffles out of the room silently. You know they won’t be silent when they congregate in the hall. They will be talking about you. It won’t be pretty.
That over-reaction costs you and your organization. Consider the amount of time the team members will spend talking about you and your unreasonable (or more accurately – unreasoned) outburst. Consider the time they will waste delaying their next meeting with you and the hesitancy with which they will approach it. They may stifle their own ideas out of fear of another unpleasant encounter. No one benefits when over-reaction surfaces. What could you have done to more effectively manage your reaction? You can create an emergency tool kit of techniques to calm yourself before you over-react. Before we talk about the tools, let’s examine why they work.
The autonomic nervous system has several branches but the two we are interested in are the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. They are like a see-saw. The sympathetic nervous system is on one side of a see-saw. The other side is the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repose response). When one goes up the other goes down. When an over-reaction hits, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) goes up.
The nervous system is part of an interconnected network so when the brain registers a threat response (in this case an unwanted situation), neurons release chemicals to activate the fight or flight response; the nervous system responds; the body reacts (increased heart rate, dilated pupils, increased blood pressure) and you exhibit behavior. You can intercede in the cycle and come to the aid of your parasympathetic nervous system. Your goal is to help it go back “up” on the see-saw. The tools in your emergency toolkit do just that. Don’t be misled by their simplicity.
Grounding. When you sense a reaction starting in your body, think about grounding yourself. Consciously notice the floor under your feet and the feel of the chair. Think about connecting with the ground. It will engage your mind as your focus shifts to the stability of the ground.
Relax the body. An over-reaction begins as a body response so work with the body to relax. Take a moment to think about relaxing your shoulders, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The subtle relaxation sends a message to the nervous system to start changing the balance in the see-saw. Sometimes, you may feel that you are unable to relax, or you may be anxious at all times. These could be the early stages of a panic attack. And if this happens to you occasionally, you might want to speak with specialists (like dr timothy steel, for example) who can help guide you with better alternatives.
Smile. I know…you don’t feel like smiling. The situation doesn’t call for smiling. Try it anyway. Relax the area around the eyes, mouth and jaw in order to allow a slight smile to form. This works at two levels. First the change in expression tells your parasympathetic nervous system to engage and the expression change may register with the mirror neurons in the staff’s brains which prompts their nervous system to respond similarly. It’s a win-win.
Sooth the body. If possible, lightly put your hand on your gut. There are neural networks in the gut and heart that activate from the warmth and soothing gesture of touch. It’s even better if you put one hand on your gut and another on your heart. If that seems odd in the meeting, try it when you are alone. Let’s face it, you are likely to have residual agitation and these gestures will aid in restoring calm.
Shift focus. When the agitation starts and you know you need to intervene, shift focus. Notice something in the room, a tree outside the window, your breathing, the sound of a lawn mower or anything that is accessible. Name it to yourself. “There’s the photo of my daughter.” “The leaves on the tree started to turn.” “Slow my breathing – in and out.” “Listen to the lawn mower.” Those thoughts distract the brain and give it time to settle. Perhaps the conversation continues while you take a brief mental break, or you can say, “Give me a minute to process this.” That allows the opportunity to stand, walk, or look out a window. Let the others believe you are considering the project when in actuality you are using a tool in your emergency toolkit.
It takes skill to learn to use these emergency tools in the moment. Your challenge is to recognize the over-reaction, select a tool from the emergency toolkit, and apply it before you react. Remember, the loudest voice in the room is the one inside your head. When it tells you to over-react, you can choose to listen or not. Next time, choose an emergency tool.