How did you react when you first heard about Stephen Slater? Did you say, “Way to go! My hero?” Did you explain away his actions by his obvious high stress? Or were you one to condemn him for his lack of control on the job? Do you think that he woke up that morning and said, “Today I’m going to yell obscenities at a passenger, fly down the escape chute, and have my 3 minutes of fame on YouTube?” I’m guessing – probably not.
It seems like today’s workplace with more demands and higher expectations, downsizing, quicker deadlines, work/home challenges and elevated stress provides the perfect setting for outbursts of anger and aggression. You may not be lucky enough to make the news like Stephen Slater at JetBlue; but you may have experienced an uncontrolled outburst of anger at a co-worker or boss and had to apologize later or been witness to such an outburst.
Some do believe that this is the best way to get your voice heard and ideas out there. Let’s look again at Stephen Slater. Over twenty years on the job – I bet if you asked his coworkers, they’d say that he has tremendous wisdom in how to do his job and how to deal with airline customers. He can probably speak to the current airline customer climate today versus yesterday and if asked to, could detail all types of strategies that can be used to calm and diffuse difficult situations. However, that’s not the message he’ll be famous for.
I once coached a young woman to help her tone down her aggressive communication style. Tolerated for years, it was only when the organization moved towards teams that her behavior was addressed. It took a tremendous amount of work and commitment, from both her and her manager to change. After time however, she learned to communicate in a new and more influential manner, and gained the respect of others by doing so. How did she do it?
It started with improving her emotional self awareness. Through a 360 survey, she began by getting feedback on her body language, tone of voice and word choices in meetings and interactions. She worked hard to uncover the triggers that would send her into the “fight” mode. She isolated those messages that would flood her with negative feelings from the past and she became better aware of what messages triggered an exaggerated response. Others helped her when they would see the signs of escalated communication so that she could stop and re-assess her actions. She spent hours on personal reflection, journaling and using discussions with others and our coaching sessions to understand her own emotions and control herself when faced with a familiar and natural response.
If you are interested in working on your own emotional self awareness, you could complete an exercise I use in my Emotional Intelligence training. There I encourage participants to complete a chart on the five core emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear and shame (embarrassment). On the chart across from each emotion, they list what situations prompt a certain emotion (their personal triggers). Then they describe what their body language looks like, tone of voice and word choices. Not surprising, many individuals find it extremely hard to do this piece and have to go to others for insights and help. Finally, they reflect on how their actions or decisions are affected by that emotion, isolating what is positive and what is destructive to their success. For this topic, gaining a better understanding of what situations trigger aggressive behavior, what it looks like and how it affects actions and decisions is the first step.
The second step involves managing and regulating those emotions that lead to aggressiveness when they appear, so that they do more good than harm. Self regulation helps us to act intentionally rather than reactively. It helps us to think clearly and stay focused. Here are a few tools to build better emotional management:
1. Don’t respond when you recognize elevated emotions. Allownyourself a cooling off period. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, vent to a friend or family member, write in a journal or see a therapist. Strive to uncover and understand your emotions where no harm will be done. Look beyond anger to see if what is fueling the fire is actually fear, deep concern, worry, guilt or hurt. Finding the real core will help you better take positive action to reduce its intensity.
2. Recognize and accept emotions as important and healthy.
For instance, anger is calling attention to the idea that something is wrong, an injustice has occurred or a conflict needs to be resolved. Instead of seeing it as negative, anger is often a call to action. Use the power of the emotion to take positive action for real beneficial change. Anxiety lets us know that more caution and care are needed to manage the situation effectively. Insecurity points to a need to develop a skill set, find out what makes your life significant or connect with what you are passionate about. Embarrassment suggests that you need to be more discreet, learn how to laugh at yourself or be less of a perfectionist. Embracing emotions, rather than fearing them or dismissing them, will allow you to understand yourself better.
3. Use behavioral strategies as a short-term remedy when you can’t fully process your emotions in the present. In other words, “fake it ‘til you make it.” According to Jeff Feldman and Karl Mulle in Put Emotional Intelligence to Work, there are two rules that will help you manage difficult emotions when you are in a situation where you can’t process through them.
Rule #1: The brain does not want to feel an emotion that is inconsistent with the physiology of the body.
Rule #2: When you are feeling a disruptive emotion, ask yourself what emotion you want to feel and then behave consistently with that emotion. If you feel you are getting angry or hostile, focus on visualizing happy, calm situations. Or if you want to present an idea or solution for maximum influence, focus on feeling confident. Force your body language to mirror that desired emotion (use your chart or ask others what you look like and do). Think about word choices that reflect the emotion you want to feel. Become an expert on your reactions for different emotions – include peacefulness and other positive emotions so that you can draw on them when you need them. Your mind will follow your body.
One word of caution: this strategy doesn’t solve the issue or threat that caused the aggressive response, whether past or present. The underlying cause still needs to be surfaced and dealt with at a more appropriate time.
4. Move from making statements to asking questions. Remember to focus on what, how, who and where. Avoid “why” questions. Avoid firing out questions or interrogating. Think about what you look like when you are inquisitive and interested.
5. Put things in perspective. Is it worth the battle and the energy? Is this the hill you want to die on? Will it matter in 10 years? Are you basing your actions on real facts or assumptions/perceptions? How do you want to be remembered or immortalized? Today, anybody and everybody has a camera or cell phone.
6. Discriminate between “real” and “perceived” danger. While our defense mechanism was designed to help us during “real” danger to our lives, it kicks in today more often when we perceive danger. What situations really produce a “danger” to us? Are we really just under-estimating our ability to handle whatever comes our way? Recognizing and developing an ability to cope with changes and difficulties redefines what you perceive as dangerous and lessens the instinctual response.
7. Use a tried and true decision making process and make it a habit for all decisions. Having to engage the rational part of the brain to work through decision making and consider alternatives will bring the emotional state back into balance.
8. Set guiding principles for behavior and design your own value system. Having clear boundaries and a filter for what you say and do will assist you to make better choices.
9. Get the focus off from you and your needs. Start listening to others and uncovering their true feelings and motivation. Don’t mirror the aggressiveness of others or let their heightened sense of alarm trigger yours.
Simply controlling your reactions and your communication of information to others opens up a new avenue to present your ideas and thoughts. It clears the path to having others really see you and what you have to say. It allows true problem solving to occur, ideas to emerge and puts your best foot forward.
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