Steve was on his last nerve. The new home he'd building over the past year was three months behind schedule and 28 percent over budget. The office phones hadn’t been working for three days. When clients dialed the office, they received a message that the phone number was no longer in service. Furious, Steve was on his sixth call to Verizon and his seventh promise from yet another service representative to get the problem fixed by the end of the business day. Then, things went from bad to worse. He got a last-minute call from his “go-to” underwriter telling him that because of new company underwriting requirements she couldn't renew one of his largest accounts. With less than 30 days until expiration, Steve knew he didn’t have enough time to re-market the complex account. Furious about the late notice and unable to control his anger, he lashed out at the underwriter and everyone else who crossed his path that day.
Typically controlled, Steve was angry with himself for losing it. As a leader, he was well attuned to his responsibility as a role model and the negative impact his temper could have on colleagues and the relationships he valued. He viewed himself as being above having that kind of emotional outburst. What Steve underestimated is the impact that stress has on the brain. At reasonable levels, stress keeps the brain alert, and we perform better. But when stress becomes excessive or prolonged, it impacts the pre-frontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for the top-down regulation of our emotions, self-control and the ability to make smart decisions. When you need control most, you often don't have it.
In a world where excessive and prolonged stress seems to be a part of the permanent landscape, how do you remain the calmest person in the room – in terms of how you feel inside and what you project to the people around you?
AVOID GETTING TO THE POINT OF NO RETURN
Excess stress brings out the worst in us. Once you’re in that state, it’s difficult to turn it off. One of the most effective tactics you can use is to avoid letting yourself reach the point where you have little control over your reactions.
Know and monitor your boiling point. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “we all boil at different degrees.” Know where your boiling point is and pay close attention to where you are relative to this point throughout the day. Some people find it works to schedule several check-ins on their calendar. Others prefer to use one of the many aps that are available for monitoring stress. When you see your level is high, do everything you can to disengage from situations and people that will test your patience or add to your pressure.
Slow down. There is a saying among racecar drivers: slow in the cockpit equals fast on the track. I know what you’re thinking; you don't have time to slow down. But that’s short sighted. The time you invest in to keeping yourself calm, rested, and under control is minimal compared the time you’ll spend trying to recover from bad decisions, damaged relationships and the stress your stress causes others.
Understand your style when the stress level is high. Building on the work of Carl Jung, one of the leading thinkers in modern psychology, Dr. David Merrill defined that there are four styles of people. Each has a dominant style that influences the way we work. Under heavy stress, our normal style becomes extreme. We push our normal tendencies to the hilt. Our behavior becomes inflexible and our points of view non-negotiable. In their book “People Styles At Work,” Robert Bolton and Dorothy Glover Bolton explain the four styles and how they respond to stress:
1. Expressives: Under normal circumstances “expressives” are people-oriented, articulate, fast-paced, visionary and fun-loving. They’re assertive and emotional. When overloaded with stress, they attack and focus their frustrations on others. These normally assertive and emotive people become even more emotional and unrestrained. Quick-tempered and hot-headed, they can resort to strong abusive language, a loud shouting voice and emphatic and belligerent gestures. Expressives get the stress out of their system and proceed as if nothing ever happened. The residual impact on others is significant.
2. Drivers: Typically, drivers are strong-willed, independent, candid, pragmatic and results-oriented. Under extreme stress, drivers retain control of their emotions but become autocratic in trying to impose their will, thoughts, and plans on others. They seem unbending and closed to any idea other than their own. Their autocratic manner generally produces resistance to their ideas no matter how sound.
3. Amiables: In periods of low stress, Amiables are quiet, dependable, people-oriented and supportive. They avoid conflict. Under stress, their desire to avoid conflict and appease others becomes even more pronounced. They go overboard to appear cooperative and keep the peace. While they appear to be cooperative, they’re not committed. Amiables are slow to anger, but they are also slow to forgive and forget.
4. Analyticals: Analyticals are generally task-oriented, systematic and focused on quality. They’re normally quiet, emotionally reserved and prefer working alone. When Analyticals experience an overload of tension, they shut down and avoid interaction. While physically present, they are emotionally absent. Their behavior carries a mixed message. Their calm, rational demeanor suggests they are not upset but in reality, they are highly stressed.
The more you understand your style and how you typically react to extreme stress, the easier it is to spot and stop the behavior before it gets you into trouble. If you’d like a to take a free self-assessment to identify and learn about your style, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manage daily habits that add to stress. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough sleep. Watch caffeine consumption. Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline that puts the brain and body in a hyper-aroused state of stress. Take a technology time out. Forcing yourself offline and turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels.
Stress levels rise when there is a gap between our expectations and what we experience. Be realistic in your expectations:
Accept that most people are not like you. Behavioral science researchers have discovered that 75% of the population is significantly different from you or any other individual. Therein lies the rub. As much as we know we’re supposed to embrace diversity, deep down we want people to be like us – to share our work ethic, commitment, style of communication, sense of urgency and approach to getting things done. When they’re not, we get frustrated and our stress increases. Accepting that most the people don't see the world as you do, and that this is something you can’t change, will significantly increase your patience and reduce your stress.
Anticipate that people won't always be at their best. The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “ Every morning when I leave my house, I say to myself, today I shall meet an imprudent man, an ungrateful one and one who talks too much. Therefore do not be surprised.” Aurelius wasn’t frustrated when people didn't live up to expectations because he took the time to set realistic expectations.
WHEN YOU'RE IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT
Know matter how well you plan and prepare or how enlightened you become, you’ll still find yourself in a situations where you struggle to maintain self-control. When you do:
Hit the pause button. Taking a pause can make the difference between saying or doing something you will regret and enabling your wiser self to prevail. When you pause, you give yourself the space to collect your thoughts. If you add a deep slow breath or two, you disrupt the set of nerves that send an alarm to your brain’s arousal center that you’re in danger. Breathing helps keep the brain on an even keel and the body to maintain a sense of calm.
Use the power of silence. When tensions are running high and tempers are flaring, sometimes saying nothing is the most impactful thing you can do. Truth be told, you are often most powerful and influential in an argument when you are most silent. People don't expect silence. They expect yelling, drama, defensiveness, offensiveness, and lots of back and forth. They expect you to leap into the ring and fight. Your mindful silence can totally shift the energy in the room.
Don't take other’s behavior personally. Even if it feels personal, people rarely do things because of you. They do things because them – their ego, fears, life experience, need to be right, etc. The way they behave is their issue. Remembering this when you feel unjustly attacked, underappreciated or disrespected can go along way in helping you retain your cool.
Put the situation in perspective. In a crisis, it’s easy to get tunnel vision, become bogged down in details, and attached to your own opinions and agendas while losing sight of overall goals. Remember what’s really important.
The odds are that calm, composed, placid, steady, level headed, colleague who can put one foot in front of the other and move forward no matter what’s going on around them wasn’t born that way. Being unflappable doesn't come naturally to most people. With awareness and practice, you can develop the skills you need to maintain your cool when situations heat up.