We’ve all been there. “Something bad” happens at work or at home. It doesn’t matter what. It could be a disagreement, a missed deadline, a betrayal, or another irritation from that person who irritates you most. When this happens, it can derail most of our day.
We ruminate on it, replay the situation out loud to ourselves, maybe get angry and yell, vent to others, or just quietly stare off into space saying with resignation, “It happened again.”
Here is what we’re not doing: working productively, exercising, taking a break, sleeping, or engaging in any other meaningful activities that contribute to our well-being and effectiveness. This is because we are unable to control the emotions that are unleashed when these stressful, bad things happen.
We all know that we don’t perform well when our emotions are negatively heightened. We say things we don’t mean, and we react in ways we don’t want.
Rather, we perform best in a neutral or positive, calm state. The way to maintain this state is through high-quality and frequently practiced emotion management or self-regulation. “Frequently practiced” are the operative words here. Successfully managing emotions is an ongoing and routine activity, not a one-time event.
The good news is that psychology has provided us with valuable evidence-based strategies to help us control our emotions and thus make better decisions, maintain healthy relationships, stay focused, or just generally prevent ourselves from spiraling out.
This week we introduce three of those strategies to help us stay focused. Choose one that resonates the most with you and intentionally practice over the course of two weeks. Set reminders in your calendar or put sticky-notes on your bathroom mirror to remind you. Then, notice what happens to your emotions and focus. Odds are, you’ll feel sharper for it.
Third Person Self-Talk
We all have a voice-track in our head and what we say to ourselves can make or break our productivity, effectiveness, and even our health. When we are distracted from our work because of frustrating situations, we can employ a simple linguistic hack: speaking to ourselves in the third person.
Dr. Ethan Kross, Director of the Emotion and Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan and author of Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it discusses the impact of shifting from using first-person “I” to using second person “you” or third-person “he” or “she” in our self-talk. His research has found that using “distanced self-talk” creates emotional space. This space promotes rational thinking and wise reasoning. It is as though we stand outside ourselves to experience and feel the situation as though it is happening to someone else.
Try it on. The next time you feel stressed or distracted, address the situation using third-person language. It might sound like “Amy, you’re letting this issue rent too much space in your head. What can you do right now to refocus?”
Kross’s research shows that with this approach we are indeed more likely to refocus.
Typically, what upsets us or derails us isn’t the behavior of others, rather it is the meaning we attach to their behavior. For example, our colleague drops the ball on an assignment, and we interpret their behavior as careless.
Indeed, our colleague could be careless about their work. But what else could be true? What could have happened that influenced the “dropped ball”. Maybe they weren’t given the right information or maybe they were ill or maybe they just didn’t have the right skills for the task. We could identify dozens of different scenarios that might explain their behavior.
This is cognitive reframing, a technique that helps us apply different meanings or interpretations. It can feel like giving someone the benefit of the doubt. It can also open our eyes to the myriad of possibilities that explain someone’s behavior. Once we realize all the factors that could be at play, (and for example, that the person’s behavior is likely not intentionally negligent) our emotions come down and we are able to keep moving forward.
This strategy is also sometimes called Zooming Out. It is to consider the time between the present situation and the future. Think about how you will feel about this frustrating situation in a week, a month, next year, or five years from now. What impact will this situation have on you in a more distant future? In many instances, the impact is quite low and you are reminded of that just by stepping back and zooming out. It helps you let go of frustrations and focus on moving ahead.
Another way to practice this technique is to think about a stressful situation from the past. How did you feel about it then and how do you feel about it now? This is an effective way to feel and experience the sentiment “this too shall pass.”
Regulating emotions is a leadership superpower and one that is honed over time. To be clear, none of these techniques will actually solve our problems for us, but they increase the chances that we will and be able to proceed with a clear head.
Choose one of the techniques and practice it regularly. Notice what happens to your emotions and your ability to bounce back from stress. When it starts to feel like a habit, try on another. Better yet, share these strategies with colleagues, friends, and family. We all can benefit from less stress and more calm focus.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.