Isn’t it funny how we usually know exactly what our opinion is when someone else tells us about their problems–that we can tell them exactly “what I would do if I were you”–but when we find ourselves in those same situations, we feel completely lost?
It’s because when you’re emotionally involved in a situation, things never seem as simple or as black and white. In the heat of the moment, they seem a lot trickier than they might really be.
One time when I was extremely stressed out about a situation at work, feeling frustrated and lost, my wife pointed something out to me. When I start to worry too much–or start to panic–I actually stop thinking the way I normally do. Adrenaline and fear don’t help me think clearly. They help me run, they help me fight, they help me freak out. But they don’t help me think clearly.
When all hell breaks loose, you need to stop. Stop. Stop and step away. Calm your nerves. Stop fighting. Stop talking. Stop acting under the direction of your panicking, adrenaline-filled brain.
Easier said than done.
Sometimes it can take days to work on switching from passionate panicking to calm, reasonable analysis.
But you need to get there. For your own sake, and for the sake of everyone involved in whatever screwed up situation you’re trying to fix.
Harvard Negotiation Project’s William Ury, in his awesome book The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, describes this as “going to the balcony.” After all, your worst enemy in a conflict is yourself, he says. So step away, disengage, go to the balcony–a quiet place, separated from the conflict. Calm down, and think for a while.
When I have to go to the balcony, contemplating these 3 questions helps me assess calmly and rationally how to handle a difficult situation.
1. What really caused this situation?
Be honest. Was it me? Was it them? Was it a combination? (Hint–it’s always both sides.)
Should I really be feeling guilty? Should I be feeling like I’m being unfair? Like I’m making too big a deal out of things? Like I’m being disloyal? Or should I cut myself some slack? After all, their behavior wasn’t up to me.
Am I trying to solve it with the same behavior patterns or communication that got us here?
Did I support this? Were my hands tied? How did it get this far? Should I have spoken up sooner?
Questions like these give us insight that will help us next time and help us determine what might help and what absolutely will not help this time around.
At this stage remember to have compassion for yourself and for others. Don’t blame everything on yourself, and don’t easily assign the worst motives to others. Being negative or hopeless about yourself or others in the situation will absolutely discourage you from trying to fix anything.
2. What long term effects could my different actions cause for everyone involved?
If I choose not to back down, will that really make the future healthier for everyone? Maybe it will! But I need to ask it.
If I take a bullet, will that actually protect the people I’m trying to protect?
If I focus on standing up for myself and my own integrity, will that benefit me down the road?
If I choose to overlook a disease on our team, prefer not to talk about it, what happens to the rest of my team members a year from now?
When we’re freaking out, we’re usually looking for a way to feel better today. But the effects of our decisions will almost always have changed drastically by a year or two later. What feels good today might leave an even bigger mess later for everyone involved. Letting yourself be the scapegoat for someone else’s misconduct leaves others to suffer the same fate later.
3. What kind of person do I want to be in this situation?
Who do you really want to be? Your integrity is one thing others can’t take away from you. And if you give up your integrity, you will absolutely regret it later.
Do you want to be weak? Too sensitive? Angry? Uncontrolled? Passive-aggressive? Cowardly? Hurtful? Insensitive? Positive? Pessimistic? Afraid? Honest? Bold?
Thinking about your options with these values in mind can give you a lot of insight.
Stop thinking: “Should I really hurt so-and-so this way?” Start thinking, “Am I being honest or wise?”
Stop thinking, “What will this person think of me?” Start thinking, “Am I an honest person?”
Choosing today to be the person you want to be means that a year from now, no matter what happened, you look back and feel good about yourself instead of looking back and feeling guilty and disappointed in yourself.
What other questions can you ask? Think about it… write some down… save them in an envelope that says “For next time I’m freaking out.”
However you get from panic mode to a level-headed perspective, commit yourself now to get there every time you find yourself in a sticky situation.
Remember the advice of the writer Ambrose Bierce: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
Full blown adrenaline doesn’t solve conflicts. Take a deep breath.