Everyone has moments at work where a person or situation sets us off, shifting our energy from warm and open to red hot. When we feel a strong swell of anger come over us, oftentimes it is not the situation right in front of us that causes the anger but rather we are being triggered by a vague resemblance to a situation from the past. When this occurs, we enter into the Communication Danger Zone.
When someone or something makes us "hot-hot-hot", we are faced with three choices.
1) React and express our anger. We react because we feel threaten on some level, and our "fight" instinct is set in motion. When this happens, we are not using the thinking (cortex) part of the brain, but rather the limbic center of the brain. The amygdala part of our brain is ignited, which is commonly referred to as the "storage house for emotional memories". What we end up expressing is not rational, but rather emotional and without clear purpose.
2) Shut down completely. For some of us, "flight" is our default. We avoid confrontation and prefer to sidestep an uncomfortable situation rather than step into a heated exchange. This reaction is not conscious, but rather chemical. Our adrenal glands are activated, releasing a hormone called epinephrine, which leads to the release of the hormone cortisol, also known as the "stress hormone". Our brain is attempting to emotionally regulate us to reduce stress and emotional arousal.
3) Sleep on it. To see a situation most clearly requires us to be in an emotionally neutral place. It is nearly impossible to be emotionally neutral when our brains are flooded with stress hormones. If we consciously decide to respond rather than react, we allow ourselves the space we need to cool down, reflect and decide on the outcome we want rather than exploding or avoiding the problem. What makes this possible is time and space. Getting a good night's sleep allows us to hit the reset button so we can see things more clearly, and problem-solve more creatively.
The Sleep On It option requires self-awareness and self-discipline. If your tendency is to react in the moment, adopt these few simple go-to moves to help you short-circuit your impulse to step into the Communication Danger Zone.
- Put down the phone! Your iPhone can be a weapon. Rarely is it a good idea to tap out a communication when you are hot. You could say things you don't mean, damage your credibility as a professional or even hurt the other person with your words. Texting can be especially damaging since it is a one-way communication that is void of tone or clear intent. If you need to, literally power down your phone. It serves as a symbolic reset that can help you break the negative energy pattern you are in and gives you the forced pause you may need.
- Do NOT hit send! If you are in front of a computer and reacting via email, you are more inclined to vent in a long, unproductive ramble. Writing can be a powerful way to organize your thoughts and emotions, but if you are writing raw, you are in a communication danger zone. Do not throw a grenade in the foxhole. Hit "save" and reread in twenty-four hours. Almost never will you send the communication in its original form, or send it at all. If you are working on a laptop, close it and take three deep breaths. If you are in front of a desktop computer, literally get up and go for a 5-minute walk (ideally outside) and get some air. This will help change your vibration so you can continue on with your day.
- Do not push for an immediate conversation. If you are verbally inclined, you may want to say what is on your mind, especially when provoked. This is never a good idea. Give yourself a phrase that will buy you the time you need to cool down. Your phrase can be as simple as "Let me sit with it", or "I need to think about this". A mentor once coached me to say "This sounds like an important conversation, and its one I'd really like to have. Let's schedule some time later in the week to talk about it". I have personally used this phase a hundred times! In giving yourself time and a go-to phrase, you are taking your power back, relieving yourself of the pressure to react in the moment.
Regardless of whether you are a React or Shut Down person, the most important step is to identify the outcome you want before you communicate. This step is best when executed when the heat subsides. Ask yourself, what is the ideal resolution to this situation, then thoughtfully respond to drive this outcome. If it helps, reach out to an impartial friend or advisor who will allow you the safe space to talk it out. Sometimes it takes another person to ask us the question, "what is the outcome you want?" for us to become aware of it. Once we know, it is important that we do communicate it. This isn't always easy, especially for those of us that "shut down". But getting out what we need to say when we are calm, rational, and focused on the outcome we want is important so we stay emotionally clear and have healthy, happy relationships at work.
The more we practice circumventing the Communication Danger Zone, the easier it becomes to be a masterful, composed communicator. And in modeling this behavior at work, we show those around us to do the same.
You can begin your practice today by talking a hot coworker out of the Danger Zone with a simple, "Do NOT communicate when you are hot-hot-hot..." and follow up with a "What is the outcome you want?" Give it a try and see how you, and the culture of your workplace, shift for the better.