“The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is happening outside.”- Dag Hammarskjold, Former United Nations Secretary-General
Jason*, an accomplished, 40-something senior director at a Silicon Valley software company came to my office seeking to develop his emotional intelligence. A new leader on an established team, he had been experiencing friction with his colleagues due to his tendency to snap at the slightest provocation.
Jason knew that he needed to address his reactivity in order to get along with his team and advance in the organization. Part of him thought the challenge was insurmountable since he had struggled with this behavior his entire life. Jason grew up in a war-torn country in Eastern Europe where he was taught to scream and argue and constantly defend himself.
Here were four steps that helped Jason overcome this challenge.
Step 1 – Get Curious
Sometimes, we perceive a stressful situation as a threat to our safety, and our bodies go into a fight or flight response, an activation of our sympathetic nervous system, as a way to protect ourselves. We can get curious about our reactions.
Jason recognized that he was in fight mode on a regular basis. It was exhausting. His formative years of stress and trauma had left his body in a heightened state of alertness much of the time, causing him to become easily triggered when he felt threatened.
Over the course of his career, there were numerous situations that went from bad to worse, where Jason would lash out at team member, leaving the person in tears and Jason feeling out of control and full of remorse afterward.
I invited Jason to begin a practice of paying close attention to what was happening inside him moment by moment, and to have a self-learning rather than self-criticizing orientation.
Step 2 – Pause and Observe Your Physical Sensations
When we’re activated, we are less able to use the parts of our brain that help us think and speak clearly. That’s because we’re wired to focus on our safety first, leaving cognitive processing for later.
What we can do in that moment is attend to our bodies.
Jason began a practice of noticing his physical sensations in a stressful moment – that his jaw muscles would tense, he’d start sweating and he’d sense himself becoming activated and ready to jump down someone’s throat. He could feel the bull inside him getting ready to enter the china shop.
Instead of exploding and saying something he’d regret, he learned to pause and observe what was going on. This was challenging for him, but not impossible. He showed great courage.
Step 3 – Name and Witness Your Emotions
After we pause and observe our physical sensations, we can name and witness our emotions, without judging them or attempting to push them away.
Jason began to write down and acknowledge his emotions in the moment, witnessing them in their raw, unfiltered state. He surfaced and identified a wide range of feelings – from fear to rage to shame and frustration. He practiced accepting and allowing them to be there while being mindful of their presence.
As Jason stayed curious through the emotional wave, he experienced a palpable shift that relieved some of his momentary suffering. He got to a moment of insight. He could then return to the team and conversation in a different frame of mind.
Step 4 – Connect Your Feelings With Your Needs
Once we have some time to reflect, we can explore our feelings some more, as well as the underlying needs, desires, expectations and values the feelings represent.
It turned out Jason’s feeling of fear was connected to a deeper need for trust and dependability. The trauma in his childhood had a profound effect on his professional life in later years by manifesting itself as a fear of reprimand. He transferred his fear onto his team through aggression and overreaction.
Today, Jason is learning to operate from a new frame of mind. He is becoming more skillful at being present with himself, and experiences a natural release of energy that enables him to be more present with his teammates. He is becoming competent in having high-stakes conversations where powerful emotions are at play. Because he is more compassionate with himself, he is more compassionate with others. He is learning to express his needs while trusting his team.
*not his real name
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Jill L. Barrett, PCC, is Chief Executive Officer of Evolve, a Washington, D.C.-based coaching and organizational development firm she founded in 2015. Named a top innovator who is shaping the region’s future by “Washington Life Magazine,” Jill is a sought-after coach, speaker and consultant. She has coached executives and emerging leaders at a wide range of organizations including Google, WarnerMedia, D.C. Public Schools, Salesforce, Merrill Lynch, Ball Corporation and other regional, national and multinational organizations. Jill holds an Integral Coach® credential from world-class coaching school New Ventures West and a Professional Certified Coach credential from the International Coach Federation.