Many of the people I work with have expressed a struggle to be able to maintain equilibrium in the heat of a highly emotionally charged situation. Whether it is facing a bias in a meeting or a personal conflict in life, many of us feel if we are going to be any good at being a “leader” (or being our best self) we need to be able to handle these challenges consistently and flawlessly. That is a lot of pressure to put on oneself. Unfortunately, many of us have witnessed, or been struck by, a sustained judgment based on a singular moment in time. So you cried ONCE in a meeting when someone tore a strip off of you. Or maybe you lost your cool with a colleague who was voracious (even unkind) in putting forward his or her singular vision. This is not something that happens every day, not 90% of the time, but in a very small fraction of the time spent interacting personally and professionally with others...when on that one occasion you just did not have it in you to pull off your best self. Yet that is how others are remembering you. Even if this did not happen to you personally, we've all seen it happen to others. Hence the pressure to “never” do these things at work or in front of others (i.e. “flawless”).
This is something that has impacted everyone in their life and career (directly or indirectly), which is why it is the item that comes out of everyone’s “shame closet” when they are working with a professional to help them bring forward all of their potential at work and in life. We all have something we are afraid will “pop” out under stress, or when we least expect it; it happens at home more often than we’d like (yelling, tears, retreating into silence, acute sarcasm…put your “go to” pressure release valve here…). So we KNOW it could happen. But living in fear of this eventuality is not going to make it go away, that only adds to the pressure you put on yourself and let’s face it, you likely have enough pressure in your life already. Plus, pressure does not leave room for compassion, and compassion is exactly what is called for in these situations. Compassion for you and for the other person…regardless which one of you is having the bad day. So how do you stay in the thick of it and keep your cool? Here is my favourite “pressure release valve”, one you can take with you and use anywhere, and without anyone else knowing you are using it. It is called H. A. L. T. (some of you may recognize it as I re-purposed it from my own journey as a parent), which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired and is a quick way to scan for an objective reason why you (or someone else) may be being unreasonable.
Hungry. We can all usually tell when we are hungry; there are obvious signs (tummy growls, feeling pangs of hunger). But what happens when you feel full but do not have the right nutritional balance to allow you the energy needed to manage your emotions? If you ate fast food for lunch (and skipped breakfast) chances are the reason you blew up at someone is because you just didn’t have the “high-octane fuel” you needed in your belly to deal with an unexpectedly difficult circumstance. It could also be the reason someone else is being difficult or argumentative with you. Give yourself (and others) a break; it could be the hunger talking.
Angry. This one is also obvious (on the surface). We know what it feels like to be angry…but what happens when “latent” anger creeps into other parts of our life? Being angry with your spouse because of something he/she did (or didn’t) do in the morning might just be making an appearance as impatience (or another unwelcome behaviour) in your first meeting of the day. It is hard to separate work from home, even harder when you have strong emotions swirling around in your system. Check in. Is another part of your day showing up here? Because if it is, it could mean your normal thresholds for patience and clear-headedness are not at their usual excellent levels. Sometimes, when someone else is being inexplicably annoying, this may have happened to him or her; recognize when someone else is displaying less-than-optimal etiquette, it may have nothing to do with you, it could just be misappropriated anger showing up unexpectedly (and they likely don’t even know they are doing it).
Lonely. Loneliness can strike, even in a room full of people, especially where there is no emotional or social connection (many of us can empathize with that feeling). Loneliness shows up when we are not being “heard”. When our opinions are maligned or ignored, when we feel we do not have a “place at the table” or a “voice” that is being recognized, eventually it leads to other not-so-great feelings that impact the way we are showing up at work (or at home). When we are experiencing unexpected resistance, reticence, pessimism or blatant rudeness, sometimes it is because the person with whom we are trying to converse is feeling unheard (i.e. lonely). The best course forward is to check in, not by asking them directly, but by making a compassion statement reflecting that they have been heard; “I hear what you just said, that must be very frustrating”. You are neither agreeing nor disagreeing, with what the other person is saying. You are demonstrating that you heard what they said, and applying empathy. Watch your conversation turn around (for the better) from that point forward.
Tired. Studies have proven that, as adults, we do not consistently get the 8 hours of unbroken sleep that are needed to keep us alert and balanced throughout our day (http://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-much-sleep-do-you-need.htm). Getting it once or twice a week is not enough, nor is 8 hours of sleep broken up by wakefulness (i.e. napping for two hours each evening after work does not negate the effects of a late bedtime). When we are tired it impacts how well we react and make decisions throughout our day. In fact, a chronic lack of sleep can compromise us at the same level as being intoxicated. So the next time you are yawning, fatigued or feeling like you have no energy to deal with the challenges of your day, count back the number of hours of quality sleep you had over the past week. Coming up short? The fix is to get to bed. Know that you are not alone and give others the benefit of sleep deprivation before deciding they are an emotional wreck.
What this points to is that life is full of things we cannot control. Sick children that keep us up at night, poor diet because of a hectic schedule, etc. Using H.A. L. T. acknowledges that none of us are perfect, that we are all allowed to have bad days, and not be judged by them forever. Compassion is the best tool we have to allow ourselves the space and time needed to acknowledge when we are not at our best…and to extend that same kindness to others.