It is not uncommon for my coaching clients to be challenged by someone whose stormy behavior creates chaos in their heads, hearts and organizations. Here’s Monica’s story for your consideration. (Not her real name.)
When our call began, Monica said she was struggling with a colleague, Fredrick, who worked in a neighboring European country. Monica and Fredrick held high level positions in their organization and it was imperative that they collaborate effectively in order to achieve significant organizational results. Monica found herself increasingly frustrated with her colleague because his behaviors fell far short of being collaborative. Her assessment was he vacillated between being loud, dominating, disrespectful, petulant, excessively critical and blatantly condescending. Fredrick’s mood was often stormy and difficult and it was not uncommon for both Monica and her junior female colleagues to be on the receiving end of his outbursts and rants. Monica felt especially protective of the more vulnerable younger women with whom she worked.
Monica wanted to focus our call on preparing for an upcoming leadership team meeting, as it was a pretty safe bet Fredrick was going to misbehave. Monica knew she couldn’t control Fredrick; what she wanted to figure out was how to maintain her composure in those moments when she felt triggered by him.
First, we explored what about Fredrick’s behavior caused her angst. By looking at what was going on inside of her, we could get a better sense of what caused her reactions. As we talked, Monica realized her issues arose because Fredrick’s behaviors were actually a threat to one or more of the “essential nutrients” crucial to all of us: safety, connection and dignity/respect. Here’s what each looked like for her:
- Monica felt if she was not able to maintain her composure when Fredrick lost his, then her reputation and credibility would be at risk.
- Because Fredrick repeatedly refused to collaborate, Monica felt the project was constantly in jeopardy. If this project failed, there was a chance the company would fail. And if the company failed, Monica would not have a job. (Monica is a single Mom and the sole provider for her three children.)
- Fredrick also had the ear of their boss. She wondered if he could compromise her career with irrational complaints about her.
- Monica valued working with her colleagues to achieve success and find solutions for any roadblocks that arose. The deep connection that comes from solving problems in ways that everyone wins made the difference in work being a joy vs. something to dread. Sadly, Fredrick resisted any attempts Monica made to work together to solve the problems that were plaguing the project.
- Fredrick’s behavior often bumped into Monica’s deeply held values about how one should behave and how others should be treated.
- More importantly, her standards about how she wanted to be treated were repeatedly compromised.
Next Monica needed to get clear about what mattered to her about her behavior. Who did she want to be as a leader? How did she want to be seen when there were moments of tension? Monica was wise enough to know success had to be about her and what she could control and not her difficult colleague or his behaviors. Knowing these things enabled Monica to articulate exactly what success meant to her.
Now all Monica needed to figure out was how to create enough space between Fredrick’s behavior and her response for her to be be able to choose responses that aligned with her definition of success vs. just react. Monica and I talked abut the signals her body gave her in moments of conflict. Some of her body clues included a flushing or heat in her neck and face, tightness in her throat, a knot in her stomach and tension across her shoulders. Monica knew these would be her first clues that her body was noticing something that could help inform her brain. Her body would likely be the first to know when there was a threat to her essential nutrients. With that early wisdom she would have a bit more time to be able to choose her response.
Monica was now as prepared as she could be for the upcoming meeting. She understood what was behind her reactions to Fredrick, what was important to her as a leader and how to tune in to her body. She felt grounded, centered and equipped to face whatever played out in the meeting.
- Too often Monica worried if others would agree with her assessment of Fredrick. That second guessing kept her from asserting herself when she needed to.
- Often, she would get stuck wondering “what am I doing wrong that causes him to behave this way?”
- Historically she would either completely withdraw from the conversation or push back vehemently, escalating the tension.
- Over time, Monica came to realize part of her struggle was about trusting her ability to assess a situation objectively.
Being objective meant not only looking for data that supports her belief or hypothesis about someone, but also other data too. With more complete data she could look for patterns and decide the right course of action for her.
- Monica knew she had to stay vigilant with her practices if she wanted to be able to respond appropriately in the moment when things became chaotic.
- Learning about threats to safety, connection and dignity/respect helped Monica stop second guessing herself. Rather than seeing herself as inadequate, it now made sense as to why she got triggered.
Here are some things Monica practiced both saying and embodying so that she would be centered and calm in the heat of the moment. She wanted to demonstrate an openness and curiosity about Fredrick while also not letting him bully her or others in the room:
“Could you repeat that please?” (It is very difficult for someone who is ranting to repeat the rant with the same drama and intensity a second time and not look like, well, an idiot.)
“What is it about this conversation that makes you respond in that way?” (This could help Fredrick articulate what is behind his rant, which may have merit and be better heard and understood if he improved his delivery…)
“We have two things in front of us right now. One is the content of this discussion and the other is your behavior, which is getting in the way of our discussing the content constructively. Rather than being distracted by your behavior, could we agree to continue with the content discussion in a more reasonable way?”
Equally important was for Monica to be prepared for the fact that no matter what she said or how she said it, it was very likely Fredrick would not be able to shift to more appropriate behavior during the meeting. He had shown many times he had a habit of being this way and it likely had served him in some way in the past, thus becoming a habit.
Monica knew her biggest challenge if she chose to say any of the above would be to do so without judgment or shame.
Monica continued her Centering practice every day so her body could call on the “muscle memory” of the calm state it creates for her.
During the meeting Monica also practiced Box Breathing to help her maintain her composure:
- Inhale deep belly breaths for 4 counts.
- Hold for 4 counts.
- Exhale for 4 counts.
- Hold for 4 counts.
- Repeat as often as necessary.
- Embodied Leadership, by Pete Hamill.
- Difficult Conversations, How to Say What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton.