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Fight or flight? Breathe instead

· 10 min read

We’ve all been there. Feeling the frustration, the unfairness, and the negativity consuming us while everything is getting out of our control.

Emotions take over your brain and you are suddenly overwhelmed by your own feelings, leaving no room for rational thinking. That’s when your flight or fight response kicks in.

Thanks to amygdala hijacking, rational thinking becomes very difficult, and smashing a chair on someone’s face or storming out of a meeting room becomes very tempting. But please, do not do it, and instead, take a DEEP breath in order to make the first step into regaining consciousness.

In his excellent book, Conscious Business, Fred Kofman talks about the importance of bringing awareness to our (business) lives by recognizing other people’s needs as well as ours and seeing their perspective without taking things personally or handling situations by putting our ego first. By maintaining a more open attitude, we are able to see everything as a challenge, as a chance to grow, instead of getting immediately defensive and feeling like a victim. This helps us to get better in our daily interaction with other human beings, and embrace a ‘player attitude’ in which instead of throwing the blame in any direction to avoid solving the problem because this seems easier, we become part of the solution by owning it.

So, what the hell is that Fred dude saying that this blog dude is agreeing with? To own up for other people’s mistakes? To try solving every problem that the company has and be happy about it? To be a “yes” person? To put up a smile while everyone is being aggressive and expressing opinions that have no merit?

Nope. What I am saying is, that, at the end of the day the only thing you have is your integrity and your values. No matter what is thrown at you, you will always be left with a positive and proud feeling about yourself, because you chose the right attitude; you stood by your values, handled the situation with openness and maintained your integrity. Even if the outcome was bad.

What is the right attitude you may ask? The following will – probably – give you an idea of the direction you need to go. It’s definitely not easy and I am still working on it myself!

Taking responsibility. For everything#

Taking responsibility does not apply only in situations in which you were personally involved; it rather stands for any situation that might come up and calls for action. It’s about reacting and trying to solve the problem at hand. Even if that does not necessarily guarantee success, you should see it as a challenge where you can influence the result instead of walking away while saying to yourself that “it’s not my problem”.

Choosing to act, even if everything fails, will always be a self-empowering move rather than choosing to do nothing about it and allow the failure to just happen.

Don’t get me wrong; Of course, I understand that this is not always fair and that people should just do their damn job and everybody will have one less thing to worry about. But…life is not fair, and people act stupidly. Even worse, they choose apathy very often. So, instead of feeling resentment and resignation all the time, I choose to act whenever I can and do not bitch about it. Any other alternative is simply not good enough for me.

However, the above is not meant to be used as an excuse when things go sideways. There is a huge and obvious difference between honestly striving for excellence by wholeheartedly doing your best and when you are doing the “oh well, at least I tried my best” self-assuring routine.

Your truth is not my truth. Help me understand you#

Each of us has our own mental model (a representation of the world, that is) which is shaped based on our knowledge, our personal experiences, and our culture. As soon as you realize that everybody has their own perspective and yours is just a version of the truth, you will better handle any future human interaction. Try to see the other person’s perspective and try to create a shared truth which will serve as the common ground for any productive conversation.

Don’t get caught up in trying to enforce your truth, this is just a controlling attitude that will get you nowhere and hurt the relationship with the other person – and basically make you an unlikable douche.

If you are doing the listening, the first thing you need to do is to shut up and actually listen. ACTUALLY LISTEN. Do not shut down because you are too eager to respond. Your turn will come but until then be present, be open, and try to connect with the speaker. Acknowledge what the other person just said/felt and try to summarize it in order to ensure that you understood correctly. Even if for some reason you start feeling defensive and slowly getting angry, snap out of it and start an inquiry instead. This will help you understand better why is that what they are saying has put you on the defensive in the first place and provide you with a new perspective. Finally, make sure that the speaker has nothing else to add before you actually start replying. Manners!

If you are doing the speaking, make sure that you have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or else mumbling without the slightest trail of thought will exhaust the listener and you will lose their attention. Do not waste your listeners time by whining about [insert topic here] or petty annoyances. Instead, state your ideas/opinions, provide facts by supporting them with the appropriate research or observations, and recommend a course of action. In this way, the conversation will always have one direction; forward. Watch your listener’s reactions and ask questions to make sure they actually understood what you are trying to say. Last but not least, welcome any feedback and do not get defensive, even if that feedback challenges you. This is how both of you will learn something new from this conversation and make a step closer to an actual solution.

Stop resisting. Challenge the reasons behind your opinions and your actions#

Sometimes it’s hard to understand the real reasons why another person acts the way they do but it’s even harder to understand our own reasoning behind our own actions.

You need to ask yourself whether your opinions and your actions (or lack thereof) are based on your own personal gain/convenience or if you have your team’s/company’s best interest at heart.

Take a breath and create some space from your emotions (without suppressing them) in order to try to observe and understand what is going on within yourself and why you acted the way you did. The more time you give to this observation of self, the more self-aware you become and more able to reflect upon your feelings and your actions. As a result, you have a more objective perspective of yourself, and of course, more control.

Think globally, not locally. Think long-term, not short-term. You are part of a larger community that shares a common goal, to fulfill the mission of the organization. Never lose sight of that and you will keep yourself in check and be more objective in a much easier way than you think.

There is no “you” or “they”. It’s “I” or “we”#

One of the things I despise the most (note to self: figure out why) is when someone within the organization, or even worst within the same team, tries to distance themselves from a problem by avoiding self-statements.

By using the subject “you” instead of “I” or “they” instead of “we” during a discussion, you create a negative experience for everyone involved. Non-self-statements imply blame and foster criticism towards others which in turn puts them into a defensive mood. If that does not ruin the discussion, it will definitely make it harder to continue smoothly and everyone sooner or later will start feeling a psychological drag.

The ironic thing about self-statements however, is that the person who avoids them is the one being defensive in the first place. Even though that person wants to be part of the solution, they do not understand that they must first embrace the problem as a member of the same team, mostly due to insecurity or emotional pressure for other reasons (even unknown to them most of the time).

Self-actualization. Infinite motivation#

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.

Abraham H. Maslow

What makes a top athlete to keep training even though they are already the best at what they do? What makes a top violinist keep practicing even though they have already mastered the toughest compositions? What motivates any of the people we admire to become something more and better from what they already are?

They do not do it for the money, the fame, or any other self-limiting reason. These are simply measures of achievement at this point. They do it because they want to. They play the game for the sake of the game and they try to get a little bit better every day because the need to improve and to keep testing themselves has no limit.

The good news is that you do not need to be the best of the best in a field in order to reach your full potential. Based on Abraham Maslow, what motivates a person is a hierarchy of needs. In short, when a more basic or psychological need is satisfied, we are no longer motivated by it and we need to change level in order to find motivation again. Of course, a person can have concurrent needs, but one of them is always stronger than the rest and it is the one that drives us. The order of our needs does not need to be progressive either. By deciding what is really important to you, and by conquering all your lower needs first, you can finally arrive at the only level of infinite source of motivation, creativity, and your highest level of performance; self-actualization.

We spend a large part of our lives at work and that work must offer something more than just money. It has to be able to offer some sense of fulfillment. To be in a safe place where you can stretch your limits, to be able to challenge yourself, to test your character and skill. Do not waste your life in a working environment that pays the bills but only makes you sad and miserable every day.

Be a pro at least#

Even if you are not really motivated to embark on this psychological and emotional trip, even if you feel that it’s pointless to try and make your working environment a better place for everyone, then let me make it brutally simple for you; you are a professional, and you need to act accordingly within your workplace and respect its culture. If you are not satisfied, instead of creating noise and drama, do yourself and everyone else a favor and simply move on to somewhere else where you feel that it will be a better fit for you.

But I think that you can do better than that.

Take the trip instead, because, even though achieving emotional mastery is not easy, its effects are reflected upon you and the ones around you much sooner than you think.