Composure Under Fire

Composure Under Fire

October 11, 2016

The recent presidential debates have underscored just how important—and difficult—it is for leaders to maintain their composure when they are being verbally criticized, maligned, or even vilified. At work, a verbal attack can come from a demanding client, a disgruntled customer, an angry shareholder, or a stressed-out boss. It’s not easy to hold it together and remain calm when you are being bullied, goaded, or disparaged–particularly in front of others. We’ve seen people fall victim to an ‘amygdala hijack’—a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence–and respond with an emotional outburst of anger or tears. The result is often a counterproductive confrontation from which both parties walk away hurt, frustrated, and upset. It’s difficult for others watching it as well.

Staying composed under fire is something that requires a combination of self-awareness, courage, and a level of self-confidence that develops over time.  Admittedly, during my own career, I have been known to respond emotionally after an unexpected criticism or perceived unfair verbal assault. However, with greater maturity and experience, I’ve learned to keep the following in mind:

  • You can’t control what the other person may say or do; you can only control your own reaction to it. Words can be hurtful, unfair, or misguided, and more often they speak volumes about the temperament of the speaker and less about you. Sometimes, that person is still angry about something that happened earlier in the day and may have nothing to do with you at all.
  • Become aware of your body’s physical reaction. Can you sense your heart beating faster, your breath getting quicker and shallower, and your body temperature becoming more heated? These are signals that you’ve become emotionally hooked, and may cause you to say or do something that you’ll later regret.
  • Disengage from the conversation if possible. You might try saying, “This conversation has become unproductive, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to resolve the matter now. I think it might be best if we come back when cooler heads can prevail.” Disengaging helps to collect one’s thoughts, gain perspective on the matter, and better appreciate another point of view. My preference is to go back to my desk and jot down my thoughts in a more logical, rational way to help regain my composure. If I decide to share my written thoughts later, I usually hold onto the document for at least 24 hours and reflect on it before sending.
  • Apologize. If you did, in fact, do or say something wrong, admit it, and learn from the mistake. We’ve all said or done something that we’d like to take back, and a sincere apology can help bring reason and rationality back to the conversation. Even if you believe the speaker’s anger is unwarranted, apologizing doesn’t mean that you are wrong and the other person is right.  It means that you care about the relationship more. “I’m sorry that you and I see this matter very differently. Can we shift the conversation to how we can move forward and resolve the matter?”
  • Listen for the underlying emotion behind the words and reflect back what you heard. “It sounds like this is a very frustrating issue for you.” You don’t have to agree with the person to recognize the intensity of emotion and show that you’ve heard him/her. Refrain from saying, “Just calm down” or “Relax.” From my experience, these admonishments exacerbate the situation and tend to make the other person more volatile.
  • Avoid the resentment that can build up over time. As the saying goes, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We often ruminate about the rude comment or insult, and our anger increases with each encounter so that the slightest remark triggers an emotional response. Focusing on negative comments can overshadow the positive aspects of your role and can sour your disposition. Letting go of anger and hurt feelings are important to maintaining personal well-being.
  • And, finally, if you find yourself in a work environment with an impossible boss, unreasonable clients, or angry customers, you still have the power to choose. We often feel stuck because we need the money or it’s not practical to go elsewhere. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes there can be other options that you’re not aware of. You do not have to become a victim or a cynic—your health and self-esteem are at stake.

You will likely face a harsh criticism or heated situation at some point in your career. The ability to stay composed when under fire can help you become a more effective leader and create a healthier and more productive environment for everyone around you.

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