Groucho Marx is believed to have once said, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
All of us all been there. We’ll be sitting in a meeting or talking with a co-worker when something unexpectedly triggers us and, boom, the next thing we know, we’re asking ourselves questions like, “Why did I say that?” or “What the heck was I thinking?” As much as I hate to admit it, there’ve been times when words have formed in my mouth while my brain screamed, “Don’t say that, or you’ll regret it.” Unfortunately, too often my mouth won the battle, which resulted in regrets, apologies and damaged relationships. Take it from personal experience, that’s too high a price to pay when there’s a better way.
So how do we avoid emotional meltdowns? Here are three keys to help you honestly express your anger without causing an explosion that wipes out everyone in your zip code.
1. Identify Your Emotional Triggers
There’s an old saying: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” This simply means that when someone has an over-the-top emotional reaction, it’s often connected to something in their past. The truth is that emotional meltdowns are generally not isolated and random but rather are in direct response to triggers, which are often fears, threats and past experiences in our lives. The real question isn’t, “Do I have triggers?” but rather, “What are they?” Simply knowing what pushes your buttons is the first key to preventing emotional meltdowns.
Emotional meltdowns are often caused by what Daniel Goleman calls “amygdala hijack,” which is a highly emotional, often out of control, response to a person or situation that usually is an overreaction to the actual trigger. In other words, a full-fledged meltdown is often in response to something that on the surface appears insignificant.
So what triggers these over-the-top reactions? It can be anything, or any person, that your brain sees as a threat to your status, safety or self-worth. When triggered by one of these factors, there’s a good chance that you’ll slide into a defensive posture that promotes an unfiltered emotional response, often leading to actions or words you wish could be taken back. Unfortunately, once such words leave your lips, it’s too late.
Acton step: Take 30 minutes and make a list identifying people and things that make you feel threatened.
2. Develop A Plan
Once you’ve identified your triggers, develop a plan for how you can manage them. I once worked with a person who had the unique gift of being a perpetual trigger in my life. It seemed that every word, action or idea he introduced was a direct attack on me personally and professionally. Because I attended regular meetings with this person, I would physically write the words “Do not speak” on my notepad prior to the meeting. By developing this plan of action, I was able to avoid ongoing conflict and prevent a cyclical escalation of emotion.
A second strategy I used was thoroughly preparing my thoughts prior to the meeting. This allowed me time to methodically and logically work through my positions on issues without getting pulled into the negativity of our relationship. This same process can work regardless of the trigger and allow you to take control of the threatening situation.
Action step: Intentionally develop a plan for how you can deal with the trigger. Then execute it.
3. Take A Time Out
Most parents have utilized the timeout as a tool for teaching children how to manage their behavior. The same approach also can be effective when it comes to preventing emotional meltdowns. When tempers are rising, it often helps to take a breath, push pause and step back for a few minutes to allow emotions to calm. These “emotional timeouts” can allow the logical part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, to drive the conversation and prevent cyclical arguments that often spiral out of control. We’ve used this approach in our home for so long that my daughters have actually said to me, “Dad, your prefrontal cortex is not engaged.” This provides a not-so-subtle reminder that my emotions were driving our conversation rather than rational and logical thinking.
When things are getting heated, taking a 30-minute timeout often prevents unnecessary meltdowns. If that length of a break isn’t possible, then simply pushing back from the table, taking a deep breath and pausing for six seconds before you speak is often enough to get your emotions, and your tongue, under control.
Action step: Take a timeout to prevent escalating conflict and losing control of your temper.
For leaders, the ability to effectively manage conflict is nonnegotiable. For this to happen, however, leaders must first manage their own emotions as tempers are rising. Identifying your emotional triggers, developing a plan of action and taking emotional timeouts when needed can go a long way toward helping you manage workplace conflict and avoid emotional meltdowns that can wreck your leadership credibility and undermine a healthy workplace culture. Remember: While anger is a normal and healthy emotion, the manner in which we choose to display it can have huge consequences and says a lot about us as leaders.