Three Ways To Stay Cool -
In The Heat Of The Moment
When a colleague hits one of your hot buttons,
you can either react or stay cool.
Staying cool is almost always your better option.
I like to think I'm pretty easy-going. I get along well with most people. I'm personable and friendly in the workplace. I maintain my humor in challenging situations. I try to be respectful of others and honor their perspective, even when I disagree with them.
Here's the thing: there are still occasions when someone says or does something that strikes a chord with me. Someone intentionally, or unintentionally, hits one of my hot buttons. If I see it coming, I can sometimes sound a quiet alarm, flashing my eyes to let the person know danger is imminent. I can give them a chance to reconsider their approach. Other times, it's like a full force missile that hits without warning. In the split second that follows, I have a choice to make. Do I hit the launch button, or stay cool? We're all faced with that choice in heated situations, whether we're aware of it or not.
When someone hits one of our hot buttons, it's completely natural to react. It's the immediacy of the reaction that gets us in trouble at times. Reacting without pause doesn't serve us well. It's amazing what can be accomplished with just a brief, thoughtful pause. Our reactions are better, and we have greater impact on the situation, if we stay cool. This isn't about giving in or walking away. It's about flipping a switch, progressing us from immediate reaction, to tempered response.
How do you stay cool in the heat of a moment, without giving in or walking away?
Three Steps To Stay Cool
1. Call it like it is, 100%.
Usually when someone hits one of our hot buttons, it isn't 100% about that particular moment. It feels like it is, but it isn't. Hot buttons by default are filled with history. We all reference things we've experienced in the past. We remember perceived judgments, injustices, or comments that may have stung or shaken our confidence. We recall specific situations that impacted us negatively in some way. These very "personal" assaults aren't easily forgotten. They're tucked away, with great sensitivity, but they remain a big part of who we are and how we interact with others. Often we're not even aware that these sensitivities are sitting just below the surface.
One comment, mannerism, or behavior from another can bring all of that history to a blinding heap right in front of us. This happens without us even being particularly aware of it. If we believe someone is intentionally trying to draw us into conflict, it's all the more magnified. Our reaction to these types of situations may have nothing at all to do with the person involved or their intended message.
What to do:
In the heat of the moment, if you take the first three seconds to just acknowledge that a hot button was hit, you deny the unconscious weight that comes from all that history. Knowing that you're being baited by your own psyche to react, gives you the choice to be more thoughtful in your response. When you push back the emotional baggage that may be associated with the moment, you're better able to let whatever happened... simply be the thing that just happened.
Tell yourself that the situation that triggered the reaction isn't part of a bigger story. It's just about this moment. You'll immediately avoid the "rush" of stress that comes from defending a broader issue. You're simply reacting to a single event. Give yourself three seconds of pause, and be rewarded with a more tempered response every time.
2. "Abstract" yourself from the story.
When something strikes a chord with us, particularly if it's directed at us, it's astounding how quickly we tell ourselves a story about it. In the heat of a moment, it all feels very personal. We think about why this person behaved as they did, and what judgments they must clearly be making. The development of the story is almost instantaneous.
It's hard to stay cool when we feel judged or attacked. One of the easiest ways to diffuse an immediate and strong reaction to a perceived threat is to "abstract" ourselves from the story. In other words, we can choose not to let the story be about us. It requires us to first set aside our history, per #1 above. Then simply tell ourselves that the situation in this moment isn't one we have to own. The situation may be about us, or directed at us, but it isn't our story. It's someone else's story.
What to do:
When I find myself in the heat of the moment, I try to react as if someone put an object on the table in front of me. I'm not part of it, so I can observe it with less emotion. It's just a thing that I need to respond to, but it has nothing to do with me on a personal level. I may choose to take it personally later, but in that split second when I want to react? No. I choose to abstract myself.
As you think through your response, pretend you're watching the situation unfold (rather than being a part of it yourself.) How could someone respond well to this? What options might they have in how they choose to respond? By "observing" in this way, your mind can VERY QUICKLY come up with a better alternative than had you just reacted, without pause.
Note that when I say very quickly, I mean mere seconds. I'm not suggesting you sit mute for several seconds while the rest of the room waits, or moves on from the moment. This quick adjustment in how you view the situation simply takes the sting out of it and gives you a few seconds of fresh perspective.
If you doubt this, try it in a heated moment, at work or at home. It's no less than stunning how powerful this can be. The more you practice it, the better you get at it. The better you get at it, the more you'll come out ahead - in any stressful situation.
3. Develop a physical cue.
Sometimes no matter how hard we work to set aside our personal perspective, and be objective in viewing a situation, the heat of the moment can catch us off guard and leave us reeling. It's hard to be cool when you're reeling. One of the most effective ways to calm ourselves in any situation is to develop a physical cue of some kind that centers us.
What to do:
I have a physical cue that I use regularly when I'm angry, frustrated, impatient, or emotional. It works for me almost without fail. In these circumstances, I press my palms up into the underside of a desk or table, or even the arms of a chair. I immediately prevent myself from being on auto-pilot, which is dangerous territory. I become self-aware and completely focused on the situation at hand. (If I don't have a surface, I press my palms into each other or hold an object in my hands.)
I've trained myself to use this physical movement as a cue to gather myself. It's a way of slowing my breath and moving a conversation forward in a productive way. I have several friends and mentors who have similar cues of their own. The more subtle your cue, the more effective it is in highly charged discussions.
If you're sensitive to touch, develop a specific body movement that heightens your awareness. If you're a visual person, consider a subtle eye movement that helps to center you. Whatever you choose, you'll be surprised at how effectively a slight physical shift creates a more significant shift in the mind.
The bottom line is that we're at our worst when we behave in a reactionary way. When a situation is heated, it also typically gets personal, which further increases the odds that we'll react poorly. Being self-aware and self-controlled are tremendous skills to cultivate.
If you find yourself in a heated situation, press pause. Acknowledge that history or a hot button may be inflaming the situation. Remove yourself from the story so you can be objective, and avoid reacting as if you're being personally attacked. Don't be afraid to use a physical cue of some sort, to center and calm yourself.
Here are a few final thoughts on staying cool in the heat of the moment. When someone takes a shot over the bough at you, it's rarely about you. When you refuse to take things personally, you have much more clarity about what's real and what's needed. If you behave with grace and decorum under pressure, you'll come out ahead almost every time. If you use specific techniques, like those mentioned here, to manage that initial immediate emotional reaction to a challenge, you will be much better prepared to defend your position and make your point. You'll also earn a great deal more respect than someone who reacts emotionally or inappropriately under pressure.
It really is this simple. Stay cool. You win.