Do You Manage Stress? Or Does Stress Manage You?

Do You Manage Stress? Or Does Stress Manage You?

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I’ll never forget as long as I live the first time I made a presentation to a senior executive. He was my boss’s boss, the Senior VP of the IT Division—let’s call him Warren—a stocky guy, built like a bull, with a booming voice and an ego as big as all outdoors. I’d seen him be jovial. I’d also heard he had another side, that he could go from chuckling back-slapper to furious desk-pounder in no time at all.

Once a year, we managers had to present to him updates about our departments—financials, personnel review, and summaries of critical projects. The very first time it was my turn, Warren argued with everything I said. Everything. Had I said something as obvious as “It’s a nice day out,” he would have insisted it couldn’t possibly be nice unless I’d made an airtight, financially cautious, risk-averse case that met his exacting standards.

As I continued with my annual update and plan for the year, I knew I was under fire. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I continued making the points I came to make, and he continued to push back and argue with me. His impatience was more than obvious. Suddenly, he leaned across the meeting table, face in my face, and bellowed, “Do you want to continue to be a department manager in this company?!”

It crossed my mind to say, “Well, actually, maybe not,” but I thought better of it. Besides, I was speechless.

Warren liked being intimidating, and it wasn’t something he had to work at very hard. As I said, he could turn on a dime.

And guess what: Most of us can do the same thing.

Anger Is Easy

It’s a snap to get angry. Not to mention it’s also normal. It’s how we respond to problems. If you’ve ever yelled at your laptop for coming up too slowly, then you know what I mean. Or if you’ve shouted “Where did you learn to drive?” at a driver who cut you off, then you know what I mean. People are slow, wrong, naïve. Systems are unreliable, poorly designed, cumbersome. Machines break. Airplanes are late. Lines are long. Weather messes up our plans. And we are frustrated, stymied, furious.

This is not a newsflash, but a reminder: None of that is going to change—systems problems, late airplanes, long lines. They’re not going away. What you can change is how you respond.

The Nature of Problems

Problems have two parts: an external part—e.g., a blizzard delays our travel plans—and an internal part—how we respond to them. There’s nothing we can do about the blizzard. But we can decide to accept it, or maybe even enjoy it. Our response is either that it’s a problem or it’s not a problem. It’s not up to the blizzard; it’s up to us.

Another example: Let’s say you have to make a presentation to a powerful and argumentative client. You’re dreading it. First of all, you hate making presentations. Second, the last time you presented to this client, it didn’t go well. You’re hoping to make up for last time. Third, there’s a sale riding on this.

Here’s the external problem: a grouchy, argumentative client is your audience for a significant presentation.

Here’s the internal problem: dread, worry, nervousness about the potential sale.

The default response—to be upset, frustrated, irate—can be overridden (with practice). That’s because we’re human. Unlike dogs, rhinos or blue jays, we can choose how we react. We can manage the internal problem.

Improving our reaction won’t necessarily change the outcome of the external problem. The blizzard may not let up. The client may not smile. But that’s not the point. The point is to change how we respond so we’re less reactive, less explosive, less distraught, so that we’re calm, even and ready.

No doubt you’ve no noticed that life comes with an endless supply of external problems. You solve one, you get another one. We keep solving, or trying to solve, all our external problems so that we won’t have internal problems. If the client says “yes,” I’ll be happy. Or If the blizzard lets up, I’ll be relieved.

But what if the client says no and the blizzard lasts all night? Tacitly, we’ve agreed to be miserable. Why?

Accepting what is — Yep, it’s snowing — leaves the mind in better shape. Rejecting what is — Damn! How can it be snowing? I planned this trip so it wouldn’t snow! This is a disaster! — is a rigid angry mind, and it’s self-inflicted.

Of course accepting what is doesn’t mean we don’t try to solve an external problem, but doing so with a state of mind that’s controlled and calm, not about to run off the cliff. If you get angry at traffic, say, your anger won’t clear the road. Your anger just makes you miserable. Find an alternate route — but do it with a calm mind rather than a furious one.

Emotional Intelligence

For several years, I taught “emotional intelligence” (EI) classes. Many people have some idea what EI is because it’s had a lot of press and the phrase itself tells you something. But the question I often got in class was, “How can I become more emotionally intelligent? Besides just learning what emotional intelligence is, how do I do it?”

This is one way: understand this distinction between internal and external problems. When you hit a problem, take time to analyze the situation, and then segregate internal from external. You may not be able to solve the external problem. (You can’t stop a blizzard.) Then again, you may be able to. (You can debug a program.) But when it comes to an internal problem, you can always solve it because it’s within your control.

Most of us have had decades of practice at reacting to problems, and old habits are very hard to break. But the first step is to stop conflating internal and external problems. Once you do that, you can focus your energy where it can do some good—on the internal.

And here’s one more recommendation: see stress in others for what it is. Some people, like Warren in our earlier story, brandish their stress like a badge of honor. We’re supposed to believe that stressed-out fury is a sign of a power and authority. It’s part of what intimidates us when we come up against someone who’s stressed and furious.

But stress isn’t a sign of power and authority. It’s a sign of an unhappy person who lacks the wisdom to manage himself (herself) well.

How I wish I’d known that all those years ago when Warren leaned across the table and let me have it!

Next Steps?

Here’s one practical idea: Do nothing.

Now before you say “Oh hurray, I’m good at that,” let me tell you what it really means. It means sit still for ten minutes every day and breathe. Let all thoughts go, and just breathe. Yes, it’s a meditation.  Find a quiet spot. No phones, no music, no family pets, nothing. Do nothing. Be quiet, be alone, for ten full uninterrupted minutes every single day. Ten minutes devoted to managing your mind every day is a great start, guaranteed.

You cannot improve your ability to manage your state of mind if your mind is running wild. You have to make your mind do what you want it to do, not what it wants to do. First, though, you have to get ahold of it.

Learn more about training your mind to improve your control of it. Take a class. Read a book. Try a guided meditation (Google “guided meditation” and you’ll find plenty).

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

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