Years ago, when I was the publicity director for a book publisher, I traveled to Louisiana with a client who was filming a segment with a major news outlet. But a few hours after we began shooting, another television crew showed up unannounced from a competing network.
Immediately, the crews started to butt heads over who would get access. Our producer was so frustrated that he called members of the other team some colorful names in front of the client. Inside, I felt the same way. But instead of screaming and cursing, I excused myself and spent the next several hours making calls to studio executives. Eventually, we found a compromise that ensured the other network wouldn’t get the same footage. Months later, when we were shooting again with the same client, that producer was not given the assignment because of his actions that day.
Reacting emotionally to work stress almost always leads to regret — and can even sabotage professional advancement. And while it can be challenging, learning how to remain calm under stress is a workplace skill that will serve you well throughout your career. Here are five strategies to help you keep your cool at work.
Hit “pause” before responding
A quick, emotionally charged reaction will almost always result in more work, more conflict and more of a mess to clean up. The next time you feel yourself about to snap, take a moment and pause. Take a short walk, even if it’s just a lap around the office, and force yourself to think about the perspectives of everyone else involved in the situation. Reflecting on where your colleagues are coming from, and why they might disagree with you, will help you come back ready to broker a solution. Particularly if you’re a manager, it’s essential that your employees feel heard, respected and valued. The worst environment you can create is one where your direct reports are always waiting for your next blow up. When you maintain your cool, you can see the big picture and offer a helpful response, which not only diffuses the tension, but also demonstrates your leadership abilities.
That goes for email, too
Before firing off a response that’s dripping with sarcasm, or screaming in ALL CAPS, step away from your desk. Once you’ve taken a breather, write a draft and then read it out loud to yourself. Are there any unnecessarily critical comments? Anything you wouldn’t want your boss to see? If yes, then revise accordingly. If you’re still unsure, read it to a colleague who can help you gauge the tone and how it will be received. Remember: work emails should be concise, to the point and free of emotion.
Focus on the solution, not the problem
Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone is talking over each other, trying to interject his or her voice, but nothing useful is being accomplished? In these situations, it’s best not to engage — unless the thought of going around and around on a never-ending hamster wheel of frustration appeals to you. Instead, remove yourself from the tumult and focus on a way forward.
To do this, I find it helpful to have a “concentration point.” My company’s boardroom had windows with a view of a building under construction. When I found myself getting pulled into an argument during a meeting, I simply looked out the window and focused on the builders at work. It was the only way I could block out the noise and hear my own thoughts. Once you’re confident you’ve found a solution — or even if you have a good suggestion — join the conversation using a direct but even tone of voice. You’ll walk away knowing you stayed above the fray — and your superiors will recognize your constructive contribution.
Protect your time
If you’re constantly feeling wound up, behind on deadlines or under the gun at work, you’re much more likely to respond emotionally to conflict or mistakes. Part of keeping your cool is taking care of yourself by carving out “me time” and “task time” during the work day. At least a week ahead, maybe even at the start of each month, block off two separate hours of protected time each day from your calendar. They can be the same two hours every day or a rotation of times, as long as you save them completely for yourself.
Use the “me time” hour however you need to, whether scheduling lunch with a friend, sitting in the park or running a personal errand that will make your evening less hectic. If you don’t have time to leave the office, commit to at least closing your door (or, if you don’t have an office, popping on some noise-cancelling headphones) and unplugging for a few restorative moments. Listen to a song or take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed. Afterwards, you’ll be refreshed and focused.
During the “task time” hour, let your colleagues know you’re not available for any non-urgent calls, meetings or chit chat. Buckle down on responding to emails, completing any quick to-dos that have popped up during the day and addressing anything else that stands between you and your commute home. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish in a small amount of time when you enforce a no-distractions policy. Of course, urgent issues can arise at any time; if your focused hour gets interrupted, move it later in the day — and if you run out of time, take a few minutes before you leave at night to write down the next day’s to-dos so you can head home feeling organized.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Despite your best efforts to stay cool, inevitably there will be times when you feel emotional at work. Usually this happens when the stakes are high or you feel strongly about something — that you’re the right person to take on a big new project, that you deserve a promotion or that you’ve been treated unfairly by a colleague, for example. The best thing to do in those moments is prepare, so your emotional reactions and impulses don’t take control. Determine who in your company is best to approach, set up a meeting in advance and make sure you’re clear on your agenda. Write down your strongest points on a piece of paper you can refer to if needed — then walk in and hold your head high.