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Mary and Jason were walking out of a client’s office after a difficult meeting. They felt exhausted after having worked on a complex proposal all week, staying late into the evening most nights, rehearsing the presentation multiple times and preparing for any difficult questions. They thought they had all bases covered. All went well until the end of the presentation when the client asked a tricky question. It took them both by surprise and, being unprepared for it, Mary and Jason stumbled over their response. As they walked out of the meeting room Mary quipped “we could have handled that better”. Jason lost his cool, became emotional, then defensive, and finally resorted to blaming her for the stumble. She was shocked. She is no pushover, and can stand her ground, but this outburst was unwarranted, in her view.
Mary could have lashed out at the injustice of his response but she kept her cool while remaining quietly and firmly assertive in her response. “Okay. That’s interesting you feel that way. I’m going to have to take some time to think about what you’ve just said and maybe we’ll catch up tomorrow to discuss this” she replied.
How could Mary have remained so calm? She can be an emotional person too, and had discussed how to keep her emotions in check with her mentor in previous situations when she lost her cool. Her mentor suggested she practice two key strategies. The first was to recognise that if you feel uncomfortable about a situation you don’t have to respond straight away – it’s fine to take time out to cool down the situation. Mary had never considered this before, but it made sense to take a break from a highly-charged situation. The second strategy was to put herself in Jason’s shoes for a moment and look at the situation from his perspective – why was he behaving in this way? Perhaps he misunderstood her intentions, perhaps he was over-sensitive to criticism that day, possibly he was sleep deprived after long hours in the office and being woken at 5:00 AM each morning by his young baby boy. This helped Mary develop a sense of empathy with Jason.
The next day they both reconvened to discuss what happened in a more rational and calm way – they talked through what went well that they should build on for any future presentations, and what went wrong from which they could learn. Mary offered to send an email to the client thanking them for their time, and clarifying the answer they had stumbled over the previous day. She also explained to Jason how she felt when he lashed out unfairly. Jason apologised for his outburst, agreed with Mary that neither of them were individually to blame and promised to keep his emotions in check in future. Tackling the issue in this way enabled both of them to re-establish their positive working relationship and move forward.
The next time you feel like your emotions are about to take over try practicing these two techniques. Often taking time out even for a brief 10 minutes or so can break the tension and create a sense of calm. Developing empathy is also a much more powerful leadership behaviour than lashing out. With practice you’ll master the technique of keeping your emotions in check and develop a reputation for a mature leader who stays cool under pressure.