It happens more often than leaders would like to admit. They are in the middle of a crisis — such as a tense meeting where tempers are flaring and fingers are pointing — and the room is waiting for a response. All eyes are on you to see how you will react in this key moment. You want to rise to the occasion but inside, you are anxious and threatened. Your hands are sweating, and you can feel your face getting red. You are emotionally triggered.
Many people faced with this situation would blow up or get defensive because they are unable to think clearly, if they are able to think at all. But that’s not effective leadership. So, how can you make the shift from being triggered to performing optimally as a leader?
You can learn to perform at your best when you rapidly transform your negative mood or physiological state into a more neutral or relaxed state as soon as it starts by simultaneously applying all “muscles” of mental fitness.
People who are mentally fit are able to rapidly shift out of an emotionally triggered state or avoid it entirely in the first place. But to do that takes a lot of work and practice. Just like an athlete works out in the gym, a good leader develops and strengthens their muscles of mental fitness. I’ll use an acronym ABC (SEE) to describe the process of using these muscles.
• ASSESS: The first step is to assess your mood and notice that you are emotionally triggered. You can’t intentionally shift yourself out of an emotionally triggered state if you aren’t even aware that you are in that state. You first have to notice that your mood is, or has become, catabolic. This self-awareness sets the stage for all subsequent choices and actions. If you find yourself unable to fully describe what you are feeling, my comprehensive list of 850+ words to describe moods and thoughts can help get you started.
• BREATHE: The most productive thing you can do next is to calm your nervous system, restoring at least some of your brain’s thinking capacity. Exercise controlled diaphragmatic (belly) breathing to calm your physiology by following these steps.
1. Take as deep a breath as you can.
2. Hold it for a count of six seconds (count in your head slowly “one-one thousand, two-one-thousand,” etc.)
3. Exhale slowly.
4. Repeat as needed until your body begins to loosen up.
• CHOOSE: Now that your nervous system is calmer, you can take ownership of your mood and for changing the trajectory of what happens next. You use your mental muscle to choose accountability for shifting your mood.
These three steps are the foundation of training your brain to shift out of a triggered state so that you can steady yourself and perform as a great leader. Consistency is key, and when you are repeatedly able to flex each of these three muscles they will eventually work in tandem together. That athlete in the gym works out his biceps, pectorals and quads separately but calls on them all at once when performing in a sport.
If you can start to train these three muscles, you are starting to build self-awareness and mindfulness as you begin to take accountability. That is the beginning of the core work. You must have an understanding of yourself in order to be able to catch yourself in the five milliseconds you have to change your reaction in any given situation. That’s the basis of change, and by working these muscles, you are setting yourself up for that change.
Now, the ultimate change is achieved when you can master the second part of the acronym, SEE, but I’ll be honest, these next muscles are much harder to tone and requires even more mental athleticism. That’s because you actually change the way you see yourself or the situation by changing your lens. This process is something I work on with my executive coaching clients after they feel confident with the ABCs. It can be easy to get stuck on the next three muscles, which are:
• S: Spot your own perceptual lens by recognizing your thoughts and identifying the core thought driving your reaction.
• E: Explore alternative lenses and thoughts. Remind yourself that as true as it may feel, there are always multiple ways to see things. Be curious, flexible and open.
• E: Elect a more helpful lens (and thoughts) that empower rather than impede you.
Think of SEE like being at an optometrist’s office to get new eyeglasses. The doctor has you look through different lenses as you read a chart of letters on the wall on the other side of the room. Then she asks you, “Which is better? Lens number one or lens number two? Now how about lens number two or number three?” And so on. Ultimately, you choose the lens that works the best for you. It’s the same thing here. With these actions, you identify your active lens, explore alternatives and then elect one that has the highest likelihood of a better outcome.
The goal of working these mental fitness muscles is to understand that you alone create and control your reactions to situations — no matter what. It’s not the event that led you there, it’s not the person you are interacting with and it’s not even the circumstance of the situation that got you here. When you understand that you are in complete control of your thoughts and reactions and can switch from being triggered to thinking rationally and optimizing your leadership, you will consistently perform well under pressure. That’s empowering and the baseline for systematic change.