Kim Turnage

One of my colleagues brought the following question to a meeting of executive coaches in which we share emerging challenges and best practices. This question came from an individual he’s coaching.

“Sometimes during meetings, I find my ‘fight or flight’ response ramping up. I feel attacked by someone who is arguing or disagreeing with me, and then I respond in a way that others perceive as defensive or aggressive. I feel this is non-productive. How can I handle these situations better?”

I suggested he coach this individual to decide ahead of time that he will be committed to responding differently in these situations, then to use that “hackles-rising” feeling as a stimulus to initiate this sequence of responses:

  1. Breathe – Seriously…inhale, exhale all the way and inhale again before any words come out of your mouth (without audibly sighing). While you’re breathing do these things to reframe your thinking:
    1. Depersonalize – Don’t perceive this interaction as a personal attack. It may only be a personal attack in your own mind.
    2. Empathize – Try to put yourself behind the other person’s eyes before you respond. Consider how that person is feeling and how their feelings (especially feelings of fear) might be fueling whatever is coming at you from them.
  2. Ask – Let the first thing that comes out of your mouth be a question. Use questions as a way to help everyone shift gears. Carefully monitor your tone of voice and inflection. Ideally, aim your questions at understanding the other person’s perspective. Questions that start with the word “why” are often the best kinds for rooting out underlying issues, but in the wrong tone they have the potential to put the other person on the defensive. That said, asking a question … even if it’s just, “Tell me more,” or “Help me understand”… instead of defending your own position right out of the gate is a great first step.
  3. Listen – Really listen to what comes next. Don’t use the time to think of your next question or to compose your defense. Listen. See what you hear. See if it doesn’t help you feel more in control, more in a learning mode, and less in a fight or flight mode.

What about you? What do you do when you experience that “fight or flight” feeling? What works for you? Do you think the suggestion above would help?

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