We all have an internal sense that there is a binary choice when confronted with a threat or an uncomfortable situation. This is known as the fight or flight response. When feeling threatened by people or things that create a sense of danger, we choose to fight and take on the threat or depart – to live another day.
The co-worker who insults and bullies their way through conversations and situations can viewed as a threat to our peace of mind. A boss who berates members of the team regularly to prove his or her point in team meetings can cause us to feel nauseous about the climate they are creating at work and the concern over the possibility that we might be their next target. As creatures with nervous systems triggered by a pituitary gland that has been honed by thousands of years of evolution, whether we are gearing up for a battle or looking for the nearest exit – those feelings are bound to cause a physiological reaction.
However, your choice of being proactive or reactive, can positive or negatively change the trajectory of your career as well as your heart rate.
Granted, there will be risks associated with your choice, whatever it may be. When you were younger and you spoke your mind at home or in elementary school, if it meant that you and your siblings were grounded or the whole class had to go without recess, you learned about consequences. You may not have been the most popular kid that week, but you chose to take a stand. The more educated, thoughtful, and strategic you are about the risk, the better you can create a plan of action that is most beneficial for you.
Below are a few tips that I use to help frame up the situation for the best outcome possible. Choosing just one can help you successfully navigate uncomfortable conversations and situations:
- Not everyone will like you: this is something my mom always told me. As an adult, taking the high ground and choosing the option that you know is the right thing to do can help you build a career bridge to better things. However, knowing when to speak up and when not to open your mouth is a key skill. If staying silent and not speaking up directly impacts you, step up to the plate with confidence and courage. Have the courage of your convictions.
- It can be all in the delivery: How you deliver the message can matter as much as what the actual message is. Being able to respond in a professional and tactful manner even if you are coping with an internal and possibly emotional response at the same time is necessary for the workplace. It is a good rule of thumb to be courteous and respond “I would rather not have this conversation,” and walk away. Basic courtesy in the face of negativity will give you the power to maintain control.
- Tell the truth: Be aware of your timing as well as who is in the room. Tact and digression are useful skill sets when communicating honestly. Being tactful and discreet means having a sense of how your message will land with others.
- Be aware and prepare for the consequences of speaking up: Taking action should also require you to forecast the cost. There can be some political fallout. Don’t let it take you by surprise or derail your efforts. Anticipate both the up and downside of your words and actions. Ask ‘What is the worst thing that can happen if I do/say this?” And then plan accordingly.
- Timing is important: While not everyone is patient, everyone can develop patience. When you are thinking about what acting might cost, think about what waiting might cost as well.
When the impulse to fight or flee comes on, that actual moment can be measured in nanoseconds. Develop the habit of pausing and take a deep breath before speaking (S.A. Suck Air). You can’t talk when inhaling and the pause allows you to remember your strategy and the words or actions you want to use at this moment. Be intentional when deciding whether to stay or go.