Stay calm, cool and collected in the face of provocationI wrote a version of this article for Quartz a while back, about one of my favorite ways to stay calm and focused while dealing with difficult situations. The technique is called “distancing”, and it’s so quick and easy that within seconds it helps me think more clearly and wisely, even when I’m uptight or upset about something that’s happening. In fact, watching the 2016 US Presidential debates, I’ve been reflecting that the only way that I could handle the kind of personal attacks we see on screen would be to use this trick. So I thought you might find it useful too, if you want to remain at your best under pressure – whether or not you’re in front of a televised audience of millions.

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One Sunday afternoon, Nancy, an executive in the tech industry, got a call from an irate colleague. She’d made a business decision that he didn’t approve of, and his response was to shout and curse at her over the phone: “You’re so stupid. What an idiotic thing to do. You stupid ****.” He plowed on without pausing to let her speak, with barely a breath between insults. It was the kind of onslaught that would have even the most centered among us rocking backward on our heels.

But Nancy kept her cool in the face of his anger. “I started making a tally of the number of times he used each rude word–making a little mark each time he said ‘stupid’ for example,” she told me, a small smile on her face. “He said ‘stupid’ 27 times.” Keeping the tally allowed her to get some emotional distance from his verbal attack, which helped her stay calm.

“When he finally stopped talking I simply told him politely why what I’d done was in fact the right thing,” she recalled. He was floored by her composure. “I think he’d really hoped to knock me sideways, but I was fine.”

Clearly, Nancy has a black belt in the art of staying rational in the heat of the moment. It’s a useful talent if you’re a Presidential candidate, obviously. But it’s useful for anyone in the working world, which places a premium on cool-headedness even when tempers flare.

And while it’s not always easy to achieve emotional distance, it is possible to teach yourself this skill.

First, it helps to understand our brain’s instinctive reaction to anything that poses a threat to us. When we’re confronted with any kind of threat–whether it’s an angry grizzly bear or an unfair performance review (or a person shouting insults at us in front of an audience of millions)–our brains leap to our defense with a fight, flight or freeze response. That’s helpful if we need to avoid a brutal mauling. But kneejerk fight-flight-freeze defenses are less useful in working life, since they tend to look a lot like immature aggression, avoidance or sulking. And when we’re on the defensive in this way, research has found that we have less activity in our brain’s prefrontal cortex – the seat of our more sophisticated cognitive processes, like conscious reasoning and self-control. So no wonder it’s so hard to be at our best when someone is criticizing us. If their comments bother us at all, there’s a risk that part of our intelligence has effectively gone offline while our brain focuses on ways to keep us safe.
So if we want to respond in a way that we’ll be proud of, we need to try to dampen this neurological threat response as far as possible. And this is where the news gets better, because studies show that we’ve got a good chance of achieving this if we adopt what’s known as a “distanced” perspective – that is, if we imagine ourselves looking at the difficult situation that’s unfolding from a distance. Even in the midst of the bad thing that’s happening, this allows us to think more clearly and keep our best selves within reach.

And that’s what Nancy was doing when she decided to track her colleague’s vocabulary. Instead of being the target of his invective, she stepped back and assumed the position of an amused (albeit horrified) onlooker.

Various versions of this approach has been tested by Ethan Kross, director of the University of Michigan’s Emotion and Self-Control Lab. In one experiment, he and his colleagues gave a group of 89 volunteers the Trier Social Stress Test, where participants have to prepare and deliver a speech to an impassive panel about why they’re an ideal fit for their ideal job. The Trier test is designed to induce stress, and it’s proven to be strangely reliable in provoking anxiety among even the most confident of people.

After the volunteers had prepared the speech, but before they’d given it, they were given a few minutes to reflect on their anxiety. One group was asked to consider the question, “Why am I feeling this way?” A second group was instructed to distance themselves by commenting on themselves in the third person: “Why is [first name] feeling this way?”

When participants finally spoke in front of the panel of impartial judges, the second, “distanced” group received higher ratings on their performance. And they felt better, too. Researchers found that they expressed less negativity both before and after their speech.

So when it comes to work stress, it’s strangely helpful to pretend you’re someone else.

Here are a few proven tactics for adopting a distanced perspective:

  • Talk to yourself. Instead of saying to yourself: “I’m worried about this afternoon’s meeting,” try “You’re nervous about this afternoon’s meeting.”
  • Travel forward in time. Ask yourself: “What will I think about this a month from now, or a year from now?” This simple question can often help you put your problems in perspective.
  • Pretend you’re an impartial observer. Think about what someone else would say if they were describing the situation from a neutral perspective, for example that of a stranger stumbling upon the scene.
  • Call upon your “best self.” Think about the person you are when you’re at your most compassionate and wise, and ask yourself what that “best self” would say about the situation at hand. This twist on the distancing approach allows you to tap into your own past experiences handling stressful situations.
  • Advise a friend. Gain some distance by asking yourself, “If I were giving advice on exactly this situation to a friend of mine, what would I say?”

This is not an exhaustive list, but I have seen all of these techniques work. It helps to experiment until you find your own favorite go-to distancing tactic – one that’s easy to remember when you run into trouble.

Doug, a CEO of a retail business, says he finds it most helpful to “imagine that I’m observing the situation from the outside, looking in. I ask myself what I’d advise someone else if they were the CEO.”

Chloë, the operations director of a fashion business, says she asks herself: “What would my ‘best self’ say about this when looking back on this in a week’s time?” With that question, she’s combining at least two of the distancing techniques listed above—shifting the time frame and imagining the wisest version of herself.

Distancing helps to reduce the threat response in your brainThese kinds of distancing tactics can help us even after the immediate threat has passed. Research finds that people feel less worried when they look back upon a recent unpleasant event if they describe it as an observer would have seen it; learning how to use distancing also seems to have a lasting beneficial effect, making it easier for people to stay calm the next time something stressful happens. That might explain why Nancy is one of the happiest and most balanced people I’ve ever met—despite her short-tempered colleague.

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Try it for yourself and let me know if it helps you stay calm in the face of everyday provocations. I’d love to hear what distancing questions work best for you, whether you’re dealing with colleagues, family or the rough and tumble of the political world!

  • DJ

    Umm, by having a wholistic understanding of life, how the world works, and God who created it. He cares, and is involved in my life. I am changed and renewed by Him constantly.

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