You have probably been in a situation where one person raises the tension. And you have likely seen that it can easily become contagious.
You have seen how the nervousness can quickly pass to another person, then another. That’s how we’re wired.
We almost instantly pick up on the emotions of people around us and start to mirror it. Before we even think.
As this continues, pretty soon a bunch of people get all worked up.
And that’s exactly what the first person is focused on—spreading concern and anxiety. They are trying to get attention on something that is important. Spreading fear is a very effective way to accomplish that.
The question is, what is the best way to react?
Heat or Cool
What do you do when someone is starting to really freak out about some issue?
Do you quickly latch on to that energy? Maybe stoke the flames a bit?
Or do you wonder what the hell sparked the fire as you look around for a bucket of water?
If you’re like me, you’ve done both. And you have seen pros and cons to each approach.
But have you recognized that it is a deliberate choice? That you can choose to be a stoker or a calming force? And do you recognize that what you do—just like the actions of the original agitator—can have a big impact on others?
Let me explain.
Think About It
Science shows us that we feel first. Then we think. Often our first thought is to rationalize the emotion that just kicked in.
We can’t control our emotions. And we shouldn’t try.
But we can control the thinking part. Which is not unimportant.
This means that you can be a bucket of water person rather than a fanning the flames person. If you want to.
Stoking the flames can be fun and exciting and sometimes completely appropriate. Sometimes we need to raise the tension in a situation in order to get the attention of a larger group or the right people.
More often, though, remaining calm and thoughtful helps us to see a more strategic path forward.
Calmer heads usually do prevail. Let’s see how we can be in that group.
Filling in the Blanks
One important thing to do is to take a moment and see where you and others are filling in the blanks.
What assumptions are you making based on incomplete information? (And there is always incomplete information.)
That’s where a lot of fear and anxiety come from. We humans tend to fill gaps in information with our worst fears.
That’s confirmation bias at work. When we fear some sort of outcome, we will see evidence of it in many places, even if it’s not really there.
A good work around for this is to assemble the known true facts.
First, examine those facts as the only evidence of what is happening right now.
Then, and only then, look at the assumptions, concerns, and worries.
Now you have a way to triage the situation. You can figure out what assumptions may or may not be likely to be true. You can consider which concerns and worries may or may not be valid.
But you can do better than that. Because you can recognize that the assumptions and concerns often exist on a spectrum. Typically, they are not “all or nothing” scenarios. There is almost always a wide range of possibilities.
As you take a more clinical look at the situation, you can start to see what’s really happening. You can start to organize concerns and then look for further evidence to support or refute them.
You can start to map out a path forward.
Step Back and Consider the Big Picture
Zoom out from the micro issue for a moment. Look at what is happening in the big picture.
How does the issue look in context?
Here you should be able to see it’s relative scale and importance. More importantly, you can revisit the facts and the assumptions. Now you can fill in those blanks with some better guesses.
Once you look at a situation in context, the extreme cases seem a whole lot less likely. Because they often are.
Stepping back is also, of course, the better vantage point from which to chart a course forward.
But before you go forward, you may want to go back a little bit. You may want to see if you can figure out what the spark was that caused the fire. You may want to see how that situation came to a flashpoint. Understanding that can be important to context and full understanding.
Now, you can move along. And you can guide others.
Angry Mob or Thoughtful Group
Now, do you want to chase down the issue with pitchforks and torches? Or do you want to organize a thoughtful and considered response?
In all but the most rare cases, the latter is usually the best choice.
Here is where you can show leadership. You can control your personal response. Which can be just as infectious as the agitated response.
Help others to see the situation in context. Help them to step back a bit. Help them to see the chain of events leading to this point. And help them to look forward. To see where you all hope to go one week, one month, one year from now.
Taking a thoughtful and considered and decidedly non-emotional approach can change a “big deal” into a minor setback.
Most of the time, communications gaps and confirmation bias are the culprits. If the goals and vision are true and accurate, everything else is small potatoes.
You can help yourself and others by taking some of the emotion out of a situation and helping calmer heads to prevail. And the earlier this is done, the better.
Because what we will remember about the experience is the emotion of it.
We are emotional beings. But we are also rational beings too. Who can be cool, calm, and collected. And get great things done without too much bother on the nonsense.
Less nonsense and more great stuff. That’s the way to go.