The article was originally posted on Forbes Coaches Council.
You’ve likely encountered, and will continue to encounter, difficult people and situations in the workplace. But how you respond to more emotionally charged moments and conversations sets apart genuinely great leaders.
How do we best approach these situations with poise and a balanced perspective that supersedes bias? After developing leaders in professional services firms across North America for the past 15 years, I’ve discovered four key principles to help women leaders better handle emotionally charged situations.
1. Understand your role in the situation.
“Who am I supposed to be in this situation?” It may seem like an obvious answer—be the leader—but what type of leader may be best for this situation? That’s the role you need to fill for this moment
Understanding your role and responsibilities in an emotionally charged situation is crucial for you to guide the conversation. Think about your intent-impact alignment, body language and other factors that may contribute. It’s also important to recognize that the more senior your role is, the less acceptable it is to demonstrate poor behavior. You are expected to show up at your best, regardless of how your day is going or how you feel about anyone else in the situation. That’s why it’s lonely at the top.
The intent-impact alignment is about recognizing how you intend to show up, what you intend to communicate and how you want to be seen and heard. This is your intent. However, there is often a gap between what you intend and the actual impact created by your actions, words and body language. We evaluate our communications by our intentions, but others evaluate our communications by their impact.
To use my best example of this, imagine your boss passes you a client, but you’re already overwhelmed with work, so you feel like they’re dumping them on you. They intend to give you visibility with more senior partners, but you wind up feeling like it’s “project dumping.”
Aligning your intent with your real impact can help you maintain a strong executive presence in even the most emotionally charged situations. What is the impact you want to have in this communication? Think that through first to ensure your intentions align with your impact.
2. Identify the story you’re telling yourself.
What often creates emotionally charged situations is miscommunication and poor perspective. When encountering difficult people and situations, it’s easy to assume your perspective is accurate and correct. What story are you telling yourself? What do you believe to be true about the situation and the people involved, and how do you know what you think is reliable? What lies are you telling yourself?
If one of your more junior partners complains about not being invited to a meeting, they may not be aware the meeting had nothing to do with them. If you’re feeling negative about someone in an emotionally charged situation with you, does that feeling have to do more with you or with them?
• What’s true?
• What are the lies you may be telling yourself?
• What concrete proof do you have for this story?
• What stories or beliefs are you trusting at this moment?
• Where may you not have the most accurate perspective?
This reflection can empower you to de-escalate the situation. With that awareness in mind, you can start separating facts from feelings to find a greater understanding of the situation and a healthier dialogue.
3. Focus on the task, not the person.
When encountering difficult people and situations, it is essential to focus on the task or problem at hand rather than the person. Recognize that the reaction you may be having is not necessarily a guarantee of future experiences. Assumptions are (usually) red flags of a maligned mindset and can cloud our judgment. Instead, stay on a constructive path by focusing on the goal, strategy and vision, not the individual and their influence.
Where I see many female leaders find great strength is by leaning into the Titanium Rule. Instead of speaking to others how we want to be spoken to, the Titanium Rule guides us to speak to others in the way they want and need to be spoken to at that moment.
4. Equate ‘heel digging’ with passion for being seen and heard.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, someone may dig their heels in. When that happens, it can often cause a chain reaction of emotional responses. As the leader, this is a prime opportunity for you to show up with greater poise and empathy. When someone digs in their proverbial heels, it’s one way of saying, “I care deeply about this more than the rest of you may realize.” It’s also a sign that that person may not feel seen or heard precisely as they want to.
It’s an invitation to defuse the situation with more profound questions, such as:
• “What is the most important detail you want me to know right now?”
• “What are your concerns about this decision?”
• “Is there something you’re concerned about that we’re not discussing right now?”
Emotionally charged situations don’t have to escalate when we lead with empathy, trust the Titanium Rule and seek to understand the motives and positioning other people have in the situation. When someone digs in their heels, it’s typically because they fear losing something they value or not feeling valued. Understanding their motivation can help you find a solution that works for everyone.
Whatever the situation may be, you have the power and poise to understand your role, identify the story you’re telling yourself (which may not be true), focus on the actual problem instead of the person and create space for people to share why they care about the problem passionately.
Being a successful business leader is not just about achieving goals but also about fostering a healthy culture where conflict is handled with poise and perspective. You are leading others with a balance of creating an environment that allows them to perform at their peak while also maintaining a healthy well-being.