Ding! A memo or a piece of work news pops into your inbox just as you settle into your chair and pick up that steaming cup of morning office coffee. You click, then stop short. Your mug hangs mid-air between desk and lips as you register the update which, it turns out, is not so pleasant. Someone else got that promotion. Someone screwed up a task or a project. Someone turned down your proposal, your offer, your application. Someone sent a poorly worded message to the wrong person, excluded you in the planning stage, or blamed you for something that wasn’t your responsibility. Before you’ve recovered yourself and downed a hasty gulp of coffee, twenty questions and potential conclusions have run through your mind. Who made what decision? Where did this go wrong and why? What were the intentions here? By the third gulp a name or two is swirling angrily in your head. Your work plan for the day starts to feel like a distant memory, and before you know it an hour or two passes in which you’ve accomplished only a task or two in between your fitful mulling. As you mull, a story takes shape in your head about what really happened. Perhaps you’ve even snatched that coffee off your desk and jumped out of your chair, striding angrily down the hall in search of the office of your chosen culprit – and your workday is history. We’ve all been there.
Most of the conflict I deal with in my work is interpersonal, maybe even intergroup, but sometimes it’s the conversations with ourselves that have the biggest impact on our interactions at home or in the workplace. In his Corner Office column at the New York Times, Adam Bryant published an interview with Carl Galioto, managing principal of the New York office of architecture and engineering firm HOK, and probed Galioto’s insights about leadership and his own successes. In the interview Galioto highlighted the importance of “sweeping away” negative energy that can crop up in challenging work scenarios. What we decide to tell ourselves about a situation or a challenge can have an immense effect on how we respond, and on how the situation ends up ultimately affecting us. When it comes to conflict, self-talk can be the difference between explosion, negotiation or resolution. Read on for a few helpful strategies for dealing with negativity, and using self-talk to your advantage.
“I’m somewhat competitive, and coming up through the lower ranks I would see somebody getting a better assignment than me on a nicer project. I started to feel negative energy, and I realized that having negative energy about someone else getting something or being promoted sort of eats away at you. If I just focused on what I needed to do and didn’t worry about the other person, all I had was positive energy. It’s empowering if you can take all that energy and move forward with the task at hand and be intentionally oblivious to all of those other things. It lets you go ahead and get stuff done. It’s much easier to excite a team about the project as well.” – Carl Galioto
Galioto’s lessons about negativity remind us that we will only reap what we cultivate. It takes time and energy to keep talking yourself through those negative thoughts – even if it feels a lot easier in the moment. The first step is to notice that you are, in fact, having a conversation with yourself, and that you do have a few choices. As a mediator I know that feelings are a part of most conflicts. If not handled appropriately they’re likely to surface again later on, maybe even leading to a conflict blow up. It’s not about pretending that something didn’t upset or impact you or your feelings, it’s about choosing how you manage those feelings. And self-talk can play a huge role in this process.
Start by explicitly “seeing” what’s going on. “X, Y, or Z happened, and I feel X, Y, or Z.” It sounds simple, but you might be surprised to feel that you have instantly given yourself back some control over your reactions. Then decide the best way to go forward, with intention. Galioto discovered that he is able to empower himself and cultivate positive energy by channeling his focus onto what he wants or needs to get done. Maybe that works for you, or maybe you need a small strategy to get yourself past the intensity of your feelings. (It is said that President Eisenhower used to write down the names of people who were frustrating him, tear them up, and throw them in the trash – maybe that works to dissipate some tension, but in the end you might still be working with negative energy there!) Try thinking about your breathing, or writing down a list of the things you do want to focus on. And get your inner voices on board with the broader goal: this isn’t going to eat my day, this feels like a set back, but what I really want is to beat it and to invest in my best self, not obsess about somebody else.
In communication or conflict, self-talk can completely change the tenor of the exchange. You can talk yourself into feeling that someone has been a terrible-awful-no-good person, or you can remind yourself that they are human, too, and that there might be a part of the situation you aren’t seeing yet. Self-talk can encourage you to get increasingly reactive and explosive, or it can help you maintain a controlled strategy of inquiry and problem solving.
There’s a lot in life we can’t control, but we do make hundreds of choices every day. And in a conversation with yourself, you’re in charge, even if the original stimulus is beyond your reach. Your best bet for influencing those unpredictable external variables is to get your inner voices on your team.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.