How to Avoid the Communication Danger Zone
Everyone has moments at work (and at home) where a person or situation sets us off, shifting our energy from warm and open to red hot. When we feel a strong swell of anger come over us, oftentimes it’s not the immediate situation that caused the anger, but rather we are being triggered by a vague resemblance to a situation from the past. When this happens, we enter into the Communication Danger Zone.
When someone or something makes us “hot-hot-hot,” we are faced with three choices:
1) React and express our anger. We react because we feel threatened on some level, and our “fight” instinct is set in motion. When this happens, we are not using the thinking (cortex) part of our brain, but rather the limbic center of our brain. The amygdala part of the brain is ignited, which is commonly referred to as the “storage house for emotional memories.” What we end up expressing is not rational, but rather emotional and without clear intent.
2) Shut down completely. For some of us, “flight” is our default. We avoid confrontation and prefer to sidestep an uncomfortable situation rather than enter into a heated exchange. This reaction is not conscious, but rather chemical. Our adrenal glands are activated, releasing a hormone called epinephrine, which leads to the release of the hormone cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” Our brain is attempting to emotionally regulate us to reduce stress and further emotional arousal.
3) Sleep on it. To see a situation most clearly requires us to be in an emotionally neutral state. It is nearly impossible to be emotionally neutral when our brains are flooded with stress hormones. If we consciously decide to respond rather than react, we allow ourselves the space we need to cool down, reflect and decide on the outcome we want rather than exploding or avoiding the problem. What makes this possible is time and space. Getting a good night’s sleep allows us to hit the reset button so we can see things more clearly, and problem solve more creatively.
The Sleep On It option requires self awareness and self discipline. If your tendency is to react in the moment, adopt these few simple go-to moves to help you short circuit your tendency to slip into the Communication Danger Zone.
- Put down the phone! Your cell phone can be a weapon. Rarely is it a good idea to tap out a communication when you are hot. You could say things you don’t mean, damage your credibility as a professional, or even hurt the other person with your words. Texting can be especially damaging since it is a one-way communication that is void of tone or clear intent. If you need to, literally power down your phone. It serves as a symbolic reset that can help you break the negative energy pattern you are in and give you the pause you may need.
- Do NOT hit send! If you are at a computer and reacting via email, you are more inclined to vent in a long, unproductive ramble. Writing can be a powerful way to organize your thoughts and emotions, but if you are writing raw, you are in a communication danger zone. Do not throw a grenade in the foxhole. Hit “save” and reread the email in 24 hours. Rarely will you send the communication in its original form, or even send it at all. If you are working on a laptop, close it and take three deep breaths. If you are in front of a desktop computer, literally get up and go for a 5-minute walk (ideally outside) to get some air. This will help change your vibration so you can continue on with your day.
- Do not push for an immediate conversation. If you are verbally inclined, you may want to say what is on your mind right away, especially when provoked. This is never a good idea. Give yourself a phrase that will buy you the time you need to cool down. Your phrase can be as simple as “Let me sit with it”, or “I need to think about this.” A mentor once coached me to say “This sounds like an important conversation, and its one I’d really like to have. Let’s schedule some time later in the week to talk about it.” I have personally used this phase a hundred times! In giving yourself time and a go-to phrase, you are taking your power back and relieving yourself of the pressure to react at that moment.
Regardless of whether you are a react or shut down person, the most important step is to identify the outcome you want before you communicate. This step is best executed when the heat subsides. Ask yourself, ‘what is the ideal resolution to this situation,’ then thoughtfully respond to drive this outcome. If it helps, reach out to an impartial friend or advisor who will allow you a safe space to talk it out. Sometimes it takes another person to ask us the question, “what is the outcome you want?” for us to become aware of it. Once we know, it is important that we do communicate it. This isn’t always easy, especially for those of us that “shut down.” But getting out what we need to say when we are calm, rational and focused on the outcome we want is important so we stay emotionally clear and have healthy, happy relationships at work.
The more we practice circumventing the Communication Danger Zone, the easier it becomes to be a masterful, composed communicator. And in modeling this behavior at work – or at home, we show those around us to do the same.
You can begin your practice today by talking a hot coworker out of the Danger Zone with a simple, “Do NOT communicate when you are hot-hot-hot…” and follow up with “What is the outcome you want?” Give it a try and see how you, and the culture of your workplace, shift for the better.
Written By: Delanea Davis, Managing Partner, Solstice Strategy Partners LLC
Delanea has two passions: solving business problems and transforming employees to become high performance teams. To do this, she analyzes how companies operate, identifies opportunities to improve operationally, then aligns teams around company goals. A critical success factor for improving communications from the top down, as well as the bottom up.
Delanea has 20 years of experience in Business Performance & Process Improvement, Corporate Strategy, Market Research, Organizational Psychology, Strategic Communications and Start-Up businesses.
Prior to forming Solstice, Delanea built and led the primary market research department at Travelers Insurance Company. Delanea also held strategic research positions at PERT Survey Research, The Hartford, and Affinnova. Prior to consulting, she worked for the Connecticut General Assembly working in legislative affairs.