My dear colleague Sheila approached as I sat in the back of the training room and asked, “Why do you look like you just ate a grapefruit?”  It’s true I was disappointed that her debrief of the activity she had just led didn’t seem to go anywhere, but ‘grapefruit face?’ I had no idea I was indicating with my face the disapproval I was thinking in my head.

Sheila said her feelings weren’t hurt, though she admitted my expression made her a bit insecure about what she was doing. But I was mortified. The last thing I wanted was to affect her confidence, yet that is what I did. The question is, why?

A sour taste

The embarrassing answer is that Sheila’s performance triggered a reaction in me that I couldn’t at that moment manage. Afterwards though, I realized that behind my thoughtless expression was a fear that I wouldn’t look good if Sheila didn’t ‘do good.’ This impulse led me to react in a way that I was unaware of and then regretted.

Yet I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in sometimes having an unintended impact on someone I care about and rely on. (Have you ever raised your voice to a family member? I didn’t think so.)

The crucial dilemma is how to be authentic in communicating difficult thoughts and feelings without damaging our relationships or making matters worse. The solution lies in being more aware of what we are feeling as we are feeling, which provides us time to respond without being immediately reflexive. But to do this we need to understand ourselves a bit:

We communicate all the time whether we realize it or not. And sometimes our true feelings erupt on our faces before our minds catch up. For leaders, this typically happens when people we depend on don’t perform as we expect. At that moment, something inside us is threatened. For some leaders, a sense of control is jeopardized; for others, it is about being afraid to disappoint superiors. For some, it is a fear of losing others’ respect, and for people like me, it’s about not wanting to look bad.

Yet to be effective, leaders need to regulate these reflexes or risk torpedoing the very people we rely on for performance, and who depend on us for guidance and support.

It’s funny; the majority of my executive coaching clients are really nice people who wouldn’t knowingly hurt anyone. But when something inside them is threatened their self-awareness disappears and they become spontaneously reactive (and disruptive). One client barks orders. Another takes work away from people and does it all herself. One becomes an annoying know-it-all. Sound familiar? Three different people, but always a similar, annoying reaction that serves no one well.

Is there a way out of this cul-de-sac?

Yes, but only through the conscious effort of healthy detachment. In short, if you want to lose your grapefruit face but support others’ performance, try practicing this:

  1. Identify a behavior that most triggers your ‘hot button’ reaction. The usual suspects include people being late or inaccurate, people being overly aggressive or passive, whatever. But select an aggravating pattern of behavior that hooks you.
  2. Think about what specific need inside you is threatened when someone acts this way. This might include the need to look good, the need to be right, the need to feel a sense of control, the need to be liked, and even the need to feel trusted.
  3. Over the next few weeks, do nothing different except become a better observer of yourself when you encounter the obnoxious behavior. This is like occasionally walking off the stage of your life and sitting in the balcony, or at least in the mezzanine.  Actually see and hear and feel your feelings but don’t do anything differently. If you need to yell or act snarky, go ahead, but observe yourself closely while you are doing so. This can truly be an education.
  4. For extra credit: As you improve your observation skill, anticipate when those irritating behaviors are coming your way, and pre-empt them constructively

When you’ve gotten better at observing yourself you will increase the interval of time between the undesirable stimulus and your reaction.  This is the essence of healthy detachment. It will come automatically. You won’t be able to help it. You will see that the other person isn’t really threatening you, but is acting out their own drama that you could choose to support in a constructive way or not.

It is impossible to decrease to zero the number of times we act in unfortunate ways when people aggravate us. But it is a myth that someone is actually ‘doing something to us’ without our contribution.  So we can continue to blame others for their misdeeds and stomp our feet that they aren’t changing, or we can choose to work on the one person we have the most control of — the one eating the grapefruit.© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008