Every once in a while I work with a client who amazes me. The person I’m speaking of is Chris Fralic, who told me an entertaining story of what it took to get fiber Internet into his office. You can read all the details concerning his Internet odyssey here to get the full picture.
The lesson from his story is profound. The simple premise is that Chris was engaged with a service-providing company, and things were going about as bad as one can imagine. It had turned into a customer service disaster in which the natural reaction for most people would be one of anger. However, what I liked about Chris’ approach is that instead of following the instinct of becoming more upset, he did just the opposite. He utilized humor to de-pressurize the situation, and through this behavior achieved a better outcome than he would have otherwise had.
There are two concepts I learned from this exercise:
1. In difficult situations, it pays to consider what kind of reaction will yield the best results.
This is harder than it sounds. Typically, when we feel threatened or angry, the ancient part of our brain kicks in, and we are subject to what I call an “amygdala highjacking.” The amygdala is the part of the brain that alerts the body to spring into action, resulting in a series of chemical reactions which increase heart rate and release testosterone, kicking aggression into high gear.
The presence of aggression in our relationships can hinder us from a more skillful way of acting. Tweet this
Although critical in a survival situation, the presence of aggression in our everyday relationships can become a hindrance, blinding us to a more skillful way of acting. Anybody in business who’s been “standing in the fire”—someone who’s exposed to an extraordinary amount of stress or has faced threatening situations can probably tell a story or two about how they behaved in a way that to this day makes them cringe and look back wondering who that person was. This is a fair question to ask because when you have been hijacked by the ancient parts of your brain, you do become a very different person than how you would usually describe yourself.
To avoid this, we need to be in a mindful state. To achieve this mindful state, we need to give ourselves breathing room—which is the time and space to think clearly about what would be best. This is exactly what Chris did after one year of trying to get Internet service installed. Instead of creating more pressure, he gave it some thought, then leaned in, giving his customer service nightmare positive fuel to push through to the end.
2. Good things happen when we are skillful at embracing the counterintuitive.
When we get angry, we’re stuck in a world of reactivity which rarely yields the best answers. However, when we act in a counterintuitive way, it opens the door to new possibilities—and new solutions. Counterintuitive thinking is often opposite to what would seem obvious or natural or what people would expect in the situation. It’s the idea that instead of spending your energy fighting the problem, you actually allow yourself to let it go, which in turn allows you to view it from a new perspective which can bring you closer to solving it. Another powerful effect is it silently frees people around you by releasing tension, which can have a very powerful impact on personal and professional relationships in all areas of your life.
Incorporating Counterintuitiveness in our Professional Lives
It’s not uncommon to run across a situation where a team member has made a mistake. For instance, a team member has emailed a sensitive report to the wrong person, and the person on the receiving end alerts you to the problem. As a senior level manager, the natural reaction might be to react negatively with your comments towards the team member, causing that person to feel uncomfortable. However, negativity with the intimation of consequences rarely brings out the best in people.
A more skillful choice is to spend some time thinking about what happened before approaching the team member to see if there’s better way of looking at it. The brain has evolved an ability to come up with more optimal responses if we let it. Often all it takes to overcome a reflexive negative reaction is to give your brain time. If you avoid reacting instantly, your brain will kick in to help you find more skillful ways of reacting to challenging situations.
The brain has evolved an ability to come up with more optimal responses if we give it time. Tweet this
When you feel more relaxed, you could call the team member in for a discussion. One possible reaction would be to say, “Hey, we’ve got something to celebrate. You made your first mistake. We all make mistakes on the way to becoming exceptionally good at what we do. I want to celebrate this with you because it’s the first step on the way to ensuring you become one of the best members of our team.”
A team member will not expect this reaction if they know they’ve done something wrong. Your positivity will probably make the person feel surprised. It will also release a lot of tension you might have had between you. By diffusing tension with this counterintuitive response, it will increase the likelihood that they’ll do better next time, which is a more desirable outcome for both you and the team member. By approaching a problem this way, you are repairing trust and helping this person make wiser choices down the road.
Personal Relationships: A Place to Learn
Our personal relationships are a place where we can reap the largest rewards if we practice counterintuitiveness skillfully. In a relationship with a partner or a spouse, you have a safe haven to learn and practice counterintuitive reactions, yet it can also be challenging. The reality of these relationships is they’re loaded with triggers that set off behavior patterns which almost always run on autopilot. It’s the situation where your partner might say something or behave in a certain way, and it gets you red hot mad and triggers the highjacking response in a very strong way.
A relationship with a partner can be a safe haven to learn and practice being more counterintuitive. Tweet this
As an example, let’s say your partner has a habit of losing things. Not just once, but over and over. You might think, “I can’t believe she’s lost the key again.” If you say this to her, she’ll probably feel hurt. So when this happens, you can use this setting to train yourself to be more counterintuitive and achieve a happier situation with your spouse. Instead of getting mad that yet again the key is gone, give yourself some time to come up with the optimal response. Instead of reacting in a resentful way, you could simply say, “It must feel very bad for you to have lost that key again.” This will be simple but effective with anyone you are close to, and then you’ll find ways to practice it in your other relationships as well.
Next time you find yourself getting angry, think about how a skillful response can rise above the noise. When people expect you to be mad and then you react in quite the opposite way, they’ll be surprised and will tend to respond in a more positive way themselves. This is why counterintuitive thinking becomes a unique tool you can use to help deepen relationships which otherwise would be dicey.
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