If you’re doing everything right and getting nowhere, maybe you should try this.
Word Count: 614
Reading Time: 1.3 minutes
We all have our nightmare moments, times when someone throws a phrase at us with such intensity that it stops us in our tracks.
“What are you going to do about it?” is one of mine. It’s most often delivered with a red face, popping veins in the forehead, and an accusatory tone. My usual remedies, paraphrasing and asking open-ended questions, saying “Tell me more,” or using authenticity skills can backfire in a tense moment like this, so I’ve learned to do something else.
I answer their question, then I give them something to do.
Anxious people need help, and someone yelling at me is someone who is very anxious. Remembering this stamps out any shame I might feel at letting them down, as well as any anger I might feel at being misunderstood. I picture an overtired little kid who is resisting sleep: The harder they thrash, the more obvious it is they need to rest.
Because I live around boats, I get frequent invitations to go sailing. I used to accept them all, and loved learning how to crew. Learning to skipper was a much steeper hill to climb. When I had the wheel in my hands, I could not make sense of the wind direction, the position of the sails and which way to turn the boat. It didn’t matter that I studied – and understood – the points of sail theoretically: I always froze when I was at the helm. And the captain du jour always started yelling at me. There is nothing quite like being in the San Francisco Bay, in heavy chop, flying toward one of the Bay Bridge pilings and having no idea what to do while someone is shouting “Think – what are you going to do?”
So I took a sailing course for women, which helped, but not in the way I thought it would. My big learning came when the instructor said: “Competent captains never yell.” Then she paused, to let her words sink in. Turns out everyone in the class had been yelled at by a captain. Incompetent captains, who had pushed us beyond our comfort zone, then freaked out and started screaming. “Yelling is a sign that the captain is anxious, and out of his comfort zone. A competent captain, seeing that a crew member is over-stretched, calmly relieves them.”
I went sailing soon after that. I took a turn at the helm, again staring down a Bay Bridge piling. I again got muddled and couldn’t figure out what to do. The captain started yelling at me, this time saying “You know what to do, do it!!” and I thought: “A competent captain would relieve me, but this is not a competent captain. He must be extremely anxious.”
What I said was this: “You’re right, I do know what to do. I’m removing myself from the helm and turning it over to you. I want you to steer us around this piling.” And I walked away from the wheel, letting go of it just as his hand grabbed hold.
When someone is anxious, they can’t reason well. But they can do something.
And doing something helps them calm down. When someone is yelling at you, it’s tempting to think you are the problem, or that the person yelling is the problem. Anxiety is the problem.
Here are the steps again:
1. Explain what you are doing, step-by-step.
2. Give them something to do.
And let me know how it goes for you. I love hearing your stories.