If you’re anything like me, then your workdays can sometimes feel like playing Tetris while blindfolded — the next task always comes too fast and it’s hard to see how it’ll all fit into the carefully planned puzzle that is my schedule.
It’s in these moments of fatigue when I most often notice the little things wreaking havoc on my mood. A missed deadline by a colleague, a last-minute request by a partner — even a questionably sexist comment during my lunch break — can cause me unexpected anxiety.
When I find myself thrown by a strong emotion like this, the distraction from my actual work is palpable. And I know from experience that following a gut reaction doesn’t always lead down a smart (or fair) path, especially in professional settings. That’s why, whenever I feel an initial impulse start to derail my thinking, I press pause. Because as the saying goes, trust but verify … your gut.
Going Off Instincts
Gut reactions are the evolutionary leftovers from our fight-or-flight days, when humans dealt with the split-second choice to either eat or be eaten. But in 2019, gut reactions don’t often require an immediate response or action. Instead, consider them a signal to get curious about what’s happening around you. Set out to discover what’s really going on, and try your best to push aside any judgment-clouding bias (to the extent possible as a human).
Here are 4 tactics that I use with my clients when they seem driven more by instinct than rationality. These tactics can help you learn to trust — but verify — your gut. They focus not on fixing the person or the problem but on regaining control over what happens next.
Reframe the situation. Sometimes called “cognitive reappraisal,” this tactic asks you to separate yourself from the situation. Consider taking a walk or getting a glass of water, anything that gives your brain time and space to focus on something else. When you return to the situation, your brain experiences a subtle reboot that might uncover a new approach you had overlooked.
Give air to the problem, but then move on. For the reactions that prompt a diatribe of outrage (justified, of course!), consider setting a 5-minute timer for your venting. With a countdown in plain sight, you’re likely to realize that your gripes aren’t as productive for your energy and time as are the solutions. This approach will prevent you from spinning your wheels and help recenter you to see the larger project goal.
Engage in empathy. Try to see your reaction from the view of the person on the receiving end. For example, is there a good reason the person you’re engaging with is avoiding eye contact? Again, get curious. Consider what’s important to them, or ask them how and when they prefer to receive feedback. In such lights, bad manners can seem more understandable.
Be mindful. A tip out of meditation handbooks, simply “noticing” the thoughts running through your mind and how you’re feeling can help. Bookmark your favorite video on your phone for easy access when you might need them. When you have a gut reaction, you can pause, acknowledge it, and decide with intention how you want to proceed.
When you have a bad reaction to an idea, it doesn’t mean the idea itself is bad. Our brains (and guts) are wired to respond with instinct. But as 21st century humans, we have a choice to be more thoughtful and deliberate in our actions, especially when those actions have consequences on our careers and the careers of others. Use the tactics above to trust but verify your gut, and the rest of your body will thank you.
Also, for the record, remember that some people are just assholes. It doesn’t mean you have to be one too.