Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

Stop Stressing On Me!

Insulating yourself from stressed-out and keyed-up co-workers

Do you have stressed-out, strung-out and uptight co-workers running around your office? You know these folks – everything is a fire drill. There is only reactive, never proactive, behavior and they spray their stressed-out states on everyone and everything that gets within five feet of them!

An article in the Wall Street Journal on December 11, 2013 talks about the phenomenon of “secondhand stress.” It’s when you don’t have the stressful experience with your own situation, but you are close to people who are stressed-out and in constant motion, which can infect others with their stress. There you were in your office, minding your own business, having a good day, and all of a sudden the stress descended and you feel anxious and agitated, too!

This is a classic example of behavioral style in action. Behavioral style, as understood through the DISC tool (Dominance, Influencing, Steadiness and Compliance), dictates how we act in general, and how extreme our behavior can become in stressful situations.

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The four styles of behavior correlate to four aspects of what we choose to do—D for Dominance is about how we handle problems and challenges, I for Influencing is about how much energy we get from being with other people, S for Steadiness is about our pace and logical approach, and C for Compliance is about rules and procedures set by others. The four scales—Problems, People, Pace and Procedure – all have body language, tone of voice, preferred pace (fast versus slow) and words associated with them.

So, if you have a colleague who is high on the Dominance scale, these are aggressive, fast-moving, “get it done!” types of people. They think fast, move fast and want to get their tasks accomplished as quickly as possible. If you are low on this scale, or high on the “S” scale, which is about patience, logical thinking and taking the time to figure out what steps need to be put in place to get something done, you will feel very thrown off by the aggressive behavior of your colleague.

The high D and lower S folks rarely stop to take a breath. They move quickly and are always on the go. Of course, many bosses view this behavior as “good” and see these people as taking care of business and exhibiting a sense of urgency. This could be true, but there also may be times they are just kicking up dust and not doing things right or by the book. They may get to the end goal, but they may have overlooked many important aspects!

It’s hard to be a slower-moving person in the middle of a firestorm of activity. Most slower-moving people just want everything to stop spinning for a few moments so they can collect their thoughts. It isn’t that they don’t understand urgency; they would just like some time to digest and plan.

If you are working with someone who is fast to task and you feel you are getting bowled over all of the time, here are some things you can do to take it down a notch:

  1. Practice creating an imaginary plexi-glass protector around you. You can view your colleague through the plexi-glass but their emotional state can’t attack (and attach to) you. You watch them with detachment and interest, but you don’t get drawn into the furor.
  2. Be a strong communicator. If your boss thinks the fast-paced colleague is “getting it done” and you are not, be sure to send emails and update your boss about what you are doing and accomplishing. Keep a steady stream of your accomplishments in front of your boss.
  3. Take a walk. Close your door. Take deep breaths. Do whatever you need to do to keep your emotional sanity around your co-worker. When you feel the stress beginning to grab you, choose to breathe deeply or leave the room for a few moments to compose yourself.
  4. Have a prioritized list of what you need to do, and what’s important to you. Keep the list to 3-5 things each day. When someone wants to throw their own fire alarm on you, focus on your list. If you can help, fine, but stay strong about the priorities you have already defined.
  5. Practice positive self-talk: “I am calm. I define my reactions. When others get rushed and uptight, I become more sanguine and focused. I control my reactions.”

Identify that colleague you want to behave differently around this coming year, and commit to take the steps to lose the stress that doesn’t even belong to you! You don’t have to take any “gifts” that aren’t good for you. The stress of others is a gift you don’t want, and you need to mark it “Return to Sender” whenever it comes your way!

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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