Emotional resilience at work - Articles

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« 21. How to keep your cool with put-downs at work »

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. Author of "How to develop emotional resilience and manage your emotions".

Emotional intelligence covers many skill sets. One of them is the ability to manage your own emotions even in a negative environment at work.

Don't give your power away to other people's put-downs, snide comments or negativityOne specific emotional intelligence skill related to this is the ability to separate your own emotions from those of others, so you are not at the emotional mercy of other people's bad behaviour, moods or irritating habits.

I call this the ability to keep your cool.

The ability to keep your cool is an essential pillar in developing emotional resilience and emotional self-management.

There are many times when it is useful to keep your cool; one of them is when facing put-downs, snide comments or insults.

It is easy to get hooked into these, to let them trigger an emotional reaction and to arc up. However, this means that you are giving your power away to the put-down. A put-down is only a put-down when you let it be so. 

If only the old saying that, "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you", were true.

We would have far fewer fights, arguments and wars if it were. It is certainly echoing a profound level of emotional intelligence and EQ for us to aspire to.

Do put-downs still happen at work in Australia?

Yes! Sadly, put-downs are a part of working life. However much legislation is passed, I constantly hear stories of the types of put-downs people endure at work.

It isn't just at the junior level either.

I have heard some terrible put-downs in executive meetings. I have heard digs between men; and know of mean comments exchanged between women. Mostly, though, I hear such comments given by men to women in the workforce.

Only recently a colleague was telling me of the kind of snide, critical behaviours she has to endure as a female scientist among men at a university. Another told me of the demeaning comments the senior men in her government department make about the smart, successful young women there. And of course, many comments still abound in the workplace of a racist nature, and some of them come from customers.

There is a delicate balance between what is allowable and what isn't, between what is bullying and what isn't, and between what is funny and what is not.

I am in no way condoning bullying. Bullying is vile and destructive. However, my concern here is to admit that put-downs exist at work, and to help you duck them so they don't harm or hurt you.

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How can you deflect put-downs?

How can you let other people's put-downs and insults leave you unaffected? How can you cope with put-downs without getting upset?

Here are three emotional intelligence tips to help you achieve this and keep your cool. Keeping your cool would be a good indicator of a healthy emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence skills 1: Know it's about them and not you

Emotional intelligence and resilience are required if you handle difficult customers at work.

I've recently been working with the staff on an IT help desk. They want to provide excellent customer service but their customers keep being irate, demanding, and expecting everything to be fixed yesterday without regard for the workload of the people in IT.

The consequence of all this is that the IT people get defensive. In other words they let the other people's put-downs and negativity get to them.

One way to avoid doing this is to remind yourself that put-downs and insults are about the other person, they are not about you. The other person is distressed and has had a disruption in their day and needs to take it out on someone or something. You happen to be the lucky person!

It wouldn't have mattered who had picked up the phone or walked into their offices, a robot could have been on the help desk and it would have had put-downs and complaints too!

It's not about you.

Remember this when put-downs are coming your way and it will help you avoid getting defensive, or taking the other person's emotions on board.

Developing your emotional intelligence and emotional resilience in these kinds of situations can help make your work far less stressful. 

Emotional intelligence skills 2: Make a funny comment

Do you have the emotional intelligence to defuse a situation with humour? I know that not everyone finds this easy and you may have to think quickly.

I also know that you have to pick your timing and person carefully. You also must genuinely be laughing and not doing it with resentment or bitterness!

However, staying light-hearted in the face of put-downs and negativity is often a good sign that you've not got hooked into the other person's negativity. 

The sixth emotional intelligence competency in the Genos emotional intelligence model is the ability to manage the emotions of others. Humour can help you diffuse the other person's negative emotions too.

The people saying the put-down may hope they will upset you; so when all they hear is a light-hearted comment with no emotional pick-up attached, you keep your cool and leave them with no response. Sweet! You may even leave them laughing too.

I always remember an example of a put-down that a female lawyer got from a male colleague one day. He was very disparaging about the women meeting together and said to her, "Off to the knitting club, are you?"

Here are some of the possible responses: 

  1. "I wish I were but I have to go to the executive board meeting instead."
  2. "Yes, watch out for the needles."
  3. "Yes, I made $500 from the jumper I knitted for our client last week. Would you like me to knit you one too?"

All said with a big grin and no sarcasm!

They may not sound funny on paper but any one of them might have helped her keep her cool and the person's respect, far more than lecturing on equality in the workplace, tearing a strip off him, or worse still, retaliating by her own put-downs where he would be likely to leave saying, "What a bitch" and ply her with further put-downs later.

In my experience when people learn that you don't accept put-downs, you are less likely to receive them in future.

A funny response may stop you from getting upset and leave the other person with a clear message that such stupid remarks do not affect you. This is a practical application of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

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Emotional intelligence skills 3: Understand why

Now with our understanding of emotional intelligence we know that behaviour does not happen in isolation of emotions. Rather, emotions can drive behaviour. This applies to put-downs.

The value of knowing this is that when someone says a put-down or something snide, negative or stupid, you can keep yourself emotionally calm by taking a step back and considering how they must be feeling.

Insults and put-downs may be because the person is feeling hurt or threatened.

Angry comments may be because a person is feeling powerless and anxious. Powerlessness is a very common feeling behind customer complaints.

Distress is also a common emotion behind complaints, put-downs and demands. For example, this applied on the IT help desk. They were dealing with customers whose computers had stopped working, whose data was lost and who had become distressed as a consequence.

When people are being negative, nasty or trading put-downs I try to think about how they are feeling. Then I deal with them kindly and with compassion. This can feel so good!

Don't pick up their meanness. Just respond without it even touching you. Leave it all with them.

When you do this conflicts won't escalate so easily or so quickly and put-downs won't matter. This is the value of applying emotional intelligence at work.

How high is your emotional intelligence & emotional resilience?

There is so much that you can do to develop your emotional resilience and the E.I. Institute has a number of options to help you:

Worried that you don't have enough emotional resilience and that you need to develop your emotional intelligence more? Our unique, practical, 5-star emotional intelligence coaching package is available for you and includes the opportunity to have your emotional intelligence assessed. Boost your resilience now. Find out more here.