Do you remember Olly Olsen from the 80’s children’s TV show ‘After School’ ? Does the phrase “Keep cool, till after school” mean anything to you?
Well this phrase has stuck with me throughout my life. And I am often found whispering it under my breath as I work hard to keep my cool with audience members who rattle me.
Who was it that got under your skin? Was it a colleague who doesn’t respect you, or a notoriously difficult client? Or maybe an industry stakeholder who makes it a life goal to question everything you say and do?
For me it was (let’s call her) Elaine, a senior leader from a Government Agency. I was working with her team on how to write clear and effective presentations. While learning the process, Elaine started to get flustered. Then annoyed. Then downright angry.
This is what it sounded like:
“This process doesn’t work!”
“Why are we doing this?”
“This is ridiculous.”
Oh dear. This wasn’t going well. I was also aware of how contagious dissent can be. Unchecked it can rapidly spread. Instinctively, I wanted to shut it down.
I was feeling rattled and defensive. I started to think “Elaine is challenging me. She is being disruptive. Why doesn’t she get it”?
Let’s be honest: I was also thinking, “I wish Elaine would just shut up”!
All reactive, defensive, and not particularly helpful thoughts based on my interpretation: “Elaine doesn’t agree with me. She thinks my process is rubbish”.
But, in reality I didn’t know what was going on with Elaine. I only had my interpretation of the situation. And it had resulted in a negative response. But what if my interpretation was wrong?
That’s important because most audience situations that begin to unravel happen when we lend meaning to a situation. We lose our cool because of the resulting emotions from our thoughts.
So what we need is ‘cool-keeping’ strategies that help us take a step back and view what is happening with a more objective lens.
Easily said but difficult to do in the heat of the moment, right?
Which is why I’ve developed a habit of asking myself how other, less involved people would interpret the same situation.
Back to Elaine: I pulled myself aside (literally – as in left the room) and had a wee word with myself.
“If I asked 1000 people what is going on with Elaine, what would the majority say”?
Would they say she is challenging me? Or that she is being deliberately disruptive?
Probably not. It is more likely they would say, “Elaine is struggling. She is finding the task difficult”.
Which is a very different interpretation. And more likely to be true. And far more manageable, because it changes how I feel, and what I do. It changes from a defensive reaction to a more constructive action.
So I went back into the room and thought about ways to take the pressure off Elaine. I gave her more space, and more time. I backed off. I left her to work quietly. Elaine got onboard. And I calmed down.
Old habits die hard, and it takes work to change them. If you easily overreact, try this process out first in less stressful situations. Like people looking bored – checking their phones, yawning. If you’d usually interpret these as signs of boredom, ask yourself: how would other people see it?
If you asked 1000 people what it meant when Tina yawned, what would they say?
Probably: “Tina is tired”. That’s it.
What this process does is provide the objective lens. Then you can act calmly rather than react defensively.
Channel your inner Olly Olsen. Keep cool. Till After School.