by Joanna Chango

4 ways to build poise and increase confidence at work

How many times have you been sidelined by a critical boss or a mansplaining colleague? Did you simmer angrily as that person talked over you (or down to you), or did you know exactly what to do or say to address the situation?

For women, the workplace is often riddled with emotionally-charged conflicts like these, and it can be hard to face them with the calm and composure they require. Often these conflicts are subtle but sinister, especially when we let them slide rather than risk sticking our necks out to defuse them.

But there is something that can help: poise. According to my colleague Hal Movius, author of the book ResolveNegotiating Life’s Conflicts with Greater Confidence, poise is one of the three components of confidence.

Poise is about allowing emotions into your life rather than stifling or ignoring them; it’s about acknowledging and perceiving them in yourself and others which allows for better decision making.  This may seem counterintuitive, especially if you’ve come to associate any sign of emotion at work as a sign of weakness. But I believe that emotions can actually be a source of your strength.

With that, here’s how you can build your poise—and your confidence—at work:

#1. Let emotions happen, but recognize them for what they are

Naming the emotions that we feel (and observe in others) is empowering. Not only does the research suggest that it can help us feel calmer, but it may also boost performance. For example, researchers at MIT have shown that teams whose members are more sensitive to emotional cues tend to perform at higher levels.

Whether we’re up against an angry boss or a defensive colleague, knowing and naming our emotions can help us stay clearheaded. Here’s why. In stressful situations, people tend to follow certain patterns of communication. A good example is the cycle of criticism and defensiveness: someone offers a critical comment and the other person immediately deflects blame. These cycles are traps people step into without thinking, and all they do is prolong conflict.

But if we can recognize that someone is being critical (and that we’re in turn feeling defensive) we can choose a more helpful response, like curiosity (“Why is this person criticizing me and how can I respond effectively?”) or collaboration (“Hmm. Let’s work together to try to solve this.”)

#2. Pay attention to triggers of emotion

For women, relationship violations are a common trigger of emotion. A relationship violation happens when a woman is talked down to, made to feel less knowledgeable, pushed aside, or undermined in her authority. These scenarios are common and often cause emotional flare-ups ranging from defensiveness to anger.

Any time you feel yourself getting emotional (or notice that the other person is) it’s helpful to ask, “What just triggered this?” Whether it was a relationship violation or an act of injustice, it’s helpful to consider the root cause of the emotion you’re experiencing.

Also remember that emotions aren’t all in your head: they can be triggered by your environment and your physiology. If you’re hungry or the room’s too hot, for example, you may veer towards more unhelpful emotions.

Environmental sources of emotion include the temperature, smells, the time of day (people feel better midday), noise, and of course the weather (just think of the boost you get from a sunny day). Physiological factors include hunger, stimulants (caffeine can elevate your mood in stressful situations), sleep (if you’re well-rested, you’re more receptive to new ideas), and so on. If you’d like to know more about these, I recommend reading chapter five of Movius’s book ResolveNegotiating Life’s Conflicts with Greater Confidence.

If you recognize the influence these outside sources of emotion can have on your mood, you may be able to change them or at least make better decisions about when it’s a good time to initiate a tough conversation at work. For example, it’s probably not a good idea to hash things out with a colleague right before lunch. Or if you haven’t had a good night’s sleep, it may be best to put that conversation off for a day when you’re more rested.

#3. Beware of the four toxic emotions in yourself and others

A healthy range of emotions is good, but there are four emotions that are particularly destructive during conflict. Dr. John Gottman coined them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” because his research shows that the more often they occur in a marriage, the more likely it is that the marriage will fail. They are:

  • Criticism. This is a personal attack on someone’s worth or character, whereas a complaint (which is more productive) addresses a specific event or behavior.
  • Defensiveness. Defensiveness ranges from deflecting responsibility to making excuses.
  • Contempt. Taking criticism one step further, contempt includes sarcasm, mockery, and insults intentionally meant to hurt or embarrass the other person.
  • Stonewalling. When someone abandons a conversation altogether or becomes unwilling to listen or engage, they are stonewalling.

Notice that anger is not on that list. That’s because it’s not necessarily a harmful emotion if used sparingly and at lower intensities. Pure anger can actually move a conversation forward and promote problem-solving, but only if it’s not mixed with a toxic emotion like contempt or criticism.

So when you recognize these emotions in yourself or others, what should you do?

#4. Name what is bothering you and take appropriate action

You need a strategy for how you’ll respond to volatile emotions—when you’re in the room with someone who’s being very domineering or critical, for example. Most people react impulsively to stressful situations like these, but here are a few tips for responding more productively.

First, slow the conversation down. When emotions are high, it’s hard to think clearly and you’re more likely to say or do damaging things. You can always take a breath or suggest a break.

Then, be specific about what you see and name the behavior. You can say: “It looks like this is really frustrating to you.” Or: “You’re starting to yell, and that’s not helpful.” Or: “It seems that this has become a personal attack, and we’re not making progress.”

To avoid making already toxic emotions worse, we advise you to lean on these three little phrases:

  • “It seems that…”
  • “It sounds as if…”
  • “It feels like…”

Finally, try to stay curious and ask questions. If someone’s being domineering, maybe it’s because a particular issue’s very important to them. Ask them why. If you’re being criticized, recognize your impulse to defend yourself and ask the person to be more specific about their complaint instead. Can they describe what about the situation, not about you, is bothering them?

Finally, remember that emotions are a part of the human experience. They aren’t always easy to manage, especially when they’re negative. But ignoring or trying to suppress them can make things worse.

Poise can help us manage these powerful emotions, which in turn makes us powerful and builds our confidence. It puts us in control of our emotions so that they don’t control us.


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