Stress evolved to serve us in emergencies, like an attack by leopard, but can be counterproductive when dealing with difficult interpersonal dynamics. When a coworker takes credit for your ideas, when your child won’t take no for an answer, or when tech support feels anything but supportive, losing your cool doesn’t help. You can’t plan an effective communication strategy when your stress reaction overrides your ability to plan anything.

The August 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine features a quiz to help you determine when your stress has reached the point where you should seek a release, a point well before your cool-losing stage. The article then offers a three-step method for restoring calmness.[1]

I wholeheartedly agree with Step 1, remove yourself from the situation, take a break. (See Chapter 9 of Bridges to Consensus.) But what if you can’t? What if you’re in an important meeting? The article suggests an internal time out, such as picturing yourself “in a suit of armor with the person’s words bouncing off you.” I sometimes imagine a sort of transparent egg of protection around myself, even before I enter a potentially negative situation.

The article’s Step 2 is one I would modify.  Step 2 is titled “Seek Solutions.” No argument there. But you have to seek them when you’re ready to hear them. The article states that, “Venting…only fuels tension.” I agree that endless or excessively emotional venting is counterproductive and can increase stress, as well as negative emotions such as anger.

However, for many people, especially women, recounting the problem to someone who lets you know they heard, understood and empathized is a beneficial, even necessary, step to take before asking for help. Squelching this step or offering advice prematurely can also increase stress on the speaker and backfire on the listener.

If the venter’s interest for the moment is not advice, but understanding, statements about what she should or must do can feel like criticism, especially if they come before acknowledgment of the legitimacy of her feelings. So, when you are in the listener role, and you aren’t sure what the speaker wants, I suggest you ask, “What would you like from me at this moment?” or “Would you like my help, or are you just venting.

Step 3 is to “Find a Release.” The article correctly points out that the old saw of punching a pillow doesn’t have a lasting effect on stress. Instead, the author suggests that you choose an activity that has a definite beginning an end, such as a walk on a particular trail. And before hitting that trail, tell yourself that, by the end, you will feel calm and energized.

In summary, when you feel stress building, but well before you get to the point where you might lose your cool:

  1. Escape, physically or mentally
  2. Seek solutions when you feel ready to hear them
  3. Begin a well-defined release activity by telling yourself you will feel better by the end.

And, as always, I’d love to hear how this works out for you.

[1] “How Much Stress Can You Take, p. 148