Don’t get upset; do this instead!

5 minute read article Leadership   Technology   Agile   Wisdom Comments

Several years ago, I led a fantastic, smart, productive team of senior engineers at a large FinTech firm. The team worked on some of the hardest problems and built many of the common services and libraries that all the other teams used. I was proud to be their leader, and I learned a lot from all of them.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses though, and early in my time as the leader, I realized the team had some issues communicating with each other. Our daily standups were frequently tense, ending with one or more team members being upset. The same behavior would pop up during other meetings, and I was constantly dealing with the repercussions.

Because we had an amazing training team, I asked for my entire team to go through one of the courses they offered on communication, and yes, I went through it with the team. It was important that we all learned how to communicate with each other so we could focus on the work at hand and not on petty squabbles between team members.


The class was half a day, and after some initial grumbling from the team, we all settled in for some learning. While there was a lot of really good content during the four hours of the class, there was one tactic in particular that has stuck with me every since and that’s when things start to get heated and emotions start to rise, we should do three things: Pause, Think, Act.

Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it’s a play on what many of us were taught as children, to “count to ten before you say something you’ll regret.” In my opinion, there’s more to this than just counting to ten. It’s taking that pause to think about what’s happening and to get your emotions under control. What I was taught as a child was to take a break, but not really think about what was happening, intercept the bad feelings, and “do the right thing.”

It’s about being mindful, and no, I’m not gonna go all hippie on you and tell you to meditate or anything, BUT being mindful is important.

To be mindful is to observe and label thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body in an objective manner.

Zero to 60

A friend and I are reading and discussing the book “Crucial Conversations” at work, and today during our discussion, we talked about how quickly we can get caught up in the heat of the moment. One second you’re talking to someone and the next you want to jump down their throat for something they said or did. We go from zero to 60 in a flash, and many times we don’t do a great job of controlling ourselves. We let the emotions carry us, saying or doing things we later regret.

Recently, I was at a work gathering, chatting with a couple people when another coworker walked up and said something relatively innocent. It wasn’t the first time that person said this to me, but this time it immediately got under my skin, and I could feel the rage building. I was a microsecond away from blowing up at this person, and telling them where they could shove what they just said…but I caught myself.

I paused.

I probably took a breath.

I thought about what was happening. I thought about the reaction I was having. I thought about what I wanted to say. It was fascinating to be aware of this in real time.

The whole event played out in my head within a couple seconds. I took another breath as the pause continued.

I asked myself what good would come of me reading this person the riot act. I calmed myself down. I took control of the emotions that were building and said (to myself), “nope, not gonna do it,” and then…

I acted

by not saying anything.

It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth damaging the relationship, however shaky, I have with that particular person. It wasn’t worth damaging the relationship I have with the others that were in the room that would have witnessed a spectacular meltdown.

Pause, Think, Act saved me from an embarrassing situation that would have cost me the respect of those around me, and once it got out, would have damaged my reputation at the company, and that’s the last thing I want.

Make it a mantra

Every one of us experiences those moments of “zero to 60” emotional spikes, whether it’s watching four cars go through the intersection AFTER the light has turned red, dealing with people at work who say silly things like “looks like someone has a case of the Mondays”, being stuck behind someone at the grocery store who just won’t move from in front of the ONE thing you came to the store to buy, dealing with kids who just won’t listen, or maybe it’s that troll “friend” on Facebook who writes all the crazy shit that pisses you off and you feel like you MUST respond because otherwise democracy will fall and the end of the world will come. It happens to all of us.

I’ve learned over the years that I’m in control of my reactions whether it’s to the idiot driver who just blew past me at 80 in a 65 or the trolls on social media who always seem to say just the write thing to get under my skin. It’s up to me to decide to get upset. The person who said or did the “thing” did nothing more than perform the act of saying or doing the “thing.” It’s my judgement of the thing that determines how I’ll react to it and I have full control over that judgement (or lack of).

That’s not to say I still don’t get angry and annoyed, I’m just better able to take a step back and use the tools I learned like Pause, Think, Act. I make it a mantra when I’m in those situations.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s face-to-face, in a car, or sitting behind a screen looking at an email or chat message, the idea of Pause, Think, Act can save you from saying the wrong thing and making things more difficult.

Put this tool in your toolbox and let me know how it goes!

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