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Want to Manage Distress at Work? Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published on, under Jeff Miller's Forbes Human Resources Council column.

When I first started working at Cornerstone, my boss would send me emails and texts that ended with the phrase, "Let’s discuss."

"What did I forget?" I’d think, "How did I mess up?" I felt distracted, anxious, distressed and downright stupid. The feeling would stick with me for hours and wouldn’t fully resolve itself until I spoke with her — at which point she would assure me nothing was wrong, and that she just wanted to talk further in person. It’s amazing the world we self-create.

Distress is the dark side of stress. Unlike eustress — positive stress, which can actually drive you and help you focus — distress does the opposite. Psychologists call what happens under distress the amygdala hijack, where the amygdala (the emotional center of your brain) takes over your stress response from your frontal cortex (the logical part of your brain).

So how do we mitigate the distress response? By upping our emotional intelligence. I’ve taught hundreds of courses focused on emotional intelligence, and when it comes to distress, it’s critical to start by first acknowledging that it is present and then understanding what causes it. From there, we can figure out how to react to those causes so that moments of intense distress become less frequent and don’t derail you at work — or in life.

Everybody Experiences Distress Differently

To start understanding your distress at work, the first question to ask is: What causes me distress? Make a list and look for patterns. Is it usually caused by a specific kind of request from a client? Or do you experience it most when communicating with your manager?

For most people, what puts you over the edge into full distress can often be traced back to a single, repetitive question — in my case, it’s "Is someone doubting my competence?" When my boss texts me, "Let’s discuss," I immediately feel like she doubts my competence. Other common questions include, "Am I not lovable?" and "Am I not important?" — but it’s different for everyone.

This process of understanding each person’s repetitive question stems from the work of Dr. Taibi Kahler. Kahler is the creator of the Process Communication model, which allows you to understand communication more effectively by encouraging self-reflection, empathy and conflict resolution.

Once You Recognize Your Pattern, Recognize Your Behavior (And Start To Change it)

1. They Attack: Distress can cause people (me included) to lash out. An attack can vary from an insult to a weird look in a meeting. Instead, attackers should try asking questions. Rather than say, "You don’t know what you’re talking about," ask, "I don’t understand what you mean by X — can you explain further?"

2. They Blame: Another common reaction when someone feels distress is for their self-preservation instinct to take over — and they can’t do anything except throw other people under the bus or look for external factors on which to place blame. Blame is an indicator of an external locus of control (feeling at the mercy of outside forces).

Ending the blame game means shifting toward an internal locus of control, and it can be simple to start. For example, find one thing you could have done to avoid or improve a situation. That line of thinking not only keeps you from blaming; it also starts to engage your frontal cortex to help you find a more logical way to assess an otherwise distressing situation.

3. They Sulk: Rather than returning to work or finding a solution to the problem at hand, some people process distress by withdrawing and becoming apathetic. And it can be challenging for them to get feedback about this behavior because it’s a less outward sign of distress.

If your response to distress is to sulk, find a way to step away from work (or whatever the cause of your distress is), even briefly, and try to re-energize, whether it’s by exercising or talking to a confidant.

Remember: It’s A Practice

Communicating about what puts you into distress — and your response to it — can help those around you better understand your actions and reactions.

In the case of the comments from my boss, I finally told her, "When you send me emails that say, ’Let’s discuss,’ I feel like I’m doing something wrong and feel the need to get defensive — and it drives me crazy." She explained to me that she was trying to communicate something different altogether (in one instance, that we should discuss on Monday after I enjoyed my weekend). Now, I make a conscious effort to interpret her emails differently, though she hasn’t sent me a message saying those two words since.

The only person who can get you out of distress is you. But it’s a long-term practice, full of self-reflection. Soliciting feedback from managers and peers about how you are managing your distress can be a valuable tool in tempering its impact on your work.

Being able to understand ourselves in this ever-changing world of work (as corny as that may sound) is really important. Investigating who we are, what triggers us and what drives us can help increase our emotional intelligence at work, making us better employees, colleagues and leaders no matter the industry or role.

Image via Unsplash

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