How to Use R.O.A.M. Practice to Manage Emotions at Work
By Patrick Briody, guest contributor
If only I didn’t have this horrible feeling in my gut every time I think of updating the committee on this project. Why am I such a wimp?
Whether you’ve had exactly that thought or not, managing our emotions in professional life can be a significant source of difficulty. For some leaders, unregulated emotions are the main limitation on their upward trajectory.
The bad news is, of course, that eliminating difficult emotions is probably not going to happen for you anytime soon. The good news is that’s just as well. Surprisingly enough, research has shown our emotions play a significant role in decision making*. Perhaps less surprising, but easy to discount in a professional setting, is the finding that our emotions are critical in our ability to connect with and understand others**. So the challenge then is to learn how to live with emotions in a way that allows them to inform our responses to difficult situations without dragging us into stress reactivity. Mindfulness practice can be a very effective training in helping us learn how to do exactly that.
As researchers and psychologists have shown for years, our personality traits tend to point us in different directions when it comes to coping with stressors. In my experience with executive coaching clients, I’ve worked with leaders who have a strategy of denying and attempting to hide when they are angry or afraid, and others who, instead, are known as volatile and apt to strike out when faced with problems. Depending on the culture in which you find yourself, either of these strategies may “work” for you for a time. But it’s almost always at a high cost to your own health and happiness, if not your career. At some point, those who bottle up emotions and do everything they can to avoid conflict may be seen as not “tough” enough to lead through difficult circumstances or hold others appropriately accountable. Those who tend to "act out" may be seen as not in command of themselves and a risk when it comes to retaining and motivating the best employees. Mindfulness helps us exit the cycle of stress reactivity and the automatic and habitual reactions our personality type tends to lead us to, without resorting to either of these extremes.
Developing your mindfulness and applying it in the heat of battle, so to speak, takes commitment and a certain kind of effort over time. But you can experience some degree of greater openness and emotional intelligence to more wisely lead yourself and others by just beginning now.
Here’s a practice for bringing mindfulness into your day that you can use right now. Remember: this is a training and a practice, not a magic formula or a test you have to pass perfectly every time.
R.O.A.M. Mindfulness Practice
- Recognize when you're feeling stressed.
- Open to awareness.
- Allow whatever is here to be here.
- Move forward with wisdom.
1 - Recognize you're stressed. This step is simply to notice when your threat programming has kicked in. Commonly called the fight, flight, or freeze response, this is the survival programming we’ve inherited through evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t survive - so it isn’t our enemy. However, when we misunderstand it, we become caught in a self-reinforcing loop. As a leader, the biggest disadvantage of being caught in this loop is that it degrades your ability to think clearly and make decisions.
Just notice the experience of being caught or overwhelmed - almost as if you were a scientist standing off to the side with a clipboard. Oh, there it is, my heart is racing, I feel fearful, maybe even a little panicky. That’s all you need to do in this hugely important step; you are already interrupting the cycle of stress reactivity and bringing more of your brain back online. Just take a few seconds or so for this.
2 - Open to awareness. This step is about downshifting from high alert and opening up to your full capacity. In those first moments when your stress reactivity is triggered, it seems that your entire world consists of the threat. Like when you have a toothache, it seems the entire world is your toothache.
Feel the space behind you, around you, within you. (Yes, that may sound illogical; for now, just do it anyway.) Become aware of your peripheral vision as well. Feel a sense of continuity between the spacious awareness around and within you. Notice this spacious awareness itself is not stressed. This can be as short as 10 seconds once you’ve got the hang of it; if you have more time, rest here as long as you like.
3 - Allow. Now you’re positioned to see things in context without either exaggerating or minimizing. The practice is to notice the internal experience of physical sensations and mental activity — without personalizing them. So, you might say to yourself, there’s fear happening, there’s that thought again about my job, there’s a feeling of contraction in my gut. This isn’t a psychological or analytical process. In mindfulness practice, what’s most important is that we notice the actual experience happening now (sensations and mental activity); we don’t get entangled in the content or meaning. This step can be very short as well – no more than 15 - 30 seconds. If you have a mindfulness meditation practice, you could certainly spend more time on this step during your meditation session.
4 - Move forward with wisdom. Now you are better able to make decisions and take action that is in your own best interest and in the interest of your team, your family, and your community. You will now be responding wisely rather than reacting automatically. Trust in this capacity for wise and compassionate action.
You might be saying, “But wait a minute, there’s this ongoing, difficult situation, how do I deal with that?” You go through these steps each time you find yourself caught. The good news is, you don’t have to handle the "ongoing, difficult situation" (which in fact is a thought), you “just” have to handle this moment. Which is all that actually exists. By all means, plan, respond, strategize — move forward with wisdom. But just remember to hit the tennis ball coming at you now, not all the possible balls you imagine might be coming over the net in the entire match.
If you’d like to also begin to establish a meditation practice for yourself, there are many wonderful resources available. Here’s a brief meditation you can try to get started:
*A common misconception is that to make the best decisions, we should limit ourselves to a logical examination of the facts. However, if you’ve ever tried to make an important decision by listing pros and cons you've likely run into the limitations of this approach. In fact, even seemingly straightforward decisions require some sense of emotional salience for us to weigh the alternatives and decide. In the 1960s a patient of Antonio Damasio was deprived of his decision making ability due to injury to a part of his brain that is key in processing emotions. Decisions and Desire - HBR January 2006.
**Daniel Goleman and others have published numerous works outlining how mindful awareness of our own emotions is essential in developing the key leadership competencies of what’s become known as Emotional Intelligence.
Patrick Briody, ACC, is a certified teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a Certified Hudson Institute Coach. Patrick has taught mindfulness practice to hundreds of individuals through the MBSR program, as well as mindfulness programs he has developed for leaders and coaches. Patrick’s professional experience also includes a 25-year career in technology as a managing director, software developer, strategic planner, as well as an earlier role as entrepreneur and successful musician. His varied background helps him connect and understand the kinds of stresses we all are faced with in our personal and professional lives.
Patrick is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.
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