This article was originally published on Forbes.com. Recently I was in a call with a coaching client, Nancy, who began the conversation by spewing problems, challenges and issues that had been weighing on her since we talked last. As she finished, she said, “Oh my goodness, I hope I didn’t bring you down, Shawn.”
Without much thought, I said, “You don’t have the power to bring me down.”
We both laughed, and then Nancy asked, “What is it that you’re doing that enables this conversation to not bring you down? That’s what I need to know!”
By asking that question, she had already taken two key steps in the right direction. She expressed an awareness of a skill she was lacking and a desire to learn that skill. Nancy acknowledged that she wanted to leave negativity behind by learning something new.
Catching ourselves when we are talking about something we don’t want, and instead describing what we do want, is vital to holding onto our personal power. Leaders can choose to expand their power by developing new skills; recognizing that decision is a key part of emotional intelligence.
We hold onto our own personal power when we recognize that we have the ability to choose what we think, feel and do. Choosing to stay in a positive mindset rather than be impacted by someone else’s emotional state is, in many cases, easier said than done. By building your self-regulation muscles you can avoid letting emotional hijacks — your own or other people’s — keep you from achieving what you want to achieve.
How do you do that?
First, get good at recognizing what you’re feeling in the moment. You can only make choices when you’re aware of what’s happening. Notice if the other person’s spew-fest is triggering anger, sadness or resentment. The act of engaging your observer-self in analyzing what you’re feeling helps you step out of the emotion so you can choose how you want to respond.
Second, be clear about your role in the conversation. As a coach, I know I’m not there to solve my clients' problems for them. I’m there to be a sounding board, to ask great questions to help them move forward, and to guide them to develop new abilities. That entails being present so people can process through their own emotions.
In the situation with Nancy, I know she’s a verbal processor who needs to talk things out to get clarity about how she’s feeling. Her blurting out, “I hope I haven’t brought you down” was the equivalent of her saying “I have been stewing in frustration, and I don’t particularly like stewing in frustration. I don’t want to bring myself down anymore!” But she had to verbalize her thoughts to understand her own emotional state.
Recognizing her comments for what they really were — a method of processing and a plea for help — allowed me to stay in a solutions-focused frame of mind while listening deeply to her. That leads us to the next step.
Third, choose to stay focused (or refocus) on solutions. Once Nancy had unwound, it was time to switch from listening mode to questioning mode. I asked, “What do you want to create from here, Nancy?”
Part of safeguarding your own power is staying focused on what the prize or the goal is and not letting someone else’s resistance or negativity throw you off. Asking questions that involve refocusing on the goal helps clear out resistance and generate creativity.
As I explained to Nancy, powerful leaders are people who have a clear agenda and they don’t let other people’s resistance derail it. Listen to people, and connect with them where they are. If they are in a spiral downward, don’t leave them there! Ask questions so they learn from their experiences and don’t get stuck in them.
When we give someone else our power, we are impacted by their emotional state. We get in the sandbox with them and we are no longer able to guide the way. When we’re self-regulating, we’re keeping our own power, and as a result, we become much more effective leaders.