Need to practice self-control? Get a job waiting tables.
Several years ago, when my husband and I owned a café, I had a customer become irate when his favorite breakfast food wasn’t on the menu. Clearly, he was upset about other troubles; there’s no way anyone loves raisin bread that much. But I saw how easy it is for people to take out their frustrations on waitstaff. When it comes to curbing your impulses, nothing prepares you more than snarky diners. I learned to be pleasant even when others don’t seem deserving, which has come in handy at my corporate job, too.
Self-control is defined by Psychology Today as “the ability to subdue our impulses in order to achieve longer-term goals.” I like to think of it as maintaining a standard, in spite of what’s spiting us. First Lady Michelle Obama said it best, “When they go low, we go high.” In other words, don’t lose it, even when you’re provoked.
This may all seem easier said than practiced, but it is possible to override your instincts in difficult moments. Here are some tips:
1. Remember who’s in control.
You! I’m most likely to lose my cool when I feel pushed into ideas, projects, or situations. I have to remind myself there will be multiple priorities and I won’t always get to vote on which opinion prevails. Managing yourself through the things you least want to do is one of the greatest forms of self-control. Whether that’s outside of work—like exercising or eating healthier—or at work, when you’re not enthused about the project ahead. True willpower is being internally motivated to get past your feelings. While you may never be excited about that assignment, new routine, or whatever it is, you can discipline yourself to get in the right mindset to do it.
2. Know what pushes your buttons.
Hate when someone questions your logic or contradicts you? How about when people don’t say “hello” in the breakroom? We all have different triggers and if you think back on what sets you off, you may find a pattern. My friend Hannah had a coworker who would cut off others by saying, “Let me stop you right there.” He did it daily, it seemed, and while he meant no harm, Hannah realized that his interruptions were preventing her from sharing complete ideas with their team. In response to him, she started saying, “Let me first finish this thought” and continuing with her point. Like Hannah, once you recognize the scenarios that provoke you, you can better prepare for when they come up.
3. Plan your responses.
Write what bothers you in one column, and in the next, what the best version of yourself would do when it happens. My colleague Derrick strongly dislikes when people do not get back to his emails within two business days, and he started a practice of not responding in turn. From the outside, this seemed petty and didn’t help his interpersonal relationships. We were talking through his frustrations and I reminded him that there are many legitimate reasons someone could be delayed. His intolerance was standing in the way of getting work done, so I suggested he reply something brief and positive like “It’s great to hear from you,” and moving on. By using simple, automatic responses to your most common triggers, they will eventually become your default.
4. Acknowledge your frustration.
Validate your feelings by acknowledging that you have them. First, establish an internal narrative about what’s happening and why. Ask yourself: “What am I really upset about—is it a person, a process, or something else?” “Have I felt this way before?” “What helps me?” In many cases, this personal dialogue can resolve your frustrations. At times, it’s necessary to communicate your feelings to others.
My colleague Lenore is a great example. Lenore called me and said matter-of-factly, “Yesterday I felt that you blew me off when I asked you about the status of the project. You turned it into a joke, and that’s upsetting because you don’t seem to do that to anyone else.” This hurt to hear because I think the world of Lenore and didn’t realize I had taken our closeness for granted. I needed to know my relaxed approach was sending signals to Lenore that her questions weren’t important. She taught me a lesson about getting your truth out there, and I remember this whenever I’m on the other side of that discussion.
When I’m under pressure or feeling overworked, I’m most susceptible to losing my composure. We can’t avoid every difficult circumstance, but we can build our resilience to weather the imminent storms of the workplace. Go high when others go low by keeping sight of the big picture, knowing your triggers, planning your responses, and voicing your concerns.
Natasha Miller Williams is vice president of diversity and inclusion for Nielsen. Connect with her on LinkedIn, here.