Stress and Leadership: Using Stress to Your Advantage

Stress and Leadership: Using Stress to Your Advantage

In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
  – Fred Rogers

In my work as a coach and facilitator, it is not unusual to be engaged in high-stakes conversations. We all come to the table with our life experiences, world views, cultures, and expectations. Therefore, it takes strong intention to expand beyond our personal view to a new and expanded perspective.

Many of you who have worked through difficult conversations in a positive way know the effort involved personally and as a group to get to a new and better outcome. To lead in a global world, it takes the ability to “listen with our ears and hearts and to trust that the questions are as important as the answers.” These are necessary skills of leaders today. The only way to get good at them is to practice them in all venues.

Stress as an emotion

I remember a scenario when my son was younger, and he acted out in a way only teenagers can. We were with a group of friends; therefore, I chose not to address it right away. Later, when I discussed it with him, my stressful delivery about his behavior resulted in the conversation going nowhere. Once I talked it through with my husband, I was able to see there was more focus on “what was right” instead of “what caused this situation to go wrong.”

When I changed my approach, I found out my son had a fever, a class paper was due, and his assignment was at home (and we were on vacation). I realized why he acted out. My easy-going teen shared an indicator that something was wrong by acting out, also known as stress. By focusing on the “what” of the situation and managing stress as an emotion to be understood, we had a much better conversation. All flowed forward better for all.

While this is a personal situation, I find it mirrors other venues as well.  As leaders, you are often in situations that may trigger stress for you or see it with others. The ability to look at stress as an emotion to be understood creates a positive pathway for all. You can aim to discover “the gold” stress has to offer for the situation.

Key skills to leadership in stressful situations:

  • Note the tension in the room or conversation and speak to it if the timing is right. For example, “I notice that XX topic seems to be a critical point, can we take a moment to explore this before we move on?”
  • Be courageous and speak your truth about what the tension might be. If someone says you are wrong and lets you know what the key issue is, say thank you and begin to explore what makes it a key issue.
  • Get as many perspectives on the table as possible.
  • Understand what is causing you stress.
  • Let go of your own need to be right or have the answer.
  • Be genuine in your curiosity to empathetically understand – ask open-ended, discovery-based questions.

Practicing the skills above in every aspect of your life makes it easier when you are in high-stakes conversations at work. Your desire to learn and use stress as a helper and guide will create more ease, synergy, and effectiveness as a leader.

It turns out Fred was preparing children to be future leaders.