Leadership Unlimited is a career column by Terry Wall, MBA '97. Terry is a recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, who will share his experiences and tips each month.
Alumni are encouraged to send comments, questions or suggestions for future column topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I read an article recently about how animals in the region devastated by the 2004 Asian tsunami seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to these disasters. There are lots of anecdotal reports of animals fleeing the areas well before the tsunami struck.
The theory behind this (which from what I read doesn't have much scientific data to back it up) is that animals had the ability to detect sound or motion waves that arrived well before the tsunami did. These waves traveled underground, and moved faster than the mountain of water.
What does this have to do with leadership? I thought you'd never ask. I believe that by fine-tuning our own senses, we can predict, and even prevent the next tsunami. Not the type that ravaged Southeast Asia. No, I'm talking about emotional tsunamis - the kind that erupt in people, that destroy relationships, and leave emotional wreckage and chaos in their wake.
We've all seen them - the blow-ups where people lose it emotionally, yell, and scream, and say things that get them into trouble. Okay, let's admit it, sometimes WE are those people.
Think about it. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, and an earthquake is the result of two plates grinding together, building up tension over centuries, or thousands of years, until that tension and energy are released with truly cataclysmic results.
Isn't an emotional outburst similar? Something happens, and a person feels slighted in some way, thinks about it, lets it fester, all the while the tension is building and building until, finally it's unleashed in a furious tidal wave of anger, and sometimes rage. That's an emotional tsunami.
Last week I was working with a management team, and while discussing conflict resolution, one of the participants said, "Little things, left unresolved, become BIG things." How true.
We don't really have a sixth sense, but we can develop existing senses to detect the underlying tensions before they erupt in an emotional tsunami. This means listening and watching for visual and auditory signs that tension exists.
Sometimes it's the tone of voice, or the inflection on a particular word that signals something isn't right. Other times, it's the body language, a gesture, or the subtle flash of a fleeting facial expression.
These signals can represent a lot of feelings. Misunderstanding, lack of understanding, hurt, anger, questioning, dismay, uneasiness, and many others. These feelings tell us that something isn't right, that the other person isn't getting our message, or is misinterpreting it in some way.
If left unresolved, that little thing does fester, and eventually becomes something big. That's when the emotional tsunami strikes. Because these subtle signs always exist, we can use them to prevent that next tsunami.
Watch and listen for these subtle signs in the people around you. This is particularly hard for us to do when we are interacting with others, because we're caught up in the moment. So the next best thing to do is look for it in the interactions of others.
I just saw an example of this while I was standing in line at the local deli. I could tell that the customer in front of me was sending subtle signals that spelled F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-O-N. But the guy behind the counter was oblivious.
Had he seen it, he could have avoided the blow-up that left a very bad taste in the customer's mouth. (The other explanation is that he did see it, but didn't care.) And all of this over pastrami - a pastrami tsunami!
If we as leaders practice this skill of paying attention to the signposts of emotions, which by the way is a big part of what is called Emotional Intelligence, we can be much more effective in our personal relationships.
Here are 5 tips for avoiding the next emotional tsunami:
- Look for those facial expressions, the gestures that indicate a strong emotional response
- Listen for the tone of voice, the inflection, the more emotional words used
- In responding, speak slowly and calmly
- Verify that you accurately understand the other person's perspective
- Demonstrate empathy and understanding
These steps will help to defuse the situation, to gently release the tension, so that you aren't the victim of the next emotional tsunami.
Terry Wall, MBA '97, accelerates success for individuals and organizations. For individuals, he accelerates success through coaching. For organizations, he accelerates success by building winning teams, working with management teams in groups. Either way, Terry teaches people how to improve how they manage and lead, so that they and their direct reports are more engaged in their work, more committed to organizational goals, and more productive in what they do.
That accelerates success. That improves profitability.
Terry specializes in strategic planning, leadership development, change management, corporate culture, and productivity improvement. He works in a wide range of industries, including service and manufacturing, non-profit, and large and small organizations. He is a skilled facilitator who provides coaching on individual, executive, or team levels.
A recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, Terry has a B.A. in psychology from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, and an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is a professional speaker, and a professional writer who coauthored a book on teambuilding, and has been published in many publications.
Terry Wall accelerates success, and improves profitability, for individuals, teams, and organizations.
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