Back by popular demand, part two of a two part series by Michael McElhenie, PhD: Handling Colleague Related Stress.
Handling Colleague Related Stress -Part II
by Michael McElhenie PhD, Senior Associate Dynamic Results
In our last issue, we learned that though it’s easy to blame our stress on others, we are better off learning to recognize disruptive and dysfunctional relationship patterns, whether in oneself or others. We named these counter-productive scenarios Dramas. The drama roles we explored – Persecutor, Rescuer or Victim – all contain stressful behaviors that also cause much collateral damage.
Today we’ll explore the functional side of these dramas. This diagram shows the three dramas and their alternatives.
First, let’s review the drama. The primary drama role is Victim. Victims feel powerless and experience loss (or denial) of their desired outcome. Their focus is on problems and they react to them with anxiety. A Persecutor is often the victim’s perceived cause of their feelings of helplessness. (Persecutors aren’t necessarily people – they can be life circumstances or conditions.) The persecutor’s primary motivation is fear of losing control, or worse – becoming a victim themselves. A Rescuer can be any person or activity (an addiction for example) that serves to relieve the victim’s pain. Though human rescuers may have good intentions, their assistance increase the victim’s sense of worthlessness, reinforcing a “poor me” attitude. You can see how the circular nature of these types of interactions feed off each other to the detriment of all concerned.
The good news is that there are productive alternatives for each major drama role. These roles don’t carry the burden of tangled emotional habits and turmoil, and more importantly, they do not perpetuate the drama. The victim’s alternative role is the Creator.This role leads to focusing on our larger vision; rising above habitual reactions and moving us to take the small steps necessary to achieve our vision. A creator has two critical abilities that a victim lacks – Awareness and Choice – awareness of the full extent of one’s power to change and the ability to make appropriate choices in our ever-changing circumstances (as opposed to reacting to them out of habit). The creator role is central to what author David Emerald calls The Empowerment Dynamic (TED). TED describes the mutually beneficial, productive relationships that result when the Creator, Challenger, and Coach roles are dynamically combined.
The persecutor’s alternative is the Challenger. A challenger is a change agent – a beneficial facilitator of learning and growth. Like a creator, a challenger recognizes the growth opportunities present in each moment, no matter how difficult that moment might seem. Challengers teach through compassion, sharing power and never demeaning anyone. A challenger can be a person or life condition; and while a challenge may push our emotional buttons, we are held in such a caring way that we are able to recognize and seize the opportunities before us.
The rescuer’s antidote is the Coach. While both the rescuer and coach share the intent of supporting another person, a rescuer does so by stealing the victim’s power. A coach facilitates learning and growth by empowering recognition of choices in tough situations. A good coach asks many questions, each designed to help the person find their own course of action – rather than telling them what to do (or not do). A coach sees others as capable, powerful and creative – rather than broken and in need of fixing.
Clearly, we would rather spend our lives in The Empowerment Dynamic instead of The Drama Triangle. While staying in TED may appear easy, in reality it requires much practice and discipline. Our old patterns took a long time to develop and become entrenched; it doesn’t have to take as long to change them. David Emerald defines the secret of change as Attention, Intention and Results (AIR).
Attention is the discipline needed to stay in TED. It means consciously choosing where we focus our thoughts and emotions. A victim, for example, focuses attention on what they don’t want or what they wish to avoid. Ask yourself if such attitudes can bring beneficial results when energy and attention are directed at fearful negative outcomes? I say chances are pretty slim.
Alternatively, each of us has the ability to direct our attention toward thoughts and feelings that enhance and uplift us. We can motivate ourselves toward growth and learning. One way is to start by recognizing the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. Focusing on goals is the catalyst that triggers our capacity to change. To begin your practice of disciplining thought and emotion I recommend this daily 20-minute exercise, preferably done in the morning:
- Sit comfortably in a quiet place
- Direct your thoughts to people, events, or places that you feel good about, or for which you feel gratitude.
- Next, think of an affirmation that has meaning for you; such as “I am open to learning all I need to learn” . . . and repeat it to yourself at least ten times
- Now quickly review a few of the more difficult choices you faced yesterday (or in the last few days)
- Then consider some of the choices you will be faced with today . . . and finally . . .
- Decide on a few small actions you will take today to move closer to your goal.
The Intention component of AIR touches on one of this practice’s key elements – small actions. Regular, repeated practice of intention helps us focus on do-able increments. Ann Lamott tells of her young son coming home from school extremely distraught, “I can’t believe my teacher wants me to write about all the birds of North America. How am I gonna do that? Do you know how many birds that will be? Thousands, hundreds of thousands!” To help ground him Anne said, “Couldn’t you simply write about them one at a time – bird by bird?” This illustrates how easily we can “self-victimize”, seeing tasks as large, complex, and overwhelming, and also how easy it is to refocus. By breaking “problems” down into smaller components, taking that first small step doesn’t seem so overpowering.
If your experience agrees with mine, you know that drama scenarios repeat themselves and never become fully resolved (this is why soap operas seemingly go on forever). In contrast, The Empowerment Dynamic (TED), Attention, Intention, and Results (AIR), and this article all end with positive results.
To monitor your progress in this process, your primary questions should be: Are my small steps going to result in permanent or temporary change? – And – Are my actions going to result in an overall improvement, or simply make me feel better temporarily? The Empowerment Dynamic is effective because your changed attitudes and actions will build a permanent foundation of focused, healthy, and stress-free relationships. As your small steps progress, keep asking yourself the “permanent vs. temporary” question and always take time to acknowledge and celebrate your incremental steps that bring you closer to your vision.
Your questions and comments are always welcome.
Michael McElhenie PhD
Michael is a Senior Associate with Dynamic Results and is also the co-creator with Henry Evans, Managing Partner with Dynamic Results of the Retention Edge™ our 21st century executive assessment tool that uses behavioral interviews and our statistically validated assessments of work-related personality traits and key leadership competencies to help you recruit and retain top talent.