I tend to work with some pretty stressed out people. Some of that stress expels itself verbally. They will react without much thought of its impact, share frustrations in such a way in brings down a group. They will justify these outbursts as being stress that is out of their control. Some will quietly let it sit with them, have no reaction and in time usually become physically ill or have a giant outburst. Everyone has a way that stress presents itself but the long and short to it is when we don’t find a healthy way to deal with life, we have a negative effect on ourselves and others around us.
So how do we find the middle ground? How can we remove the pressure that stops us being productive yet also keep enough of the pressure that allows us to be productive? There are a thousand books and blogs on it, yet what I see as the answers time and time again are a few key points.
As I often say, when we have big problems that feel all-consuming, they are usually resolved with small actions and subsequently move you to resolution. The issue is, when that big problem is happening, we think the solution also has to be huge, we are unable to see the light.
I started with boundaries intentionally. From my experience, it is the number one tool on your toolbelt of life skills to keep yourself stress free, yet most of us struggle with setting them and we certainly don’t get born with a natural ability to know how to put them in place. As children most of us are not taught how to put them in, quite the opposite in fact, we are taught to be agreeable with the adults in our life. When we then take ourselves in to the wider world, we are often ill equipped to be faced with the pressures of adult life.
Firstly, boundaries are in fact kindness to yourself but also others. You do not need to start instantly saying ‘no’ to every request that comes to you, it is about how you deliver the message.
Let me share one great example shared in most leadership books. You are being requested and pulled in a number of directions. You are being asked to attend too many meetings and complete more work than hours in the day. To those people who are asking this of you, simply ask them,
‘I have all of these requests, I am simply unable to do them, I need to also schedule time for my own wellbeing, so which of these are a priority to you?’
We put back to the person, allow them to understand the limitations of dumping activities/work on you but also allowing them to share the priorities to them.
We can also share with people that we will only respond to emails between certain times of the day, it limits being a slave to the immediate need to respond. People will call if its urgent. Some organisations have been courageous enough to remove the cc function, removing excessive email correspondence.
I get a lot of requests to speak for free which I do not mind, but eventually I had to choose a number each year of free speaking gigs I would say yes to, so I choose events that are close to my heart, when I meet my quota, I politely explain the boundary that I have set. People are always grateful to firstly gain a response and to gain understanding of my limitations.
This can be used in any part of your life, but as soon as you learn a few techniques that you keep in the toolbelt, you can pull them out and bring back some sanity.
Most people don’t mind ‘no’ if it is delivered with some understanding and compassion. Those that do mind this clear and fair delivery, well it is better to understand that this sits with them not you.
Take a breath
Tiny actions produce big results. It was actually as I was on a four-month World Record around the UK on a stand-up bike that I really started to understand the power of taking a breath! The irony is not lost on me.
I have an incredible friend who understands the body and mind connection very well and when I spoke with him, I was mentally not in a great place. I was just over halfway and the challenge ahead felt too much to bare. He shared with me advice I continue to pass on to others, and I am sure some of you will already be aware but let me share for those who don’t.
When we get tense, our shoulders lift a touch, our jaw will clench, and we will hold our breath or take shallow breathes. Now that I have shared this with you, today, as you sit at your computer or go about your day, consider if your body is doing this.
What is the physical reaction to the email from a colleague that winds you up? Or the extra request from a family member to do something?
My friend did share with the physiology behind it, but for me I took, in simple terms, that our body reacts to stress and our mind believes it is under attack. We go into a state of fear. Stress and anxious states soon follow. He told me to actively tune into my body, to let my shoulders drop, to ensure I was not clenching my jaw and to simply breathe, consciously big breathes in and out. It was a game changer. Try combining it with the boundaries, it’s the hammer and nails to the toolbelt combination for making a dent in the stress.
You will meet humans that have no idea the impact they are having on the people around them, the stress they cause, the lack of boundaries, I get it. However, we cannot attempt to change someone, we can only look to change our reaction to them. When we accept this as a truth, life starts to open up, it is a shift in mindset that will change how stressed you feel about people not doing as you expected them to or wanted them to do. Of course, an opportunity for 360 feedback in workplaces and to give constructive feedback is always a great time to share so they can support their own journey of self-awareness, however it is not your gift to transform them, it only adds to your stress in life.
The term that has been rolling around the corporate HR world for the past 5 years or so is resilience; little did we know Covid was around the corner to test how well those training courses had faired. Resilience is as much about our mindset as it is anything else.
How do we view failure? As an opportunity or a slight on our ability. How do we see stress? As something that is happening to us because of others or something that we can control. The idea of growth and fixed mindsets is a key element to resilience, and we can train our brains to transform our mindsets. (neuro plasticity – the rewiring of our brains through changing habits and taking tiny, repetitive actions). You can be more empathetic; you can move to an optimist from a pessimist and vice versa. The choice we make on mindset is very much down to us.
Because kinder leadership is my thing I want to close on that topic as you may consider that all of the above might not be ‘kindness’, but to be clear, do not confuse kindness with being ‘nice’.
Being nice is about saying yes to everything, you’ll avoid conflict, not speak up and always prioritise others. All of this happens at a detriment to yourself and you end up stressed and burnt out and affecting those around you.
Kindness is putting in boundaries, addressing problems as they arise, speaking up in a healthy and constructive way and being genuine and true to self without being rude. It is being emotionally intelligent.
By the way, you are doing great.
By Nahla Summers, Cultural change consultant, Speaker and Author, CEO of A Culture of Kindness, Founder of the Social Enterprises, Sunshine People and Big Talks Global
Nahla researches kindness and how it impacts leadership and society as a whole. She is in turn delivering keynotes, training and consultancy programs that are driving more productive workplaces and happier workforces. You can also find her breaking a couple of Guinness World Records in her spare time.