Three ways to maintain your poise when you’ve run out of patience

Published by Peter on

Helpers are driven to help. But it’s hard to show up again and again, and maintain your poise, when it seems everything and everyone are working against you. I’ve felt this as a manager in a corporation, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit, and as a professional coach.

Patience runs thin when frustrations mount.

I’ve also been seeing this up close in the caregiving space recently. I’m amazed at the medical and care staff that show up every day, day in and day out, and somehow manage to approach every situation with poise, patience, and professionalism.

Persevering through people’s worst moments

People who are in a caregiving role, whether paid professionals or unpaid family caregivers, don’t just have a difficult job that requires knowledge, skill, and expertise.

They also to have to solve challenging problems when the people they’re helping are in their worst moments.

Patients are frightened and in pain, family members are stressed out, the system is thick with bureaucracy and riddled with tech failures, and fear and confusion permeate the whole thing.

This doesn’t just happen in caregiving situations. It’s true in consulting, retail work, plumbing, and any other situation where someone is responsible for solving the problems of someone else who’s in distress.

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In my own experience, and in observing some truly wonderful professionals recently, here are things I’ve seen put into practice to maintain your poise without losing yourself along the way:

Attack the problem, not the emotions

Emotions are powerful. Emotions are real. Your task is not to deny, suppress, or eliminate those emotions; your task is to avoid giving control over to those emotions in the stressful moment. The better able you are to recognize, intercept, and name the emotions when you’re feeling them, the better able you will be to return your mind to what you actually need to accomplish. Keep your focus on the problem that you are there to solve.

Imagine having to cap a gushing water pipe. If you’re distracted and annoyed about getting wet, you’ll have a harder time capping the pipe. The water is not the problem; the leak is the problem. The same is true with emotions in a crisis: the emotions are not the problem you have to solve. The emotions will be resolved by solving the underlying problem, just like the water will be solved by capping the pipe.

Trust the process

If you’re truly focused on the problem, then trust the process you need to go through to fix that problem. I listened to a friend yesterday dealing with a distraught, confused person on the phone. My friend knew the distress and confusion weren’t the problem—they didn’t say, “calm down, don’t worry!” Instead, they focused on moving the person gently from distress and confusion toward feelings of safety.

Instead of getting defensive or aggressive in the face of this person’s emotional outburst, they knew they first had to get the person’s attention, then nudge the conversation to a different topic that would calm and reassure them. Only then could they effectively solve the underlying problem.

Taking the problem head-on in the heat of the other person’s emotions would have only created more distress and distrust, pushing the person into a combative defensiveness. When someone needs safety and reassurance, telling them they’re wrong and that they should just calm down usually has the opposite effect.

To extend the analogy of the gushing water pipe: If you need to screw a cap on to the end of the pipe, you don’t whack it with a hammer; that will only cause more damage and make the leak harder to fix. Instead, you make sure you have the right cap, you line it up with the pip, and you deliberately and patiently screw the cap on until the leak is fixed. Even though water is seeping out while you screw the cap on, you know that if you keep going, it will work in the end.

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Find your centering trigger (or spark?)

A lot of my clients ask me how they can stay calm and maintain their poise in difficult or stressful meetings, or when working with people they find hard to deal with. I tell them to identify something they can use as a kind of trigger in those situations.

We typically use the term “trigger” for setting off negative emotions. I don’t know of a word widely in use for setting off positive emotions. Spark is the closest I can think of, but no one ever starts a joyful post with “spark warning.”

The truth is that many kinds of emotions can be triggered, for both positive and negative results. Find something that you can always have with you, which you can turn to in stressful moments.

Some of my clients prefer a mantra. Some use a totem. Some use an exercise. One of my clients kept figurines of Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil on her computer to remind her to be more like Bugs and less like Taz. Another wore a favorite ring when going into stressful meetings, and touched it to re-center herself when the wrong emotions started taking over. Some people use a tactile trigger that doesn’t require a totem, such as tapping their thumb on their fingertips in a particular rhythm.

I love my gray bear that has been with me for 35 years.

This kind of self-triggering (or self-sparking?) takes a little practice, but not much. Simply remembering to recall your spark (mantra, totem, or exercise) in the heat of a stressful moment can center you enough to bring yourself back into control again.

(I don’t have a good extension to the waterpipe analogy for this one.)

Maintain your poise but don’t deny the emotions

This post is not about denying or burying your own emotions. It’s about maintaining your poise and persevering effectively during a crisis, especially when it seems like the people you’re helping are actively working against you.

Humans have emotions, and emotions have power. Once the crisis is under control, find and utilize healthy ways to understand and process your emotions. I encourage people not to bury those emotions, and not to let them fester or turn into resentment.

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