Sharon enjoys her job except for one thing: She finds one of her colleagues, Eric, a royal pain. He thinks he’s hot stuff, and when around Sharon he acts arrogant and likes to make flirtatious comments directed at her.
Showing some empathy, Sharon says, “He doesn’t mean any harm but he’s one of those guys in his early thirties who acts like he’s still a college frat boy. He never really grew up. So, he often makes these not-so-subtle sexist comments directed at me, or says how attractive something I’m wearing is. No touching, no hostility, just being a pain in my butt. I tell him to grow up but he usually just laughs. He acts like a teenage kid teasing his sister. Like I said, harmless, but I’m getting tired of it and need to deal with him without poisoning the work atmosphere.”
We’ll get back to Sharon in a minute. For now, let’s get a general view of coping with stressful situations, even relatively small ones like Eric. If you want to cope effectively with bumps in your life road, you need to focus on six areas, six intertwined processes that help bring some order and stability to your life.
First is acceptance. You must resist the temptation to engage in denial about situations that bring you uncomfortable emotions. Denial encourages avoidance of yourself, which is incompatible with resolving your emotional conflicts. You must accept reality and your emotional reactions to it.
Second is accountability. Yes, this means taking responsibility for your mistakes and apologizing for them if need be. But effective coping also requires holding others accountable for the discomfort they impose on you. When things go haywire, it’s not always your fault.
Third is humility. Like virtually everyone, you have a natural tendency to make it “all about me.” Bad move. The needs of others have to be a part of your life path or you will descend into narcissism.
Fourth is empathy. Understanding yourself emerges from understanding others. That doesn’t mean you must feel sorry for them; it means that you can resolve conflicts better, and feel more independent and empowered because you act with the needs of others in mind, not just your needs.
Fifth is values. You must base your life on moral guidelines; you need an internal compass to guide you, a set of standards that give you a sense of personal direction.
Sixth is a plan of action. Any effort to cope with stress requires action. Your actions, however, must be thought-out, organized, realistic, and logical. Plus, they must be implemented forcefully and confidently, but calmly and patiently. The thing to remember about coping plans is that they will be most effective when they are based on acceptance, accountability, humility, empathy, and values.
With all this in mind, let’s see how Sharon tackled her Eric problem. Without going into a lot of detail, Sharon thought through her plan of action. She had a private one-on-one meeting with Eric and told him his flirtatious, immature behavior had to stop. She showed him specific parts of the company Employee Handbook, and pointed out that she had a basis for filing a complaint, but didn’t want to do so for the sake of office morale. She showed humility, but with a dash of assertiveness appropriate for this situation.
Notice how Sharon decided not to let things ride and avoid confronting Eric. She accepted the reality of his behavior, the emotions it generated in her, and the likelihood that it would persist. She also accepted that she had no control about what he might choose to do on a given day.
We already saw how Sharon was empathetic about Eric’s immaturity, and that helped her stay calm; that is, she knew she had to confront him, but she was able to do so from a task-based, not an emotion-based, context. She used the Employee Handbook – not an emotional outburst involving threats – to make her point.
Sharon clearly put the ball in Eric’s court. His actions were up to him, but if he refused to see things from her point of view – notice how she required Eric to show empathy for her – there would be consequences. She placed accountability squarely in Eric’s lap.
Sharon enjoys her job, and believes in integrity, reliability, teamwork, respect for her colleagues, and loyalty to her employer. Her plan of action was guided by these values, and allowed her to be open – and not overreact – to her frustration and irritation caused by Eric’s behavior, and allowed her to confront – not avoid – the troublesome situation.
Fortunately, Eric got the message and began to treat Sharon with more courtesy and respect. Had he not done so, she would have gone to plan B – the Employee Handbook and filing a formal complaint.