Managing Stress


On a recent business trip, I encountered a few forms of stress with the group I was working with. Each person had their own issue and dealt with it in their own way. There were plenty of opportunities for complications to arise. This was a big meeting with several people on our team and many more than that from our customer. Hardly anyone had met in person though we’d all talked on the phone. Most of us had to travel to a different country. The person doing the product presentation had to connect to the Internet and the application had to do what he needed. We all had to take questions from the audience and understand them while different participants spoke French and/or English. The solution we presented had a lot of moving pieces and could be used in a lot of ways – so there were plenty of chances for  misunderstandings. And, of course, the world spun on outside of the conference room we were in.

Everybody had their own issues too. The person doing the demo never eats before demos. A sales rep who got a request to do a presentation on the other side of the continent in two days got very concerned with whether it could be done or not. I always am a bit concerned in front of a large audience before I get a good read on them. Then I always get apprehensive about getting to my flight home on close connections, especially when my ride to the airport is in the slowest car on the road.

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In the end, everything sorted itself out. The demo went great. The audience was curious and asked questions we wanted to answer. The sales rep with the emergency meeting request found a predictable set of outcomes. I’m starting this blog entry while sitting by my gate at the airport with plenty of time to spare, even after going through customs. There are many factors in play and lessons to be learned here about stress management.

  • What’s in your control: There is a varying amount of control in every situation. Some things are entirely in your power while others are not. Difficulties can appear at different times but can be mitigated or eliminated entirely. Still other areas may not be your responsibility so you need to rely on the right person to handle them. Your reaction to issues is almost always within your control and that may be the most important factor of all.
  • What bothers you: Situations around us affect how we perceive stress. My colleague’s tradition of not eating before a big meeting is one of his reactions to an event like this. Me getting anxious as the rest of traffic passed us by on the way to the airport was one of mine. I knew I’d have plenty of time to get to the flight unless customs was extremely long so a few deep breaths helped a lot. What you let impact your state of mind plays directly into how stressed you get.
  • What is failure and who defines it: Failure takes many forms – way too many if you ask most people – and the negative outcome of the situation at hand is what drives stress and what drives fear. Many times failure is us letting ourselves down. We can put tremendous pressure on ourselves to perform. In other cases, our bosses or customers define failure and that creates the stress. Failure can also take the form of missed flights, wrecking on a slippery road, getting eaten by a shark, and Lord knows what else – the world around us can define failure.
  • What are the implications of failure: If a situation gets out of control and there’s a real negative result, what happens next? Do you get upset at yourself? Does your reputation suffer? Will people laugh at you? Does a deal go south? Do people get hurt? Will you learn something important that will help you succeed the next time? Does owning the failure actually let you turn it around and give you a kind of win or another at-bat?

Knowing those factors means you know the stress. Knowing that enemy gives you better ways of dealing with it. Dealing with stress doesn’t guarantee avoiding failure, but it can put things in perspective. That alone can kill stress and get you through. So here’s how to deal with it.

  • Know the situation: Go into the stressful scenario with your eyes wide open. Know the points above. Can you control something? Plan then get a reasonable handle on things before they become problems. Knowing you’ve nailed them down is reassuring. Are the factors internal? Can you talk yourself into letting it go? Do you have an expert involved who can handle what you can’t? Fine, then empower to do what they’re there for.
  • Expect the possible outcomes: Outcome and uncertainty are what generate stress. If you anticipate then the unknown is minimized. At this point, you can work towards what you want and away from what you don’t. Knowing the outcomes helps you manage what’s happening, recognize what’s next, and identify where it will end.
  • Don’t dwell on the worst outcome: By recognizing options, It gives your mind the viable outcomes. With many eventualities possible, you don’t need to focus on the worst one. I mountain bike and one of the biggest tips is to look where you want to go. If you stare at a tree then you’re going to come close to hitting it because that’s what your body is pointing towards. Dwelling on the worst outcome means that’s what your mind is pointed towards. You’re less and less likely to steer yourself to where you really want to be.
  • Manage expectations to what’s reasonable: Is it possible to set expectations for someone else who defines your success or failure? You’d be surprised what a conversation can do. It can turn an adversarial situation into one with a common goal that’s achievable. Also, keep in mind that others around you are managing their own stress and fears. If you keep them focused on the worst outcome then you influence them. If you get them thinking about something they’ll accept and reach that, then you’ve arrived someplace mutually acceptable. That brings us to…
  • Own it: Taking responsibility is always acknowledged by anyone whose approval you should seek. People who root for you will continue to do so. An acceptable outcome means that there’s another chance to prove yourself. People who are out to get you will continue to do so as well – and you know deep down that those are relationships you don’t want long-term. Even if you’ve messed up on your last chance at redemption in a situation you should have controlled, then you can still learn something about your limitations and move on from there. Honesty is a universally beneficial trait and dishonesty catches up with you. Remember, that’s with others and yourself.
One trait I’m known for is being steady and analytical under tough conditions. I’m also known for helping others see the possible outcomes of where they’re at and what to decide on doing next. What you see above is my own mental checklist for resolving stressful situations. I’m not saying that this is a guideline to never screwing up and being unflappable, that’s a tall order. I do guarantee that if you are honest with yourself and work towards awareness with the right resolution, then you’ll gain trust and influence beyond what you knew was possible.
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