By Elazar Aslan

Boundless Leadership

Who hasn’t suffered with a difficult colleague, an aggressive boss, an overly demanding client or a toxic work environment?

Our conditioned response to these situations is typically with an “us vs. them” bunker mentality where we attack and defend or shut down and withdraw, bound by the implicit rules of civility at work or the fear of financial repercussions. These common patterns cause much anguish and loss of confidence in our abilities as the results are rarely positive.

Through years of addressing these issues with my coaching clients, and with insights from the mind sciences, Joe Loizzo (Founder of Nalanda Institute and co-developer of Boundless Leadership) and I have identified 3 counter-intuitive techniques that yield a much-improved success rate in delivering positive outcomes.

1. De-personalize the situation

When we first develop our understanding of how things work in the world we do it with the mind of the child that believes it is the center of the universe. From that perspective, we are both the ‘masters of the universe’ and the cause of all calamities. This is reinforced when others, especially adults, blame us for their outbursts and disappointments, creating an ingrained view that things are usually personal. Thus, when someone at work calls out their dissatisfaction with our presentation, activity, or performance, we usually experience it as a very personal matter, triggering the fight-, flight-, or freeze-response.

Yet, this is confused thinking. It is the hangover of fear, and the avoidance of shame and judgment that supports the notion that it is “all personal and all our fault.” Or alternatively, it can also arise as the conviction that “it is all personal and all your fault.” Various fields of psychology and neurobiology have shown that what others are thinking is more often based on their own mindset, including their limited self-awareness, strong biases, and past experiences, than on the actions of the other in the present moment. In other words, their reaction is more likely about them—more specifically their own negative mindset—than about us.

Depersonalizing as a skillful action is further reinforced by the cause-and-effect of the physics of any situation. In other words, there’s an almost infinite number of conditions at play in any interaction, which we tend to overlook, causing us to mistakenly take the matter very personally.

Yet depersonalizing the situation, however key, is usually insufficient to flip the outcome without additional steps.

2. Lean in with compassion

At the heart of the ‘us vs. them’ paradigm is the misunderstanding that we are all solitary, free-standing entities. The inter-dependence of all living and non-living things suggests that a broader perspective is more aligned with how things actually work. We are more connected than separate, more part of a communal human experience than an isolated being, akin to the right arm and left foot not realizing that they are part of the same body.

Science has now validated that compassion is actually a natural instinct that gets blocked by stress-based traumatic habits of conditioned learning.

Compassion is a powerful aid for resilience and our flourishing as it…

    • Improves performance through social linkage, by unleashing the potential of our social brain
    • Fosters confidence when mutual understanding is hard to access
    • Protects us when we stay connected during difficult times
    • Taps into the positive and expansive states of mind

Lastly, as many of my clients have experienced, compassion towards a seeming adversary is a game-changer. By experiencing the humanity of the other and seeing them as like us in their longing for happiness and safety (and as equally confused about how to get there), compassion allows us to flip the ‘us and them’ paradigm and create a shared understanding of the situation, allowing us to move forward effectively. Additionally, through our mirror neurons, an inclusive stance towards the other is also felt by them, allowing them to disarm as well.

3. Boost your emotional immunity

A compassion-based response to being challenged can make us feel vulnerable, like unilateral disarmament. So most of us will need to recognize that our fear-based thinking and shame-based emotions are like an unhealthy inflammatory response or auto-immunity that only makes matters worse. We need to learn how to down-regulate our self-protective overkill, and boost our healthy immunity against our own fear and shame before they go viral inside us. The best vaccine to prompt this healthy immunity is self-compassion, which among other things, helps us reframe triggering feelings of inadequacy and shame as a natural part of the lived experience of being human.

This reframing shifts our view of ourselves from shame-based self-doubt and self-critical judgment to an unconditional caring embrace of our innate worth as a human, an embrace that includes all parts of us, those that make us proud and those that make us embarrassed. It takes regular practice to develop this unconditional self-acceptance, but in the end, we no longer need to lock ourselves into the heavy armor of defensiveness when we can develop a resilient skin of self-compassion.

Though this 3-step approach has been proven, both by science and practice, it still takes time to cultivate. We don’t change years of conditioning overnight. If you feel yourself slipping into an “us vs them” mentality there’s no need to get down on yourself, being aware of this response is already a large shift forward that opens the door to implementing these steps.

Watch this video from the Boundless Leadership program on Managing a Reptilian Boss:

See also: Video documentation of a webinar with Elazar Aslan and Dr. Joe Loizzo, Overcoming Difficulties with Others at Work (or in Life)

Registration is also open for the next Boundless Leadership cohort starting January 17, 2023. Learn other science-backed, business-tested pivots that will allow you to lead with Clarity of Mind, an Engaged Heart and a Fearless Stance in your professional and personal life. Find out more (register by November 30th and get a 20% earlybird discount!)