Ah, the office bathroom. That place of camaraderie and questionable etiquette and so, so many tears. Maybe you flubbed a presentation, or you were reprimanded in front of your colleagues, or you got a bad-news phone call at the worst time — and all of a sudden you’re speeding to the office bathroom so that you can “pee,” a.k.a. snot-cry, in peace. (If this sounds like an unfamiliar scenario to you, you’re lucky.) But hear me when I say: There is another way.
As much as we’d love to provide you with a therapist and a career counselor and a breathwork healer who will be on call at all times to help you defuse workplace drama and confront every crisis with a cool head and the confidence that the world is not actually ending, we couldn’t quite make that happen. What we could do, however, was talk to experts in all of those fields and provide you with a menu of their very best tips for how to stay calm in the midst of any workplace storm.
Whether it’s a meeting that didn’t go well at all, an ongoing struggle with your office arch-nemesis, a case of Real Life encroaching on your work woes, or a royal screw-up for which you’re actually to blame, these experts have the exact next steps you need. Think of this as a “Choose Your Own Office Adventure” guide — with the true adventure being avoiding that bathroom meltdown and keeping your job while you’re at it.
Don’t let the negative moments eclipse everything else. Whether this is your first confrontation with an office bully or your daily do-si-do with a rival, your best tools for keeping your cool are space and time.Career strategist Jenny Foss, a.k.a. JobJenny, says the most important thing when facing off with someone at work is: “Do not snap. In any professional environment, it’s expected that you are going to be professional, respectful of others, and in control of your emotions.” This is where space and time come in.
“Ask that meeting attendees take a 10-minute break,” Foss advises. “Take a walk. Do breathing exercises. Contemplate how you might be able to improve the situation BEFORE you jump back into the frying pan.”
Or if you’d prefer to power through that meeting, take a positive (and big-picture) approach. Ralph De La Rosa, integrative psychotherapist and founder of RebelHeartMeditation, likens dealing with your least favorite person at work to “Thanksgiving with your least favorite uncle or your crazy right-wing sister. It’s a good opportunity to discuss your basic goals rather than the specifics, because nine times out of 10, our goals are the same, whether it’s fundamental rights or the company’s mission.”
When you approach someone difficult with an eye towards the bottom line, you may be surprised how much common ground you find.
If you’re bogged down by non-work worries…
First, examine the personal-life issue that’s bothering you, and decide how serious it actually is. After all, we know we’re supposed to keep the family drama / dating drama / landlord drama / guy-on-the-subway-who-was-just-so-goddamn-rude drama out of the office. But, sometimes, it’s just so tough to shove it under the rug for eight whole hours (or more).
So, if you just can’t stop thinking about your roommate spat at breakfast, “you may consider taking a partial PTO day or just using your lunch hour to do something that might help you clear your head and feel better (e.g. a 30-minute walk, a quick manicure, or a quiet session with a good book),” Foss suggests.
But if there’s a long-term issue in your personal life that’s truly getting you down (such as going through a divorce, struggling with infertility, or coping with the illness of a family member), “it’s appropriate and important to set up time to meet with your supervisor to explain in a controlled manner what is happening,” Foss says. “You need to use care with this one, especially if it’s an issue that may jeopardize your credibility or make your employer fear that you’ll be unable to fulfill the basic responsibilities of your job. But most often, you’re going to be met with empathy and given some much-needed latitude for a while, so that you may work your way through the outside challenges without having your job also fall apart.”
If you screwed up and you know it (and they know it)…
Act thoughtfully; don’t react thoughtlessly. If you were called out for a mistake you made, your instinct may be to respond defensively. But qualifiers and excuses aren’t what you need right now.
“Don’t do something reactive that you may ultimately regret,” Foss urges. “You especially want to use care with email, because that’s documentation. Be accountable for your mistakes, for sure. But also be strategic, calm, and solution-focused in your response.”
For example, if you accidentally send a complaining email about your boss to your boss (this definitely did not happen to me at a nonprofit job 10 years ago, NOPE), first, own up and apologize. Second, “consider the impact your words had (or could have), and come up with a plan for how you’re going to correct or repair the situation,” Foss advises.
And if you feel like you need a hug after all that, Erin Telford, a breathwork healer, acupuncturist, and reiki practitioner suggests this quick practice of self-love: “Place your feet on the ground with one hand on your low belly and one hand on your heart and focus on natural, easy, relaxed breathing. This action stimulates your body to release oxytocin, giving your body a chemical rush that feels like a sweet hug. You can use this whenever you are feeling disappointed or confused or need a little support from yourself.”
If your meeting/presentation/ask for a raise did not go well…
It’s the most obvious piece of advice, but also possibly the most helpful: Breathe. We know — easier said than done. But studies show that deep breathing and yogic breathing can help address everything from sleep problems to depression.
“If you feel yourself revving up, getting activated, getting triggered, whatever it is, that is a wonderful time to take a deep breath, to take a pause, to reframe the situation with patience,” De La Rosa explains.
“My favorite breathing tool to calm the body and the mind is 2/4 breathing,” says Telford. When we’re anxious, we can go into fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode. Telford explains that the best way to counter this right at your desk (or in that trusty bathroom stall) is to inhale deeply for two seconds and exhale completely for four.
“When you breathe in this way,” Telford adds, “it signals to your body that you are safe and it will turn off the adrenalized fight/flight/freeze feeling. As you begin to relax, you can lengthen both the inhale and the exhale, breathing in for three seconds and exhaling for six seconds. Even if you only do this for a few minutes, it will calm and ground you.”
It’s time to peace out. Mind you, this isn’t the response for a run-of-the-mill frustrating work moment that you’ll feel better about after a quick lap around the office or a fresh cup of coffee. This is when your anger or anxiety is actually making you unable to get your job done.”While you don’t want to leave everyone in a lurch, you’ve got to find a way to swiftly and privately re-collect yourself,” Foss insists. “It’s going to be far, far better for you to have that meltdown in your parked car outside than in front of the VP of Operations.”
Or, if you don’t have a parked car to chill in, there’s always the old standby. “Go to the bathroom. Seriously,” says De La Rosa. I know, I told you hiding in the bathroom is avoidable. But in particularly dire straits, it may be your only option.
“If you’re past the point of revving up and are in a full-blown mental affliction, there’s not a lot you’re going to do that isn’t going to create more confusion, more harm, more distortion,” De La Rosa explains. “You have to find a way to recover your sense of self. When we’re angry or anxious, we over-identify with our emotions. In therapy we call that blending. The first step is to un-blend or disengage with the emotion and recognize: I am not my anger. Remember who you are: What are your values? Who do you really want to be?”
If you can’t imagine a path forward…
You may just have to reframe the conversation yourself. “Can you change your perspective about it, look at it from a different angle?” De La Rosa asks.
If you’re bringing up a tough topic or returning to a fraught discussion that needs to happen in order to move forward, “try doing so in an open-minded way,” Foss advises. Ask open-ended questions, she suggests, “rather than throwing pointed barbs or accusatory statements. For instance, if someone says something that really offends you, rather than responding with, ‘You’re always cutting people down before you let them get their ideas out!’ maybe go with something like, ‘What did you mean when you said ______?'” This approach has the double benefit of a) showing that you’re trying to understand their side, and b) getting them to hear their own words and, perhaps, how out of line they were in the first place.
And don’t forget, conflict at work is not all bad. “It’s actually a sign of growth,” De La Rosa reminds us. “It’s a sign of people moving closer, and is one of the primary ways we develop boundaries and a more refined way to communicate with that specific person. We discover a lot about people. Conflict isn’t bad if you approach the situation with, hey, how can we do this better?”
Remember: “Winning the war is always better than winning the battle,” Foss adds. “Don’t get so hell-bent on emerging victorious from an argument that you lose sight of what you’re all there to do.”