I'll be your mirror--but I'd rather not
February 18, 2011 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I've realized that I mirror people's emotions back at them way too much, especially at work. I have a lot of trouble dealing with an accountant who is very nervous and fussy because I get nervous and fussy along with her; I also mirror the tone of another accountant who is very aggressive and accusatory over routine no-wrongdoing things. In each case, I escalate behavior that is already upsetting. How can I stop?

I also escalate nice behavior--ie, I mirror happy people, which is nice and all.

I don't know if it's that I am afraid to express my actual feelings, or I'm not grounded enough, or I'm too passive. I do know that I grew up in an authoritarian family where any expression of anger or displeasure was frowned upon, especially for girls.

I think that if I could express my actual feelings, not only would I feel better about myself (ie, not feeling bad about being angry or fussy, or fake about being happy) but I'd also have more successful dealings with people, since I wouldn't say yes when I need to say no, or get crabby over something just because I'm mirroring anger or anxiety. I find myself getting irritated about totally reasonable demands that are part of my job when they come from the accusatory person, for example, things that I would do without question if asked nicely. (Of course I do them anyway, but with bad grace.)

I don't want to express work-inappropriate "real feelings" like "you annoy me"...I just want to be grounded in my dealings with my co-workers.

What do I do?
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (7 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Strong emotions rarely have any place in the workplace. If I were to think of exceptions to this rule of thumb, they'd mainly be people like actors, musicians, etc. Accountants? I don't think so. See it as Your Job to maintain a calm environment. When other people get angry, upset, nervous, etc., you don't have carte blanche to react in whatever way you feel like. There are many inappropriate things you or I might feel like doing while we happen to be at work, but we'd never actually do them at work. Displaying heated emotion should be one of these things. It is your job to keep things civilized and reasonably pleasant. (It's their job too, of course; two wrongs don't make a right.) If this requires you, in that moment, to force a smile and some polite words in an attempt to get things back on track, focused on solving problems and being productive, well, so be it. Save the open and honest expressions of how you really feel for after work when you're venting to your friends.
posted by John Cohen at 12:49 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I totally have this problem too, so I'm looking forward to the answers, but I'll share one thing that has helped.

In most interactions each party gives a tiny speech about what they want from the interaction. "we wanted to discuss partnering on X," "I wanted to meet the person behind all the emails," "our group thinks your project will damage our interests and will oppose it unless you do XYZ." I used to come into meetings poised to react to their issue, but now I always get clear on what my goal is. By explaining that and referring back to it mid-discussion, I can stay more grounded.

Similarly, it works to say, "maybe I should take a step back -- how much have I told you about our group / this project?" Somewhere in the middle of giving my normal 90-second schpiel "this was started in 2009 because many people realized that our organization needed..." I get reconnected with who I am and my purpose "...and so I wanted to learn how Your Project might dovetail..."

This could work with more mundane issues, too. "let me briefly explain the accounting department's workflow. Every month, we ABCDE, and that has to happen by the 10th of the month to comply with XYZ. As you can see, if a timesheet is not turned in on time, we start to encounter major problems."

In short, come in with a purpose and tone, and if you get pulled off balance, "take a step back" and spend a minute talking about the big picture story that you know. Hearing yourself say familiar things can help you remember your own mood, tone, and goals. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself even if you think they know it already.
posted by salvia at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

As the old cliche goes "awareness is half the battle." So if you're seeing yourself doing it, I would think that would go a long way toward stopping it.

But it sounds like the behavior is only part of the problem with the environment or how you're handling it. Here's something I've started working on at the tender age of forty-(mumble). Be direct, and be yourself.

I'm a guy, but I grew up in a family that was a bit like yours. Dad was a screamer, Mom was kinda P/A, and so I've grown up with a conflict resolution style that consisted of:

- take it until I was ready to snap, then
a) do something sneaky about it
b) snap.

As I've gotten more mature and self-confident, I think I've started just dealing with things that people ask of me at work as things that need to be dealt with, and I've either got the resources for it or I don't, or the request can be met reasonably or it can't. It doesn't matter if Mark or Mary accused me of stealing their red stapler last week, they need me to process the order. It's either 10 a.m. and I have nothing pressing until lunch, and they get "yes," or I'm about to walk out for lunch, in which case they get "I'll handle that after lunch." Or it's not my job, in which case I tell them to ask whomever is supposed to be handling it. Their reactions and their assumptions about why I'm doing what I'm doing are their problem. I'm not their buddy; I'm their co-worker.

I've come a LONG way on this in the past year, after getting out from under some major life stresses. It's a hard discipline to maintain, since many people seem to think that the purpose for them to be at work is to engage in a lot of petty dramas. But you don't have to be one of them.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:33 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, just to continue my thought for one last second, let's say you and Ms. Nervous are starting to really get fussy. You could say, "ok, what are we really trying to do here? I came in because the ABC project is ahead of schedule (amazing huh? yeah it's really great!). So I was hoping to see if we could spend $2000 on the software for the next step now even though it's not in the budget until May. It is completely optional, because we have a lot of room in our timeline, so we don't need to stress out if we discover it's not. But if we could, we might finish in time for the holiday season! So could we spend a few minutes exploring the cash-flow implications of moving this purchase forward?" Now you are out of worry land and back to relaxed hopeful ahead-of-schedulesville, just by repeating something that you both probably already knew.
posted by salvia at 1:37 PM on February 18, 2011

Well you can start with your body. When we mirror other people's state it usually starts by mirroring their physiology. We adopt some of their posture, gesticulations, mannerisms, down to the unconscious mirroring of breathing. It's almost completely unconscious. If you do it intentionally. That is, you intentionally take on someone's physiology you will almost naturally start to feel like they do. This is a natural mechanism we employ to get rapport with people as it literally puts us into their shoes.

Sounds like from your background you probably naturally developed this ability .. maybe as a way of dealing with your family and yourself. The good news is that it's fairly easy to deal with. All you need to do is anchor some of your own states and when you realize you're entering someone else's you can switch back into your own.

What you do is find a comfortable way to stand and allow yourself a few moments in order recall a time you were feeling relaxed, rooted and together. Then you step into that time, noticing what it felt like, but also noticing the nuances of your physiology. What were your shoulders like; how were you moving; how were you breathing; holding your head; leaning, etc ... Then you take a break go do something else and when you're ready practice getting back into that state by just changing your physiology to the way it was then. Most of the elements probably don't matter as you will find that ultimately one or two of them are the ones that make the difference.

Practice this for a couple of days... you really don't need to do much more. And then you will have this state accessible when you need it.

So next time you find yourself literally mirroring someone else, take a second or two and adjust your own physiology to your rooted state and you will quickly stop mirroring them and find yourself grounded.
posted by blueyellow at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2011 [15 favorites]

blueyellow's answer is very good. The issue is that your sense of your body is kind of displaced. We have a kind of natural sensation that flows from prioception, and being grounded in that can limit the influence of other people's tensions. Try to just be aware of your hands and feet when you're with other people. This shouldn't be a heavy or laborious effort, just simple noticing of them and any tensions.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2011

I do the same thing I do with rude people or people I dislike: I wrap myself in my "armor of Victorian-style distant politeness +5" wherein I feel more detached from the situation and like I am acting a little bit. Getting a slight distance makes me not nearly as reactive and makes it easier to stay calm. (I tend to be reactive when I feel like something is personal, or someone is being personal, or getting personal, so withdrawing a bit helps a lot with that.) Once I realized how good it felt and how productive it was to be calm when someone else was, well, not, the positive feedback loop made me do it more and more and get better and better at it.

Deep calm breaths, a calm voice, active and sympathetic listening (they're not sympathetic! they're mean!) and acknowledging their frustration without budging on the key point that I'm right about, and if it's really bad, I can envision my calmness literally wrapped around me like a cloak. An awesome, stylish, cashmere cloak.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:44 PM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

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