Work conversation turned tug-of-war? Here’s what to do. (It’s not what you think.)

Blog | November 16, 2021
Work conversation turned tug-of-war? Here’s what to do. (It’s not what you think.)

“That’s a dealbreaker for me.”

One of our clients, Rania, a COO, had just relayed to her VP of Recruiting, Steve, that a new hire would be going through the new onboarding process that they had been working on—and let’s just say that he was not pleased.

“The process is not finalized. We are not ready. And Cindy won’t feel like she’s a part of the team,” Steve was becoming increasingly upset, even angry.

Rania’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at Steve’s passionate response. It was a protocol change, no big deal. What the heck?

What she wanted to say, as her own irritation rose, was, “Dude, just deal with it. This is how it’s going to be.”

(Perhaps you’ve heard those words come out of your mouth, or even colleagues or higher ups…)

Rania had been working with a MettaWorks coach long enough to notice that her own emotions were pitching her off-kilter. She paused before blurting the first thing that came to her.

Rania knew that her knee-jerk reaction might not be the ideal one for the long-term health of her working relationship with Steve.

Instead, she acknowledged out loud, “I can hear that you are frustrated about implementing the new process right now.”

“Help me understand the heart of your concerns.”

THIS is the moment where Rania defused the situation.

She “dropped the rope,” in what could have been a tug-of-war that would have escalated otherwise. In just one moment, the tension in the conversation started to shift.

If you’ve ever had to get someone on board with something they don’t agree with—or had to deliver a message that you don’t entirely agree with—well, then you’ve experienced this very tug of war.

And if that situation bizarrely blows all out of proportion, or you have an unexpected, heightened emotional response, it’s a clue: unseen, unconscious forces are deeply present in the room and directing people’s behavior, including your own.

Learning how to recognize, and most importantly, how to respond, when these dynamics are at work between you and a colleague or team member, or between members of your team, is a gamechanger.

And the thing is, being triggered isn’t the problem. You’re human. Your people are human. It’s going to happen. It’s how we respond to our triggers that counts.

So, how does one shift OUT of a tug-of-war?

By putting down the rope. The dynamic can only exist as long as both parties continue to pull.

And when we “drop the rope,” we’re actually doing the other person a favor. By not engaging with them, they can become aware of, and take responsibility for, their own emotions.

The moment Rania decided not to engage in the pattern with her VP of Recruiting, there was breathing room for her to hold space for him.

This allowed her to get curious and reflect back, another surefire way to neutralize the situation. Rania was able to ask questions that made Steve feel less defensive.

He was then able to shift from a reactive to a proactive state.

Let me be clear: “dropping the rope” does NOT mean giving up your point of view. Rania still needed Steve to follow the new protocol. (This is consent, not consensus; you’re not running a democracy, after all.)

It also doesn’t mean just walking away and ignoring the situation—although if emotions are especially high, it could mean pausing the dynamic and taking a break, with a plan to come back together. That way, you can come back equipped with an articulate, clear, and calmer way to engage.

When you drop the rope, you stop engaging energetically.

Practically speaking, this means: Hold space. Reflect back to the other person what you’re witnessing. And ask neutral, open-ended questions.

Don’t get me wrong—this is not easy, especially if you’re early in the work of self-awareness and exploration.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t start using these tools now. There are already things you can do to drop the rope, with phrases like:

“I hear what you’re saying…”

“I can see that this really upsets you…”

“I can tell you’re really unhappy with this situation…”

“Let’s pause and come back to this.”

“Let’s think about what we can do differently.”

If that sounds like being a coach, you’re exactly right. As a leader, getting the best out of your people requires that you be a better coach to them.

There’s a little “fake it ‘til you make it” here. You may still feel triggered. That’s okay. Speak the words anyway, even if inside you’re still angry, or anxious, or otherwise feeling the feels.

Don’t worry. You’ll have ample opportunities to practice these skills. 
Even if we’ve done all the work and we’re self-aware, if we walk into a circumstance where we aren’t feeling grounded, or we just came out of another tough interaction, we can easily get pulled in.

But the more times you practice the skills of disengaging from the trigger—without disengaging from the situation or interaction—and SEE the disruption in the reactive behavior, the more it acts as positive feedback.

This deepens your trust that you really don’t need to engage. That there IS a better way to respond.

If you are in an unspoken tug-of-waror you’ve seen this happen time and again with your people, let’s talk. These are exactly the types of challenges our coaches help our clients navigate. Schedule a complimentary discovery call to learn more today.
Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant