Basic instincts kick in when we’re confronted with a threat. However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all reaction – people react differently. Some of us are immediately ready to fight for what we believe. Others run from the threat, and still others freeze (think deer in the headlights.)

Each of these approaches has value, depending on the situation. None are the right move every single time. If you avoid confrontation, issues can go long unresolved and build to a tipping point. When you always jump into the controversial fray and live by the adage “the best defence is a good offence,” your options can eventually become limited. And taking no action means other opinions rule, and you live with decisions that don’t reflect your values.

Another reaction is to appease. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word appeasement as the act of making somebody calmer or less angry by giving them what they want. Appeasement means consistently abandoning your needs to serve others to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval. It’s seeking safety by merging with the wishes and demands of others.

Constantly giving in to keep the peace has a cost. We’ve likely all done it – let someone have their way rather than suffer through another argument or listen to prolonged complaints. And that’s okay, on an occasional basis. If the same issue keeps resurfacing despite your capitulation, then it’s time for a new tactic that doesn’t involve selling your soul.

Most of us know someone who consistently adds a voice of reason in tense moments and sees value in considering different viewpoints. They have a magical way of calming down a situation and making everyone involved feel their opinion matters. These leadership qualities reflect a unique ability to appeal to the best in others in a way that isn’t fake, doesn’t have hidden motives, or allows one person to dominate the outcome.

The star quality is emotional maturity, an ability to recognize the difference between thoughts and emotions. We often react emotionally to our thoughts by fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing. This carryover from our basic instincts doesn’t always serve us well in non-life-threatening situations.

“The thought of him being appointed committee chair made me fighting mad.”

“I thought the meeting wasn’t going anywhere, so I just left.”

“The thought of losing that contract paralyzed me.”

“I think she’ll make my life hell if I don’t give in.”

The thoughts themselves don’t decide the outcome; the actions we take (or don’t take) based on our emotional reaction to those thoughts determine how we act. Over time, we may have unconsciously developed the habit of always seeing the worst in a situation or basing our opinion on a single experience.

Since thoughts precede our emotions, we can better manage emotions by working with our thoughts. When we develop an awareness of our thoughts and identify patterns, that awareness gives us choices about what we think and subsequently do. Here’s something to try:

  1. Acknowledge the thought and be aware of the emotions that follow. “I think she’s lazy, and I do all the work. They can get someone else to be on her team.”
  2. Express the thought and associated feelings to yourself and study them. Often taking time to respond can work wonders, especially if it’s been your habit to react instantly. Separate the thought and the feelings it evokes. Not everything is personal. “Whenever they stick me with her as a teammate, I get mad. I know it’s going to be a problem.”
  3. Substitute more helpful thoughts and actions. For example, “There is nothing I can do” with “I will do everything I can to help resolve this.” Then take action to address the situation proactively. This doesn’t include complaining or repeating whatever you’ve done in the past – obviously, that didn’t work. Usually, a productive course of action is to first consider the part you’ve played in developing the negative relationship. For example, perhaps you like to control things to make sure things are done correctly. Maybe she’s less experienced and you’ve taken work away from her, saying “It’s faster if I do it myself.” Take a calm approach, ask for a chance to discuss how work will be divided to ensure the best outcome, listen more than you talk, and try to see the situation from the other person’s viewpoint. It could be they feel intimidated by you or in awe of your skill, so they’ve backed off in the past. Be generous sharing your skills and talents. It could be that what you thought about someone was totally wrong.
  4. Repeat this sequence many times to create a new pattern.

The only bad emotion is a stuck one.