As a child, I loved watching inside the piano while my mother played. It was like witnessing magic. Each time she pressed down a key, a hammer would strike the string and a magnificent sound would emanate. Eventually, the dampener would fall, stopping the string from vibrating, as a result, it no longer sang.
This image came to mind as I was working with a client who was dealing with an issue that was "striking a nerve." Every time this issue came into his purview he got totally fired up. It would consume his attention, making it hard to focus on anything else. And he struggled to keep his cool.
The issue was like the hammer of the keyboard striking a nerve instead of a string. And his nervous system was vibrating with fervor as a result. More specifically, he experienced the release of cortisol in his body. Such stress hormones cause a physiological reaction. For him, that included a racing heart, sweaty palms, and foggy thinking.
He was continually entering a patterned threat response of fight when this issue came up. And it was not serving him well. By reacting aggressively, he was backing other people on the team into a corner. They would typically disengage entirely out of fear of their boss, which led to turnover. The issue became a hot button item that was never going away - it was a core part of their business.
He came to me because he was at his wit's end. He was tired of experiencing this loss of control and he was worn down by the turnover. The only way he could scale his business was to effectively delegate, which this dynamic was impeding.
What's more, this wasn't the way he wanted to be as a leader. He genuinely cared about the people on his team. He wanted them to know that and not fear him. Something had to change.
So we worked together to first understand the trigger and the patterned threat response. Then he learned techniques for dampening the effects of the trigger on his nervous system.
Part of the problem was the story he told himself anytime this issue came up. He would often think to himself, "No one cares as much as I do...If I want something done right, I just have to do it myself...They're just never going to get it..."
Those stories intensified the vibration of the trigger. It was like using the sustaining pedal on the piano to hold the dampener up while repeatedly striking the same note. Each disparaging and judgmental thought just got him more and more fired up until he exploded.
By creating awareness around the pattern - the trigger, the biochemical reaction, the feelings, the thoughts, the fight - he took a powerful first step in interrupting the pattern. He was training himself to notice it in the moment, so he could reclaim control over his reactions.
In recognizing that his thoughts were feeding the fire, we worked on rewriting the story he was telling himself. He opted for asking himself, "What if...?" questions. "What if the opposite were true? What if they do care?" Instead of following his typical litany of blaming thoughts.
The awareness in the moment, the intentional redirection of his thoughts, and repeated opportunities to practice these new skills in real-time enabled him to rewrite the pattern.
He excitedly called me after the issue came up, "I'm proud of myself Ariana...I didn't yell or get angry. I took a deep breath and just said, 'It happens. It's ok, we can fix it.' And I meant it."
Such a significant shift is cause for celebration indeed. Through this experience, he learned that just because something strikes a nerve doesn't mean he has to feed the frenzy. Now such moments symbolize an opportunity to pause, recenter and respond with intention.
His whole team is happier and more committed to quality work as a result of his learning in action!