Getting Under Your Skin: How To Respond?

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

What happens when a client or colleague says something that really gets under your skin? (We’re all human and this happens to us more frequently than we would like to admit). Do you tend to get defensive and make a snarky comment, or freeze up because you’re in shock and not quite sure what to say? Or perhaps you avoid addressing it directly and grow resentful?

How you respond when someone gets under your skin or triggers you can have long lasting effects. As a leader, what you say and do can either motivate others and build relationships or demoralize and alienate people. We’re not always aware of how our actions affect others—especially when we are in an emotionally charged situation.

Most Underrated Leadership Superpower

Perhaps the most underrated leadership superpower is self-awareness. When we are truly self-aware, we are able to recognize in the moment that something has tripped our wire, and we are able to step back and choose how to respond. This is at the heart of Emotional Intelligence.

But how exactly does this play out in real-life work situations? In this post, I will share a personal experience I had with a colleague to illustrate a simple model for applying self-awareness in the heat of the moment and responding thoughtfully rather than reacting.

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The Heat of the Moment

Some years ago, a new colleague was shadowing me at a program that I was leading for a client. I was excited to share the experience with this person who was talented, bright and creative.

I could tell that the session itself went extremely well. People were actively engaged and the evaluations we received supported this with high praise. I felt really proud of how well this project went and was excited to hear what my new colleague thought. As we were packing up, I asked this colleague for thoughts. The response was much less enthusiastic, and came across as extremely judgmental, with no actionable feedback.

I was shocked, angry and hurt. I frankly, didn’t know what to say—which was probably a good thing since I was in the thick of these emotions. In the moment, I knew how badly I felt, but had to digest what I was feeling for a few days before I could really articulate what bothered me about my colleague’s comments and address the issue directly.

The Neuroscience of Reactions

As an Economics major in college, the first thing I was taught in Economics 101 was that humans are rational beings. Throughout life, and in my career as an Executive Coach, I have learned that this could not be further from the truth. We are emotional beings, first and foremost.

As humans, we are wired for lightning-fast reactions to threats to our safety. And while the rational part of our brain knows that a colleague’s dismissive comment doesn’t have the same killer teeth of a tiger, the part of our brain that fends off threats can’t discern between emotional threats and physical ones.

Emotional Hijack

Once a threat is identified, this emotional part of our brain hijacks rational thinking to marshall all resources for a defensive reaction: striking out, taking off or shutting down. It happens in a flash.

You might recognize the physical reactions: heart pounding, a blast of energy, difficulty thinking, tensing of your muscles. You may feel an impulse to strike back verbally with something that you could regret later. You may find your mind going completely blank. These are all reactions that have been triggered by something that our brain perceives to be an attack or threat.

If you are a leader who wants to build strong teams and a productive culture, little good comes from acting out when you are in the throes of an emotional hijack. The rational part of your brain is shut down and you aren’t able to see the whole situation or think clearly. Even if your anger is warranted and ought to be expressed, an emotional outburst will undermine your ability to be heard.

Your Emotional Triggers

Every person has a unique set of sensitivities that, when triggered, will spark a physiological and emotional reaction. We don’t have much choice about this. We’re wired this way.

These sensitivities vary quite a bit from person to person. How do you feel when someone challenges your ideas in a meeting? Do you feel personally attacked or even bullied? Do you fear that you will look bad? Or are you able to listen with an open mind, be curious and engage in a thoughtful debate?

What about when a colleague interrupts you? Do you feel dismissed, or devalued? Do you feel offended or angry? Or do you see it as a normal part of a lively discussion and are curious to hear their thoughts?

How do you feel when you aren’t invited to a meeting? Do you jump to assumptions about others’ motives? Does it trigger anxiety or resentment? Or does it make you relieved that you have one less meeting to attend?

Core Beliefs Fuel Our Reactions

Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, identified that behind each of these emotional sensitivities lie a set of beliefs about ourselves and how the world works. For example, we may believe that our value lies in being liked. Or we may believe that we must be seen as smart if we are to succeed. Or that if we aren’t doing the detailed work ourselves, we aren’t contributing.

These beliefs are so core to who we are that the brain will do everything it can to defend against any threat. Sometimes the threat is our own desire to change, whether that change is to face conflicts directly or listen better or delegate more. Sometimes the threat is the way someone else is interacting with us, whether we perceive they are arguing with us, dismissing us or excluding us.

If we are not aware of these beliefs, triggers and resulting emotions, we will find ourselves reacting the same way over and over. Self-awareness gives us the ability to understand ourselves better so we can slow things down and choose how to best respond.

Download Helpful Immunity to Change Resources

A Thoughtful Response

In the case of my new colleague, I held back while I was blinded by anger and confusion and found a graceful way to end the conversation. I took a few days to cool off and gain clarity.

During that time, I looked closely at what I was feeling and talked the experience out with a trusted confidante. Knowing that I had to address this with my colleague so that we could develop a strong working relationship, I booked a meeting on our calendars.

Because I wanted to be prepared, I wrote out what I wanted to say using the same feedback model we teach our clients. (Learn more from my post on Giving Feedback and Dealing with Defensiveness).

The conversation went like this, using our SHARED™ feedback model:


SHARED™ feedback model

S | Establish a Shared Intent.
I’d like to talk about what happened the other day, and this is all in the spirit of building a positive working relationship.

H | Provide context of what Happened
The other day, when I asked for your thoughts about the program I led…

A | Describe specific Actions
You gave me feedback on a four-hour workshop in three words, and provided no specifics to make the feedback actionable or helpful. You also did not acknowledge anything good about the session after seeing that the client was very pleased with it.

R | Explain Results
As a result, your comments felt really dismissive, judgmental and hurtful.

E | Engage in dialogue
What’s your perspective on this?

D | Discuss ideas for improvement or desired outcomes
I would love to hear feedback from you that not only acknowledges what went well, but also lets me know where I can improve by providing more specifics to make the feedback actionable, while also making it clear that the feedback is coming from a good place.

Moving Forward

I was nervous about having this conversation—how would my colleague respond? Would this person hear me out? Or possibly reject what I had to say? My colleague was able to take this all in, partly because the feedback was honest and heartfelt—and because I was speaking from a place of calm self-awareness, rather than emotional reaction.

(It’s important to note that emotions in and of themselves aren’t bad. To the contrary, emotions are normal and an important source of information, as well as allow us to truly connect with people. It’s the knee-jerk reactivity that gets in the way).

My colleague was genuinely unaware of how the comments had affected me. This person offered a sincere apology and really took my feedback to heart. It was because of this conversation, that we developed a greater understanding of and empathy for each other. This paved the way for a very strong and productive working relationship.

Self-Awareness is the Foundation for Strong Leadership

As executive coaches, we often are brought in to help leaders raise their awareness in particular areas in service of their ongoing growth and development, and to support the organization’s goals.

Frequently, leaders need to change the way that they work with others. They typically have an idea of what they need to change, but get stuck by not know how to make the change. This could be a CEO struggling to unify the executive team behind a single vision, a senior leader who needs to build cross-functional relationships or a VP who needs to empower their team and lead more strategically.

Emotional sensitivities and outdated beliefs or limiting mindsets often lie at the root of many of these relationship challenges, and it’s what makes them so thorny. The good news is that self-awareness can shift the dynamic not just for the person being coached, but for everyone with whom they are engaging.

Download How Relationships Shape Managerial Careers

Deepen Your Self-Awareness and Improve How You Respond

We draw upon the Immunity to Change process to help our clients deepen awareness of their underlying fears, competing commitments, and limiting beliefs and assumptions that are getting in the way of their leadership goals.

This is often supplemented by qualitative 360-degree feedback, which allows us to ask probing questions to gain richer behavioral detail in order to create even more awareness and make the feedback more actionable.

The truth is, even though I’ve always been a self-reflective person, my own experiences with coaching were critical for me to develop the degree of self-awareness necessary to respond productively to challenging people and situations. It’s pretty difficult to do this on our own, but a skilled coach can help clear the way.




Getting Into The Mindset Of A Top Achiever


Giving Feedback: Dealing with Defensiveness

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