Seven tips for keeping your cool in stressful situations

Sheila Daly was doing organization development work long before there was a name for the discipline.

Organization development, or OD, is about helping organizations thrive in an ever-changing environment. “It focuses on aspects of organizational life, including culture, processes, systems, and behavior, to help organizations and people adapt and grow to meet present and future needs,” says Stephanie McGovern, a leadership consultant who instructs three of the five required courses in the University of Minnesota’s Organization Development Certificate. 

Simply put, OD is about people and how they respond to and implement changes aimed at improving productivity and business outcomes. Key components to making successful change are a common vision of the goal and a roadmap to reach it, which often requires input and collaboration. That’s where Daly’s work comes in: she runs a dispute mediation company, and she says one of the obstacles to collaboration is unresolved conflict.

“I’ve been in the workforce for 40 years. Whether it was a small business or Target, they all had unresolved conflict. When you throw people together, there are going to be issues,” says Daly, who recently completed the University of Minnesota’s Organization Development Certificate to give bona fides to all her work in the field. “What I’ve learned is that conflict is mostly about misunderstanding and communication breakdown.”


If your emotional abilities aren't in hand . . . you are not going to get very far.
—Daniel Goleman

Daly says she was fascinated with what she learned in the program about the science behind what creates or curtails conflict and how the brain processes emotion. “Human nature tends to focus on negatives rather than positives, which raises barriers that inhibit collaboration, cooperation, and trust.”

“There’s a chemical reaction in the brain under threat, which triggers feelings of unsafety, isolation, and confusion and eventually leads to apathy or disengagement,” says McGovern. “These are not the reactions of a person ready and willing to cooperate with whatever change is being considered. Whether this person can detach, reframe, and regain power in the situation comes down to whether they have a well-developed emotional intelligence.”

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, a prominent thought leader on the subject of emotional intelligence (EI for short), defines emotional intelligence as self-awareness, self-management, motivation/passion, empathy, and social skills. He says, “If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Indeed, a well-developed EI is now as equally sought after as technical proficiency by employers in practically all industries and professions. Have you ever been asked in an interview to describe a situation in which something didn’t go as planned and how you responded? That question is designed to measure your emotional intelligence and uncover potential hot buttons.

“Hot Buttons are behaviors that trigger an overreaction on our part,” writes McGovern. “The survival and/or the emotional part of our brain gets tripped and it is hard to think straight! Underneath hot buttons are often values that are important to us, but that are not shared by those with whom we interact. Being aware of our own hot buttons helps us to communicate our needs and expectations to others in a constructive way or find ways to deal with the situation by reframing it in our own mind.” Behaviors that can trip our hot buttons include unreliability, aloofness, arrogance, and hostility.

One of the things that makes navigating hot buttons so difficult, says McGovern, is that we naturally think the other person needs to change to make us feel better. “However, the truth is that we, ourselves, need to change, which begins with self-regulation—examining our own hot buttons and how they make us feel physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

Once we understand what behaviors push our buttons, we can follow these steps to self regulate next time we feel triggered.

7 Tips for Keeping Your Cool: Self-Regulating Emotional Reactions

  1. Breathe. Just one deep breath can sometimes release a lot of emotional energy and leave your mind clearer by getting oxygen to the brain.
  2. Take a break. Whether it is five minutes or five hours, taking a break can give us the time and space we need to regain our composure. Just be careful not to use this as an avoidance technique!
  3. Find the humor. When used in the right way, humor can help us release emotional tension. It can also remind us that many things we take seriously just aren’t all that serious.
  4. Ask someone else for perspective. If our hot buttons have been pushed, sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective. We may see that we are blowing things out of proportion. On the other hand, we may find that it is a real problem, and an outside person can help us brainstorm creative solutions.
  5. Get some sleep! Sleep is the great rejuvenator. It is somewhat cliché, but it’s true that things often look very different after a good night’s sleep.
  6. Don’t take it personally. Things people do may seem directed at us but they are usually about them. When we realize we are not the center of the universe, we can let things bounce off us without taking them in.
  7. Be curious. If, in the heat of the moment, we can remember to be curious rather than judgmental, we will see all sorts of options we never knew were there.

Explore other resources for developing your EI:

Certificate: Organization Development
Course: Emotional Intelligence
Webinars: Leading with Emotional Intelligence and Cultivate Emotional Intelligence to Manage Stress.