High-Stakes Perspective: How To Stay Self-Regulated When It Counts

In European art during the Renaissance, the concept of “perspective” was finally established, and was perfected by some of the master painters of the period. This was a breakthrough and meant that creating the illusion of depth and space on a flat canvas now had a formula (those of you who took a junior-high art class may recall terms like “linear perspective” and “vanishing point”). As an analogy, this converts handily to personal perspective, which means seeing issues and situations from all angles. The formula in this case requires you to think a little abstractly by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In my recent article Practicing Perspective: Life’s Curve Balls vs Your Self-Regulation, I laid out the different types of high-stakes situations that can hamper your perspective and compromise your self-regulation in the process.

As a follow-up today, let me suggest a few ways to “zoom out” in order to reestablish your personal perspective, thereby regaining your self-regulation when the stakes are high. Think of zooming out as broadening your viewpoint when assessing a person or a situation, much like when you pinpoint a location on Google Maps and then use your mouse to pull away, putting that location into perspective against the greater surrounding area. But first, an “entertaining” anecdote!

Without Even Thinking

A colleague of mine recently shared this story, which illustrates authentically, and perhaps humorously, how a lack of perspective can impede one’s self-regulation and lead to embarrassment:

Howard and his partner George were out to dinner at an upscale NYC restaurant with another couple when, as often happens, sitting at the next table was an iconic celebrity who everyone would recognize and admire. Completely starstruck, George sprung from his seat, rushed up behind the entertainer, and plopped a hand onto his shoulder. Instantaneously, the celeb sternly commanded, “Get your hand off of me.” George was taken by surprise, and instantly felt ashamed for having invaded the person’s space. Even worse, for years to come, George won’t be able to see his favorite celeb on TV without harkening back to the negative exchange.

Howard rounded out the anecdote by mentioning that about 10 minutes later, Elton John appeared at the restaurant. This time, Howard didn’t need to worry about George making a silly move….Elton was surrounded by body guards!

Why was this otherwise professional, well-mannered, “sober” person prompted to do something so inappropriate? For George, it was an amygdala hijack of sorts, but in this case, without the anger. Come to think of it, the celebrity exhibited a lack of self-regulation as well in his response. If you think this has never happened to you, you might be wrong. Consider a time when you’ve been totally blindsided by what a colleague has said or done to you (as in my real scenario published on Forbes.com) or found yourself shouting at your spouse for a spilled milk kind of situation. In all these instances, there was a failure to gain perspective before rushing in.

The Steps You Can Take

To compose yourself in high-stakes situations in life and at work by quickly gaining perspective, consider these important steps toward building your self-regulation practice:

Be Present: If you are vigilant enough to catch what’s going on in the moment, with your own chemistry and amongst others, you won’t be caught off-guard by either.

Keep Listening: Don’t wander into your own head and have a conversation with yourself. Keep your attention on the situation at hand and stay curious.

Distance Yourself: Zooming out, or creating some space between yourself and the discussion, is the most efficient way to find hidden perspective (remember that Google map?)

Weigh the Importance in the Big Picture: The moment you feel anxiety about a situation, ask yourself, “Is this going to matter in a day? Next week? Next year?” This ushers in perspective effectively, and at the very least reactivates your pre-frontal cortex and regulates the amygdala before it pounces.

Practice Linguistic Distancing: A DRIVEN OfficeHours participant put it this way: “I try to accurately assess what the actual issues are and where the differences in perspective/communication are, so I can try to translate or address it.” Besides assessing words and issues, this wise client is putting herself into the other’s shoes and seeing the world through another’s eyes. It’s called empathy, which is the brand-new EQ principle that I’ll begin to explore in my next article.