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Human Skills 006 - Managing Stress and Anxiety
with Alan Van Arden
I suppose it's natural that a conversation about managing stress and anxiety turned to feedback. After all, giving critical feedback can be super stressful!
But in this conversation with Alan Van Arden, the thing I appreciated most was how often he was able to shift things to the positive. How to reframe stressful situations as normal and manageable. How to invite your audience in when you're having anxiety during a presentation, and use that anxiety to create connection. How to handle the emotions when you receive critical feedback, and how to give not only clear and useful feedback, but clear and useful praise as well.
Note: I apologize for my audio in the first part of this interview, I was accidentally using the wrong mic. It's still understandable though, and really Alan is the one dropping all of the wisdom, so listen to him and skip past me if you need to :)
What tactics do you use to manage stress and anxiety when tackling new challenges?
One of the things that I really think about is reframing and normalizing. One thing, normalizing: Ok, I'm going to run stand up today. I haven't done that before, and knowing that, could be that does cause some anxiety, especially the first time that you do that, and that it's normal. It's normal to feel that way, rather getting trapped in that emotion and making that situation more stressful. So, I would really, really recommend just thinking that "My emotions are normal, my feelings are normal. And I can move into these situations and still do well while I feel these things."
And then secondly, reframing is also really powerful. If you're coming to that big overwhelming project, it's like, okay, well, this is big. And it's really hard for me to wrap my head around. But if I reframe this, it's actually a series of really small things. Let's talk about the first three small things and only focus on those.
And so that goes into a little bit of breaking the problem down, but in the moment, even before you get into that work, just know that this big thing seems undoable, it's overwhelming, but I know that these become smaller things. And I know I've done a lot of small projects and they've all been successful.
How do you handle anxiety when giving a presentation?
Ok, so you're up on stage, still feeling some emotions. One thing is naming it. So like, "I'm feeling some anxiety". That really helps calm things down. Taking a deep breath, taking a moment. Sometimes the time in a presentation always feels longer than it is. So take a moment, you can take a moment. People are patient, people want to see you succeed.
And sometimes even like bring them in. I've actually had some of my stress relieving moments where I take a big deep breath, sometimes seems like a big sigh. So I like to just bring people into that. So it's not misinterpreted, especially as a manager, as "Why are they sighing?"
Instead it's just like, "I'm going to take a deep breath everybody, just to calm myself down for a moment. Why don't you all join me in doing that?"
Take that deep breath. Ahhhh. And then move into your presentation after that.
How do you manage the emotional response to feedback?
It's super interesting to think about feedback, especially in the context of stress and in the workplace. Because feedback is sometimes a stressful scenario. And we can't avoid stress all the time.
We definitely need to help correct somebody's performance, correct our own performance in places, especially when we're impacting the rest of the company or other team members or something else in a negative way.
Those are things that need to be resolved and often feedback is the route to that. And so one of the things is dealing with that threat response.
It comes back to the culture, trying to build an understanding that that when you get feedback or when you give feedback, it's in the interest of improvement. Really, that's a sort of another way of reframing things: "This feedback might feel bad or might feel a little bit stressful. But my colleague is really trying to help me, my colleague is trying to help the team. Here's some goals that we're all trying to achieve together, and I think this is a way to do it."
And so that again helps with that initial response. I think naturally, when we get feedback, we see it a little bit as a status threat. Like our status might be changing. Like someone's saying something negatively... I was part of this team, I was part of this group, everything was going well, and now there's something I need to correct.
But it's important to sort of have that framing and understand that over your career you're gonna be getting and giving feedback. And over time, understanding that you might need to deal with these emotions. They will pass. They'll come through. And then after that you have some chance to reflect on what the actual feedback is.
How do you give effective feedback?
One of the things that I've always found very useful and a practical way is when you do give feedback, be specific. To very specifically say, "Hey, when, when you do this, then this is how it impacts other people or this is how it impacts the situation."
And then the second thing is to give specific ways of fix that. So maybe one example is "When you give large pull requests, it's really hard for us to review them. That can potentially introduce new bugs to the system. What I would prefer is if you would put in smaller pull requests by story, by ticket, and of course in functional ways, functional pieces of code, but so that they're small enough that it's easy for other people to review. And then the outcome of that is that and less chance of introducing issues into the system."
So that's a way of talk about giving someone feedback. Be specific, outline the impacts, offer a solution.
There's plenty of scenarios where we have to give corrective feedback, but one thing that I think that we don't always talk about is positive feedback or praise. That is super important, arguably even more important than giving constructive feedback, because the way we learn, the way we naturally learn, is we build on our strengths.
So what you wanna do as a leader is you try to build the most high-performing team as possible. And that means individuals getting better at what they do. And sometimes people think working on your gaps or working on the gaps that people have, working on people's weaknesses. But as we know, not everybody's the same, that's not always productive. Of course, if someone wants to work on certain weaknesses, they wanna get better at something, it's great to help them through that.
But ultimately, if you think about that team level, you think about people's strengths and we're really good at getting better at our strengths. And what you wanna do is turn people's strengths into superpowers, and then build the team in such a way that people strengths overlap.
And by giving praise, like "that thing that you did yesterday, that PR that I reviewed, that code is really good, really clever. Yes, do more of that. "
The underlying message is "yes, do more of that." And people will be encouraged to learn more, improve on those skills, and go from strengths to superpowers.
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