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You’ve been working on a project for the past few months, resulting in a substantial amount of personal sacrifice. You have a new-found excitement about work, mostly because of this assignment that has taken you away from your day-to-day core duties. It’s been your first opportunity to truly shine and demonstrate another set of skills.
At the half-way point of this eight-month project, you’re pleased with the progress and how well the team is working together.
Moments after walking into your office one bright, sunny Monday morning you get a wave from your manager to come to her office. In a casual tone without any preamble, she says “We need to end the project because the product team has decided to go in another direction. As of this moment, all further work on the project will be stopped, and you’re to go back to your old role. Thanks for the work you’ve done.”
You feel like you’ve just been hit by a truck. You’re stunned, speechless and unable to respond in words or emotions. As you leave your manager’s office, your mind begins to flood with pictures of the personal sacrifice and time given to this project. You’re in disbelief; it seems all the work done to this point in time has been for naught.
Once you get back to your desk and sit down, negative emotions gain momentum as the sense of loss and frustration begins to swell.
This micro skill introduces an approach that can help a person deal with stressful events that come out of nowhere. This approach, which can be useful to deal with minor or major stresses, is called cognitive reframing.
While there are events that we cannot control, we can be intentional in how we respond to stress in the statements and questions we ask ourselves and others.
Cognitive reframing can help change your view of a situation and reduce the emotional strain that comes with unwanted, negative stress.
In the above example, you were in a position where things were going well and without any notice all was taken away. When a situation like this happens, some people run automatic internal thoughts such as, “I must have upset someone; they don’t like me; or I’ll never get an opportunity like this one again.”
These kinds of negative statements are irrational and often not based on or facts. The truth may be as simple as the product team got new information that changed the business decision regarding where to invest. When you start to use misinformation and emotionally speculate why something has gone wrong, the outcome is seldom positive.
The first step to reframe a situation is to be aware that automatic, negative thoughts are not necessarily accurate or real; they’re just thoughts.
Cognitive reframing is a micro skill that can be taught. However, it requires a desire to take accountability for your negative thinking. This puts you in position to change your negative thoughts into positive alternatives.
One possible cognitive reframe for the above example is: “The project ending suddenly without notice or any input on what we accomplished is not what I wanted, but I did get to spend four months on a project I enjoyed, and I’ve had a chance to demonstrate my skills.”
Cognitive reframing can help a person change their perspective, which in turn can impact their emotions, actions and memory of an event.
Like any skill, cognitive reframing takes practice to learn how to change negative events into positive ones.
Coaching tips for cognitive reframing:
Believe – Benefiting from this micro skill starts with believing that we can’t control all the events in our world, but we can control how we react to them.
Identify opportunities for cognitive reframing – When you become aware of negative internal dialogue that’s creating a negative view of yourself, your world or your future, this is an opportunity to try cognitive reframing.
Accept that negative thoughts can go as quickly as they come – One way to reduce the influence of negative thinking and exaggeration is to change your focus quickly. As fast as a negative thought appears, it can be replaced by changing the context: “What would you tell your best friend if they were in the exact same situation as you’re in now?” You too can benefit from the positive alternatives you create for others. You need only to listen to them.
Focus energy on the positive alternative story – Looking for positive alternatives in the above step provides new positive thinking and focus for changing your story into a positive one. This can improve how you’re thinking and feeling.
Bill Howatt is the chief of research, work force productivity at The Conference Board of Canada, and former chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell.
You can find other stories likes these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.