The Hot Potato Game:

How to not get stuck with your own or others’ anxiety

By Bridgette Theurer - Resilient Leadership Partner

Hot PotatoI was talking to a client the other day, a leader of a large law firm in Washington D.C., about anxiety.  D.C., like much of the country, is an anxious and divided place these days.  My client’s law firm, which is about to undergo a merger, is also experiencing high levels of angst, and he was complaining to me about his partners’ behaviors – how reactive they were being and how much back stabbing, gossiping and blaming was going on, some of which was directed squarely at him.  I reminded him that anxiety is highly contagious, and because humans don’t like to feel anxious, we look for ways to pass it on to others.  Like the hot potato game, I explained.  We offload our anxiety because dealing with it ourselves makes us too uncomfortable.  By pointing a finger at him, his partners were taking the heat off of themselves.

“What do you do when your partners throw you the hot potato?” I asked.  “Oh, that’s easy,” he replied.  “I just slip the potato into my pocket and let it cool down a bit.  Then I pass it on.”

If only it were always that easy!  Under chronic pressure and stress, when our emotional and mental bandwidths are stretched thin, it can be difficult to have the presence of mind (like my client did) to hit the pause button and calm ourselves down, paving the way for cooler heads to prevail.   More commonly we operate out of immediate instinct, as in yikes this potato is hot, let me throw it at someone else!

The good news is that with a little practice and self-observation, we can all get better at playing the hot potato game.  Here’s how.

Anxiety and the Four D’s: Displace, Distract, Dissolve or Deploy 

Anxiety is the state of unease that we feel in the face of imagined or real threats.  It’s an evolutionary force of nature that keeps us safe and alive.   If you were never anxious, you wouldn’t live long and your business or organization wouldn’t survive either.  Dealing with real threats and staying ahead of them is what anxiety, at the proper level, can help us do.  That said, much of the anxiety we feel on a daily basis is not coming from real threats as much as it is from imagined or possible threats that have yet to materialize; or from minor threats that we have elevated to defcon levels.   While we can’t avoid anxiety completely, we do have a choice about how we deal with it, how much of it we experience on a daily basis and whether we infect others with our anxious behaviors.

Here’s where the four “D’s” come into play.  When it comes to dealing with anxiety we can either:

  • Displace it – pass it on to someone else,
  • Distract ourselves from it – by doing something that numbs our anxiety,
  • Dissolve it – by engaging in a calming activity that loosens anxiety’s grip on us, or
  • Deploy it – by facing into a real threat with courage and thinking about how best to address it.

The key is to notice when we are either displacing our anxiety or distracting ourselves from it (both of which tend to keep us stuck), and choose instead to either dissolve or deploy our anxiety (both of which help us to calm down and move forward thoughtfully). Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Displace

30 minutes into a 1 -hour coaching call with a client, we were still talking about his boss, and only his boss.  As in, “why does he always do this,” and “why can’t he stop doing that,” and “doesn’t he see that he’s making everyone here crazy?!”  My repeated attempts to redirect my client towards his own behavior had failed up to that point until I finally said, “Your boss isn’t on this call but it sure feels a lot like he is. Do you want him to hijack your coaching session?”

Becoming obsessively other-focused is one of the ways we displace our anxiety.  When an important person in our life (boss, spouse, team member, etc.) is making us anxious, it’s easy to blame them, complain about them, or try to change them.  This behavior is comforting and temporarily reduces our anxiety because it keeps us from doing the harder work of focusing on our own functioning and figuring out what we think and where we stand. While there might be some truth to our complaints, displacing our anxiety is ultimately disempowering. At the end of the day, it’s futile to try to change someone.  A much better strategy is to define ourselves – who do we want to be in this situation?  How can we bring more of our best self to the relationship systems we are part of? What do we believe and how can we calmly yet firmly share our thinking with anxious others?

Is there anyone right now (boss, loved one, colleague or client) who is taking up too much space in your head or dominating your conversations with others?  If so, see if you can catch yourself the next time you start to complain about them, distance yourself from them, or engage in behavior designed to manipulate or change them.  Instead, focus on your own functioning.  A great question to ask yourself is, “What’s my part in this?” 

Distract

No one enjoys feeling anxious so one of the most instinctive ways to feel better fast is to distract ourselves so we don’t have to feel it all!  Your way of distracting yourself will be unique to you.  Perhaps you’ll overwork and stay so busy you don’t have time to feel your anxiety, much less acknowledge it. “Me?  I’m not anxious,” you tell your spouse or colleagues, who often sense your anxiety before you do. “I’m just really busy.”  Or maybe you start having an extra glass of wine in the evening, to soften the hard edges of your day.  It works so well you start having two glasses of wine each night.  Not an over-worker or a wine drinker?   Other distractions include shopping and buying stuff we don’t need or spending more time on social media or searching the internet. This latter strategy not only distracts us from our anxious thoughts and feelings, but it hijacks our attention and keeps us from being present in our day.

Distractions work well in the short term because they numb our anxiety.  The problem is you need to indulge them more often (and find new ones).  Meanwhile, the underlying reason for your anxiety (e.g., a difficult relationship at work, rising tension in your marriage, or just feeling bored or in a rut) remains unaddressed.

Next time you find yourself reaching for your phone to check social media, pouring that extra glass of wine, or shopping for something you really don’t need, stop for just a moment to consider whether anxiety is fueling your behavior.  If so, see if you can sit with your anxiety, even for just a minute or two, breathe and be curious.   The more we strengthen our capacity to sit with and acknowledge our anxiety, the stronger this capacity grows and the less we need distractions to keep our anxiety at bay.  Our anxiety may even teach us something about how we’re really feeling and what we need to change.

Dissolve 

Anxiety has a physiological component to it.  Chronic anxiety lives in our tissues, our muscles and our nervous system.   It makes our breathing shallow, our muscles tense and our jaws tight. Once we’re anxious, we can’t always just think our way out of it.  We have to bring our bodies along with us.  What do you know calms not only your mind but your body as well?  Meditation? Exercise? Being out in nature?  These are great practices that can loosen anxiety’s grip on us.

Another practice that can help to dissolve anxiety is to focus on the facts.  Anxiety tends to distort and distract us from the facts.  It operates like a fire alarm in a building, demanding our attention and requiring our evacuation, even when there’s no real fire.  As our anxious unease rises, our feelings and emotions start to take center stage.  We make assumptions, jump to conclusions and blow things out of proportion, which in turn makes us even more anxious.  One simple yet potent way to break this cycle is to ask yourself three questions: 1) “What are the facts here?” 2) “What’s really going on?” and, 3) “How do I know?”  The simple act of refocusing our attention on the facts de-escalates our anxiety by balancing our feeling self with our thinking self.  When we focus on the facts we might discover that the story we’re telling ourselves is distorted or exaggerated.  Even if our exploration of the facts reveals a substantive threat, the mere act of focusing on facts (versus our feelings and stories about those facts) is calming.  With a calmer, less anxious self in the driver’s seat, we can now think more clearly and creatively about how best to deal with the threat in front of us.

Deploy

In 2008, just as the great recession was wreaking havoc on our economy, a client of mine called a meeting with his exec team.  They were on the verge of losing a major client, and a few companies in their industry were already going out of business. I attended the meeting and as each team member walked into the room, I could feel and see the dread and anxiety dripping off of them. Their bodies were slumped, their faces somber and their energy low. An hour later, they all walked out of the room with upright postures, pep in their steps, and smiles on their faces.  What happened?

My client had actually done a lot of work preparing for this meeting by managing his own anxiety, doing some research on how small businesses survive recessions, and by crystalizing his message to the team.  He shared with them a short article about how small businesses who had a game plan and stayed the course could actually come out the other side of a recession stronger and better.  He told the team that while he was aware of the challenges ahead, he believed this recession was an opportunity and if they seized it and worked hard to stay connected to each other and to their clients, they would prevail.  The team then brainstormed on some short term and longer-term strategies to shore up their key relationships and decided on a couple of important next steps they could take both collectively as an executive team, and individually as leaders.

What this client brought to this anxious situation was calm, clear leadership that created an environment in which the team could do its best thinking.  Perhaps most importantly, he acknowledged the anxiety they were all feeling and the threats they faced, while also providing a realistic reason to be hopeful and a game plan for moving forward.  This is what I call grounded optimism, and it’s one of the best ways we can turn our anxiety in a positive direction, using it to spur a sense of urgency and galvanize action.

What are some of the threats you and your team are facing at work?  How might you help yourself and others to bring your best thinking forward in order to address them?

A final thought

Organizational and individual anxiety is a fact of life, one that can either spur change or keep us stuck in a rut.  The key is to remind ourselves that we actually have a say in how we deal with it.  We can displace it onto others, distract and numb ourselves, dissolve it by calming ourselves down, or deploy it in service of a different future.  The choice is ours.

About the Author...

Bridgette Theurer

Bridgette Theurer is a partner of Resilient Leadership, LLC and is the co-author of the Resilient Leadership 2.0 (with Bob Duggan) and of the Resilient Leadership training materials now available in a variety of formats. She specializes in coaching senior and emerging leaders in organizations facing rapid growth and change. Bridgette’s clients have included large corporations such as Marriott and Sodexo USA as well as numerous small businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises.