In this article, I want to share one of my favourite models for understanding and managing stressful situations. I enjoy sharing this with clients, particularly those who have experienced trauma or can be volatile in work environments.
From a coaching perspective, I’ve worked with many clients whose inhibiting factor in their career was emotional reactions received negatively within the workplace. The response was expressed or received as anger, sarcasm, being patronising or a plethora of other harmful forms of communication.
Float into your memory bank with me for a minute to a work meeting, call or maybe a zoom where you were triggered and lost control. For some, the reaction may be shouting; for others, sarcasm; some people prefer a stern, angry email. Whatever your choice of poison, we’ve all experienced a sense of loss of control and some people may even be described as having “a short fuse!”
But what is happening for the individual at that moment, and how does greater awareness help?
In the coaching room, I like to work with a model devised by Dan Siegel, named The Window of Tolerance. Let me explain the model, and then we can look at applications.
The framework consists of different states (the diagram below illustrates the model) and the middle section is our window of tolerance, characterised by feelings of safety, flexibility and creativity. In this state we’re present, open, curious and able to emotionally self-regulate. Hence, this is the ideal emotional state as it allows for productivity and innovation.
As people are triggered or annoyed, they may experience what feels like a surge of emotions. Part of this surge is a physical reaction to perceived danger and/or stress, which activates our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response. This rise moves humans out of their window of tolerance and into either hyper-arousal (fight of flight), or hypo-arousal (freeze).
Hyper-arousal is a state characterised by feelings of rage, fear, overwhelming stress, and overactive/unclear thoughts and emotions. Alternatively, hypo-arousal is when we shut down, disconnect or zone out in order to cope. In this state we may feel slow, empty, numb, and withdrawn.
Poor managers or environments with the overtone of consequence create hyper-arousal. Unsurprisingly, this state is not conducive to productivity and can lead to destructive behaviours. When clients leave the hyper-arousal state, they will often sink straight through the window of tolerance and into hypo-arousal, where they feel tired, down, exhausted, and demotivated.
Guess what? This state is also not conducive to productivity and can lead to disengagement and apathy.
Dan Siegel’s model aims to help employees first understand what their window of tolerance is. From here they can understand what pushes them into hyper or hypo arousal, if they need to work on widening their window of tolerance, and how to stay in the optimal zone as much as possible, or at least come back quickly!
How to bring yourself back into your window of tolerance
Thankfully there are many things like meditation, breath-work, physical activity and mindfulness that help teach the brain and nervous system how to remain calm under stress. But what can you do in the moment, when you’re in that next meeting and you feel your emotions rising?
Well, a straightforward strategy is to try rhythmically tapping on your leg! The science in the solution is that it creates a physical reaction and connection through the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm us down – bringing you back into your window of tolerance. Just for reference, hugging ourselves has the same effect, but might look a little odd in your next tense meeting.
How can you help people live within the window of tolerance as a leader?
I have worked in mature teams with great leaders and being in the window of tolerance was a place of safety that creates excellence, collaboration and creativity.
Leaders play a crucial role in supporting both their own window of tolerance, and those of their team and subordinates. Leaders should provide employees with support and resources to help them regulate their emotions and cope with stress. Additionally, businesses should champion a culture of open communication so that employees feel comfortable discussing their emotional state and needs.
Watch and learn. Talk to your people about your observations without judgement or criticism, and listen to what’s alive for them. Where’s their state of mind? This kind of awareness and communication will help you navigate challenges more quickly, as you’ll know when to offer support to keep employees from hitting the hyper or hypo states.
Awareness and good communication don’t come easy to everyone. Still, good managers can learn and should be encouraged to develop these skills as they’re vital ingredients for mitigating conflict, creating better working relationships, productivity, and increasing employee engagement.
Observing good leadership in others, adapting skillsets, and self-evaluation are excellent paths to progress.
Coaching can also help leaders and individuals better understand what their experiencing and how to manage their emotions, which can lead to collaborative and high-achieving environments.
If you want to learn more here are a couple of YouTube videos explaining what it is like to “flip your lid” which was particularly useful in helping me understand my kids (aged 9 and 13) and what was going on for them when they lost their temper.