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Make it more likely that you don't overreact

3 min read: I often coach people who are having an emotional reaction to a particular situation, either at home or at work, and they are struggling to work through a resolution.

The first thing that I ask them to do, before we get close to exploring solutions, is to measure the behaviour that is occurring. There is often resistance to doing this because they are itching to fix things, but I insist it will be worth their while.

The reason I ask for data is to see just exactly what behaviour is occurring and to assess whether or not they are clouded by their confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses”.

This can lead to them attempting to fix something that isn’t necessarily a problem or overreacting to a situation, putting a strain on themselves and potentially their relationships with others.

Here are two recent examples.

One person I’m coaching was trying an experiment at home to see if he could remove the frustration he was feeling about his teenage son. He declared that “He never uses the laundry basket! There are clothes all over the bedroom and it’s a stinking mess! I’m sick of having to go in and pick up after him to fill the laundry basket”.

So, I asked him first to observe his behaviour to see if there were particular times of the day or days of the week when it occurred more often and if there were any particular patterns to him using the laundry basket or not.

A couple of weeks later he came back with a smile on his face. “It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought it was”, he said. “I measured it for two weeks and the data shows that he used the laundry basket more times than he didn’t, which was a real surprise to me”.

In fact, as our discussion unfolded, it turned out that the times when his son didn’t use the basket were actually the days of the week when my client was most stressed with work and so the irritation that the behaviour caused was magnified, making him think that it occurred more often than it did.

A similar situation has arisen with another client I am working with who has just carried out an employee opinion survey. The organisation is going through major change and the Management Team have spent a lot of energy in their communications trying to bust some of the urban myths that exist in the workplace.

They were therefore really frustrated with some of the responses that they've read in the survey comments, which appeared to repeat the urban myths they had been trying to bust.

One Director said “the past 3 months of talking face to face with as many people as possible has been a complete waste of time if they still believe some of these urban myths exist”.

So I took a look at the data. Of the hundreds of comments they had received, only six people restated the urban myth. Just six.

However, because the comment landed so hard emotionally, it was magnified tenfold for the management team.

So when you're frustrated with a situation and not sure if you are overreacting, then data is the key. If you're in doubt about what is going on, then measure it...... and if you’re not in doubt, measure it anyway!. You may just be surprised.

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