How to un-trap yourself from difficult work situations

Save yourself from being exploited at work by using this simple four-step approach

man tired, many files office

It’s 9:15am Monday morning and Rita already feels tense. As the senior claims officer for a major insurance company, she’s overloaded with work. Rita stares at the pile of files on her desk. She’s got 20 voicemail messages to return and she hasn’t even opened her email. As she logs onto her computer, Sameer walks up to her desk.

 “I have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment today,” he says with a sheepish grin. “Can you cover for me?” Rita feels her back tighten and her stomach churn. This isn’t the first time Sameer has unloaded his work on her. Last Thursday, they were supposed to write a report together, but at the end of the day, Sameer slipped out of the office. Rita found herself alone at her computer completing the report until 11pm that night.

Now, as Sameer stands there waiting for her answer, Rita imagines pinning her lazy co-worker against the wall and screaming at him, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR PERSONAL ASSISTANT?!” Instead she shrugs her shoulders and sighs, “Okay.” As Sameer goes whistling down the hall, Rita wonders, “How did I get trapped in this situation?” More importantly, how will she get out?

You may know a Rita. You may even be her. There are thousands of people like Rita throughout the working world. They are smart and talented people. They work hard. They think of themselves as caring, dedicated professionals. Their jobs look good; their titles are impressive. And yet, they often feel trapped by people and situations at work.

Rita is hooked. She’s having a strong negative internal reaction every time she has to deal with her co-worker Sameer. Rita is caught in a cycle of overworking herself and enabling Sameer to shirk his responsibilities. While she’s aware of her emotional discomfort on the job, she may not know how she contributes to—and even perpetuates—this frustrating situation.

The most effective way to break free from these emotionally draining situations is to change your reaction to the other person’s conduct

The workplace affords numerous opportunities for individuals like Rita to feel trapped, and almost no guidance about how to deal with these situations.

It’s appropriate to go to the boss with questions regarding production, accounts receivable, or sales figures. These are non-emotional, factual issues that can be addressed objectively. But when you feel nauseous after a business meeting, or a certain colleague gives you severe headaches, where do you turn?

There is a solution. We’ve developed a proven method for dealing with difficult people and challenging conditions at work. It’s called “unhooking.” Whether you’re dealing with an irritating co-worker, an overly demanding client, an infuriating boss, or an unruly employee, you can learn to “unhook” and improve your situation.

What is “unhooking”?

Unhooking frees you from emotional traps by focussing on the person over whom you have the most control—YOU. It is based on the fact that when you feel trapped by someone else’s behaviour, you get “hooked”. You develop a strong negative internal reaction to their words and actions. The most effective way to break free from these emotionally draining situations is to change your reaction to the other person’s conduct. Unhooking is a four-step process:

  1. Unhook physically
  2. Unhook mentally
  3. Unhook verbally
  4. Unhook with a business tool

The first two steps are designed to cool you down internally. [These steps neutralise your emotional and mental state so that you can see real options.] The last two are action steps for addressing your situation.

Step 1 – Unhook physically

Here you take actions to calm yourself down and release negative energy. Unhooking physically can include taking a brisk walk, splashing cold water on your face, engaging in vigorous exercise, or simply taking a few deep breaths. The idea is to release energy so that you can think more clearly.

Rita’s version of unhooking physically is to go to the gym after work. She knows that if she exercises she’ll release the tension from her earlier interaction with Sameer.

Step 2 – Unhook mentally

This is the internal version of “talking yourself off of the ledge.” In this step, you answer five questions so that you can see your situation from a fresh perspective.

  • What’s happening here?
  • What are the facts of the situation?
  • What’s their part?
  • What’s my part?
  • What are my options?

When Rita answers these questions, she writes the following: I’m working for a guy who keeps passing his work off on me. The facts are that he knows the boss likes him, and he knows I have a hard time saying “no”. His part is that he’s lazy and manipulative. My part is that I keep saying “yes”, when he dumps his work on me. My options are that I can keep taking on Sameer’s workload and resent him, or I can find a way to say “no”.

You can use this technique to break free from a wide range of emotional traps in the workplace

Step 3 – Unhook verbally

After you take a mental inventory, it’s time to communicate in a way that moves your situation forward. With verbal unhooking, you want to find the words [or sometimes the silence] to protect yourself and break out of the emotional trap. It’s important to communicate in a positive manner using “I” words that express what you want, not “you” words that blame the other person.

In Rita’s case, she finds a way to politely say “no”. The next time Sameer tries to drop more work at her desk, she says, “Sorry, I can’t cover for you this time. I’ve got an appointment myself.”

Step 4 – Unhook with a business tool

A business tool is any standard procedure or written document used in a business setting. This includes email, contracts, timesheets, job descriptions, meetings, memos, and performance evaluations. Business tools help take the emotion out of tricky workplace situations because they provide objective ways to respond to the other person’s behaviour.

Rita completes her unhooking with Sameer by suggesting the following: “The next time you’re unable to finish an assignment we should both discuss it with our supervisor.” The business tool of meeting with their supervisor makes it clear that Rita is no longer willing to quietly shoulder Sameer’s responsibilities.

Benefits of “unhooking”

As you can imagine, unhooking takes practice. But with time and patience, you can use this technique to break free from a wide range of emotional traps in the workplace. Unhooking can be applied to the following:

  • Difficult bosses. Managers or supervisors who hold you back, take credit for your ideas, or attack you for no reason.
  • Unruly employees. Staff members who misbehave and don’t follow instructions.
  • Personality disorders. Individuals who exhibit extreme behaviours at work. They may have explosive tempers, criticise everything you do or drain you out by constantly telling you all of their personal problems.

The next time you feel trapped at work, try applying the four steps of unhooking and see what happens. No matter how angry, sad, frustrated, irritated, fed up or churned up you feel, you can change your reaction to that problematic person or situation, and have a better experience.

A version of this article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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