Have you experienced at least one paralyzing moment in your life? They are those times when we are unexpectedly confronted by someone who, by the message they are delivering, is threatening our security and control over our livelihood, an intimate relationship, a friendship, or a family bond. Paralyzing moments seem to pop out of nowhere, and require of us an immediate response. They are situations that change our lives dramatically in those few moments. They create a backstory to our lives that can negatively affect us and dog us for years. They shape our future decisions, destroy our confidence, and render us victims to that paralyzing moment.
I had a paralyzing situation at work some years ago. I was marketing an entertainment company and selling shows for them. I was averaging $500,000 a year in sales for about four years. My relationship with the owner was rocky, but we kept plugging away. Until one day I was called into his office and told that my only option to continue at the company was to work on straight commission; salary and car allowance gone, and health insurance eliminated. Shell-shocked aptly describes my emotional state.
I had no idea how to respond, so I just blathered. I made no sense. I don’t even remember what I said. But I know I walked out of that room feeling defeated, destroyed, controlled, unappreciated, and financially fearful. Yet, I stayed on for four months before I ran out of money; straight commission didn’t work out for me financially.
That experience colored my view of myself as a weak person, which I am not. I remained embarrassed by it, and felt worthless as the years progressed. Wonderful doors opened for me to sell a book that I wrote 10 years later, to spearhead another entertainment company, and to grow as a real estate investor. Those opportunities went by without me fully capitalizing on them because this backstory threatened my belief in myself.
The turn-around came one day when I decided to make that moment a pivotal one, an opportunity to help others deal with their paralyzing moments. I thought back to that day in my former employer’s office and recreated that moment in order to explore other ways to respond that would have allowed me, the confronted one, to keep my self esteem in tact, and to at least control my part of the interaction, my response. You see, we can’t control life, but we do have to respond to it. So, here’s my formula for perfect words for paralyzing moments:
1. Listen without interrupting until the paralyzer is completely done talking. Silence will bring that person’s words back to them because they have thus far been the only words spoken. Bear in mind that the paralyzer is probably nervous, and expects you to fight and claw your way out of the emotional stranglehold in which you have just been placed. Remain silent. It throws the paralyzer off and tacitly gives the confronted a little control back because your thoughts aren’t obvious.
2. Take a deep breath once the paralyzer stops speaking. Breathing will help to regulate your heartbeat, calm you down, and stabilize an emotionally charged situation. Take as long as you want before speaking. There is no time limit to collect your thoughts.
3. Punt or Respond from the Heart. Punting looks like this: “I hear what you just said, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m not able to respond right now. I need time to think and really get in touch with how I feel about all of this. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able.”
Punting would have been the better approach for me in that work related situation. My employer wouldn’t have changed his mind; that was already a fate complete. But I would have maintained my dignity and taken back the control that I gave up by speaking aimlessly, by buying into a paralyzing moment and lying down for it. I would have been able to balance the scales that the surprise attack rendered imbalanced. People are allowed to not want to work with me, but they aren’t allowed to treat me disrespectfully, and in a manner that is hurtful to me. And maybe, with a time out before I responded, my employer would have softened and created an exit package that felt good to both of us. Remember, my work effort produced revenue; but our personalities didn’t mesh. Postscript: my former employer and I are very good friends now because neither of us likes to hold grudges.
Let’s look at a couple other basic examples of common paralyzing moments that most people will experience:
Your husband or wife of 20 years asks you for a divorce.
You find your significant other in bed with an insignificant other in your home.
Your father of 15-20 years tells you that he’s really a woman and will transgender soon. (this is happening more and more now)
The response is always the same: Listen without interrupting, staring into the eyes of the paralyzer. Allow a few seconds after the paralyzer is done speaking and take a long, deep breath to settle yourself and stabilize the energy in the room. Say, “I wasn’t prepared for this information, and am unable to respond now. I’ll be back with you when I’ve collected m thoughts.”
In any confrontation, the paralyzer – isn’t this a great word – can say, “I’ve made up my mind and I’m not going to change it.” Your response, “I understand that, but I still have to respond. I’m just not able to do that right now.” Your refusal to be roped into a response that comes on the heels of shock and surprise is a way of maintaining control over yourself. And that’s big in a paralyzing moment. If we can achieve that much control, we’re good. That’s really the best we can do. Threats, crying, lashing out, don’t change anything and don’t help the confronted.
The lesson any story of paralyzing consequences is to first of all listen without interrupting. That shows so much restraint, character, and poise. Listening, in and of itself, is an invaluable tool to use when confronted with anger and possible loss. Breathing clears the air. And either asking for time to respond, or speaking in the moment from the heart, demonstrates an intelligence and level of self-respect that can turn a paralyzing moment with no good end for you, into a tale of victory for your soul.
Practice this approach. Restraint in communication is a muscle that, if exercised, can provide the shelter you need to regroup and maintain control in an out-of-control situation.
In my book My Office Is A 3-Ring Circus, I use storytelling to describe situations at work with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, that could have knocked me off my game. Communication skills, our words, are our secret weapons for diffusing paralyzing moments.