The metaphoric raincoat

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

“You need a raincoat,” I told a coaching client.

He looked puzzled, glancing out my office window at the gloriously sunny day. He had just described feeling like he was on an emotional roller coaster at work: a capricious boss on the one hand, and work he is deeply committed to on the other.

“You need a raincoat to protect yourself from being pelted with those emotional highs and lows at work,” I explained. “It sounds like it will always be pretty chaotic, so if you want to stay there — and thrive — you may want to change how you react to it.”

“Think of it as putting on a raincoat,” I said.

Anticipate the unexpected

My client described his frustration with being blindsided by his manager’s decisions around shifting priorities.

“What are, say, five executive decisions that are coming around the next corner that are going to feel like a hit to the stomach?” I ask.

He listed out several situations he could see unfolding in the next several weeks.

“If you can anticipate what’s coming, you’ll feel less blindsided and powerless,” I told him. “Things will still come out of left field, but if you take the time to think ahead, you may be surprised less often.”

(Quick aside: During a recent writing break, I relaxed with a 2016 science fiction novel about an alien invasion called “Ninth City Burning,” by J. Patrick Black. In a happy coincidence, this is where I picked up:

“The fate of Earth could depend on whether or not I know what I’m talking about,” says one of the protagonists to herself, as she waits to talk to Earth’s leadership. “Only [her friend] is smiling, looking like he’s thoroughly enjoying the show. This must be how he keeps so calm all the time — he plans everything out in advance.”

She then builds a flying city and I went back to writing about planning for the unexpected.)

Study the problem 

My coaching client’s usual M.O. with work frustrations is to talk it over with his co-workers and then withdraw, feeling powerless and angry.

“How do you want to react instead?” I asked him.

“I want to be calm and reasonable,” he said. “I don’t want to get so upset. It affects my home life. I can’t sleep.”

We talked about choosing to be curious about the problem — rather than angry.

“What if you studied the problem like a scientist or an engineer?” I asked my client, who is very STEM. “What if you asked lots of clarifying questions?”

(Another quick aside: I needed another writing break and picked up the lyrical 2019 novel “The Scent Keeper,” by Seattle’s own Erica Bauermeister. I hadn’t gotten past page 19 before stumbling across an explanation of how to think like a scientist:

“This was science, I told myself,” says Emmeline, a young girl living on a remote and isolated Pacific Northwest island.

“I would unravel the mystery, following the principles my father had taught me as we’d walked through the woods. Assess the situation, Emmeline. Eliminate the variables. Determine the best course of action.”

I left her foraging for clams and salal, and went back to writing about being curious about rather than angry with workplace frustrations.)

“Before reacting, I want you to write a list of, say, five explanations that describe the situation you’re faced with,” I told my client. (In other words, assess the situation.) “We humans have a tendency to jump to the most negative, egocentric explanation. I want you to expand your field of vision.”

Forcing yourself to think of five possible explanations for a frustrating situation is a good to-do for your brain; it’s a way of tricking yourself out of reaction mode and calming that emotional roller coaster, I told my client. You can then eliminate the least likely explanations — and possibly the first one you jumped to, just as Emmeline’s father suggested.

Once you’ve slowed down and are thinking (more) clearly, you can determine the best course of action. My client and I talked through different options, anywhere from shrugging and doing nothing to writing a detailed and well-researched business case contesting the decision. (Interestingly, griping with co-workers, withdrawing from management and losing sleep were nowhere on that list.)

I checked in with my client a couple of weeks after this conversation. “How’s the raincoat holding up?” I asked him.

“I’m staying pretty dry,” he said.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.