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Fire Up those Fire Extinguishers: Dealing with Negative Behaviors©
By Sandra Jones Campbell   Printer Friendly Version

Fire extinguishers are those people who put a damper on everything. No matter how positive a situation, no matter how many innovative solutions, some people seem to spread negativism like the foam from a fire extinguisher. Often the individuals are well meaning so it is their behavior that is at issue, not the people themselves. You can accept people and not their opinions or behaviors.

You may live or work with these folks on a regular basis or you may simply meet them at the grocery, a ball game, school or any number of other places. They may be your customer, client, guest or clerk. If you are familiar with the communication styles and you have time to determine theirs, you may be able to manage their negative behaviors using those techniques. Often, however, the encounter is sudden and there is no time to determine the best strategy to use. To fire up your relationships in negative situations, try these tactics.

Stop. Look. Listen.

Remember those words from your mother about crossing the street, a potentially dangerous situation? The same goes with negative behavior.

  • Stop. Control your own reactions first. Don't over-react, become defensive, blame or allow them to blame you. You'll have time to respond later. If the mouth is defending, the ear is not hearing. And if you are too busy defending your ideas, you may destroy your relationships in the process.

  • Look. Look at the individual. Maintain appropriate eye contact. Keep your chin level. Tilting it up will make you appear to be superior. Tilting it down will make you seem uncertain, unconfident.

  • Listen. Learn what their issues, concerns, problems are. Often people just need to vent and don't expect you to do anything about their problem. By listening instead of talking you also gain time to assess.

Breathe. Relax. Visualize.

During the stop, look and listen phase you can maintain your calm using these additional techniques.

  • Breathe. During times of confrontation or intense stress we often hold our breath or breathe very shallowly. This decreases the amount of oxygen to vital organs including the brain. Our thinking, processing and decision-making capacities are compromised. Breathe deeply, slowly from the abdomen. Inhale through the nose allowing the abdomen to distend. This permits the diaphragm to expand to its fullest, creating maximum aeration of the lungs. The more oxygen into the lungs, the more into the brain and the better your chances are for responding appropriately. Exhale through the lips.

    Since we are taught to hold in our abdomens for appearance sake, you may need to practice. Lie on the floor or bed on your back. Place a book on your abdomen. Practice deep breathing until you can push the book upward on inhalation. Blowing up balloons, playing wind instrument and singing also help you develop diaphragmatic breathing. At every stoplight, use these breathing techniques. They will become second nature and be much easier to call upon when fire-extinguishing behaviors occur.

  • Relax. Relaxing isn't an easy task when you're in a sudden confrontation with negative behavior. Like abdominal breathing, it needs to be practiced. You must know what tension and relaxation feel like in order to get relaxed. This requires practice prior to the negative incident to make it really work and to make it a habit. Initially, it may take you ten minutes to learn.

    Starting at either your head or toes, alternately contract and relax all major muscle groups. Scrunch up your face, frown, tense your neck muscles. Hold for a few seconds, then release. Feel the difference between tight and loose. Now raise your right arm in the air. Make a fist. Hold it tight. Stiffen up your forearm and upper arm muscles all the way into the shoulder. Hold and note how uncomfortable the tension is. Open your fist. Uncurl, then wiggle the fingers. Now wiggle and relax the wrist, the forearm and lastly the upper arm and shoulder. Notice the difference between tense and relaxed. Continue with the left hand and arm, then chest, abdomen, buttocks, each leg and foot.

    Once you are clear on the differences in tension and relaxation, you will be able to mentally tell yourself to relax during negative crises or any other time you feel anxious. In this more relaxed state, you will appear both more confident and more open to the individual's needs.

  • Visualize. As Geraldine, a Flip Wilson character, used to say, "What you see is what you get!" This is true in life just as it is true in dealing with difficult behaviors. Visualize the outcome you want from the situation. See yourself in control, calm, cool, collected. Picture the resolution you want. Whatever you think is most likely to happen IS most likely to happen. Make it positive and make it what you want.

    Sometimes it is helpful to take a mini-mental vacation. Often negative situations occur when we are on the phone. It can be helpful to take yourself to a place in your mind, a memory of a relaxing spot. You may visualize yourself by a waterfall, walking in the rain or snow. Perhaps you are lying on the beach, feeling the sun's warming rays and hearing the surf while feeling sand between your toes. Perhaps you're experiencing rain on a tin roof or a mountain meadow full of wild flowers and a babbling brook. Create relaxing scenarios that you can call upon in times of stress.

    If these two methods fail, you can always visualize the other person in a compromising situation-a G-string bathing suit, for example! This will help you disarm them in your mind!

Using these strategies in the initial phase of dealing with fire extinguishing behaviors allows you to get in control. The person who talks the least is in control, not the one who is putting a damper on things. Taking charge of your reactions first not only diffuses the situation but allows you time to begin focusing on them. It will be much easier to fire up the communication or relationship if you can focus on them. Find what you have in common, what you do agree on. Attend to that and to the other person.

Follow the Golden Rule. Be as understanding of them as you would want for yourself. This will help you save face for everyone and provide workable solutions. Take a risk: Hold your hand out first.

As Stephen Covey would tell us, "First things first." To manage fire-extinguishing behaviors, we must first take charge of our own emotions. If you stop, look, listen, breathe, relax and visualize you will take control of the situation, diffuse negative behavior and be on your way to firing up your relationships.

© 2000. This material is copyrighted. Reproduction or transmittal in any form without the written permission of the author, Sandra Jones Campbell, Ph.D., is prohibited.

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