Wisdom//

How to Positively Reframe a Stressful Situation at Work

Cognitive techniques can actually help you transform your mindset.

i_photos / Shutterstock
i_photos / Shutterstock

If you don’t exercise your reframing muscle, the ability to put a positive spin on the most stressful situations can feel like a superpower. Negative thoughts and limiting paradigms can feel all-consuming, and if you let them take hold, they can easily lead to rumination. That’s why positive reframing is such a powerful cognitive tool.  Whether you got into a spat with a colleague, needed to carefully craft a response to a rude email, or simply had a bad day at work, these techniques will help you swap that spiral of negativity for a more positive outlook, and rid yourself of unnecessary stress.

Recall a moment of stress and rethink it 

At first, the last thing you want to do is think about a taxing time from earlier in your day or week. But it’s actually a powerful and beneficial reframing technique. Instead of replaying that difficult moment in your mind, try reframing it — that way you can keep your stress in perspective and better cope with challenges in the future. First, acknowledge the stressful situation and how it made you feel. Then, identify how you persevered or grew from the experience. The way you reframe a tricky workplace situation could go like this: I was really bothered by the way my manager spoke to me last week, and even more anxious when I decided to talk to her about it. Although it was stressful to approach a superior and be so straightforward about my feelings, it was actually a great opportunity to practice compassionate directness. Now I know I can handle moments like that going forward — because I’ve already done it before.

Focus on the outcomes of a difficult task 

Research shows that when you understand the purpose of your work, you’re more likely to up your performance and feel fulfilled. The next time you come face-to-face with a challenging or time-consuming task, hone in the why behind your actions, and how you, a colleague, or your company at large will benefit from your involvement. Maybe you were put in charge of a task you find difficult or boring, yet it will help your team reach a major business goal. By taking a moment to remind yourself of the importance of what you’re doing, you’ll feel a greater sense of meaning and motivation to complete the task.

Try the “yes, but” technique

The “yes, but” technique is a useful tool for shutting out that negative feedback loop – the obnoxious roommate — in your head. According to Wei-Chin Hwang, Ph.D., the “yes, but” technique is a skill that can help balance your thinking and “counter negative thoughts with positive ones.” To practice this technique, end a negative thought with the word “but,” and then follow up with a positive thought instead. If, for example, you’re feeling down after flubbing a presentation, your “yes, but” thought might look a little like this: Yes, I’m upset that I got anxious in the moment and mixed up my slides, but I immediately fixed the error, and will hold myself accountable, course-correct, and do better next time. You can practice this technique in your head, but Hwang points out that the process can be more effective when you write your “yes, but” thoughts down, too.

“Decatastrophize” by envisioning the worst case scenario 

If you have a habit of considering what could go wrong, rather than what could go right, this tip is for you: Research published in The Wiley Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy describes “decatastrophizing” as a verbal method of reframing. Developing a hypothetical account of a worst-case scenario, evaluating how likely it is to happen (read: probably not very likely), and formulating a coping plan to deal with it can help you be prepared for when things don’t go as planned – or even realize that the worst-case scenario might not be so bad after all. It’s time to consider, what will really happen if your idea gets shot down at a meeting? Maybe your colleague will offer a new way of thinking about a project that you hadn’t considered, and together you’ll devise a more creative solution. See? It’s not as scary as you think. 

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