Greg discovered that a coworker had been working with one of his clients while he was away on vacation. He was furious when he found out. “She’s invaded my territory,” he told himself, “and now I have to figure out how to win this war.”
Greg stomped down to her office and told the woman how wrong she was to have worked with a client that had clearly been assigned to him. He angrily asserted that this behavior was simply an attempt to make him look bad in the eyes of their boss. He vowed to win the war that she had started.
When Greg got home, he told his wife about the situation. Sherri asked him if he thought he was overreacting to the situation. Greg became defensive, accusing her of not being on his side. Having been on the receiving end of some of Greg’s tirades, she wondered if he was letting his anger get the best of him. Greg got mad all over again, accusing his wife of criticizing his actions when he had done nothing wrong.
Greg barely spoke to Sherri over the next few weeks, harboring the thought that she was also against him. The longer he dwelled on his belief that she’d taken the other woman’s side, the more hurt and angry he became. He felt justified in telling her she was a mean person whenever she tried to discipline their children for their bad behavior.
As their relationship steadily declined, Sherri insisted that they go to see a psychologist. She and Greg started seeing a psychologist specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. In speaking to his therapist about the situation, Greg was still looking for someone to support his position. “Can’t you see that what my coworker did was wrong? Isn’t it obvious that she was trying to embarrass me in front of the boss? And wouldn’t you agree that my wife was wrong in taking her side in this fight?””Those questions”, the psychologist pointed out to Greg, “are based on how you’re explaining this situation to yourself. The story you’re telling yourself is only one possible explanation of what may be going on. Please let me ask you a question: How do you want this to end?”
“I want people to respect me at work and at home,” Greg replied.
“You’re here because things aren’t moving in that direction. The story you’re telling yourself is making the situation very difficult to resolve in that way.”
As their conversation progressed, Greg began to explore alternative explanations. Perhaps the coworker was only responding to an urgent request from the client and covering for him in his absence. Or even if she had mistakenly dealt with the client when she didn’t know what was going on with the project, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she was bent on humiliating him. And his wife could actually have been trying to assist him by answering his question honestly in an effort to help him to realize that his angry response wasn’t going to improve the situation.
Once Greg could question his own assumptions, he was able to break free of his anger, which had limited him to fight or flight reactions. He realized that what was most important would be how the situation eventually turned out. By restructuring his thinking, Greg was able to ask himself, “How can I deal with a coworker who’s created a difficult situation in order to achieve a positive outcome?”
Because he had a new line of thinking, Greg was able to search his memory banks for how he’d effectively resolved problems in the past. He was able to shift from focusing on how to best punish people for their infractions to recalling when he’s been at his best at solving conflicts. Instead of ineffectually trying to change other people, he was able to get to a satisfactory outcome by focusing on his own behavior.
Greg realized that he benefits from Sherri encouraging him to shift from negatively reacting to proactively thinking about achieving a positive outcome. He recognized that he actually needs Sherri to offer him alternative explanations and solutions when he discusses problems with her.
Previously Greg had been most successful when he’d collaborated with others. His new way of thinking led him to wonder, “How could I bring my coworker onto my team so she can participate in a positive way on this project?”
Mastering his thoughts has enabled Greg to master his emotions and, thereby, be masterful in managing problems.