Several surveys and studies have been conducted to measure the toll the pandemic has taken on business leaders. Last year a study in Australia found that "46 percent of small business owners felt anxiety and depression as a result of running their own business, while 26 percent ranked mental health as an 'immediate' concern." Feelings of stress are also up. Of the business leaders surveyed in the Australian study, "52 percent reported feeling stress as a result of operating over the last 12 months, up by seven percentage points from the same period last year."
If you're feeling stress mounting, it's time to regain control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are always thinking, feeling, and doing something. A specific sequence generally begins with a thought, which triggers an emotion or feeling and leads to a behavior or action. I call this the Think ➔ Feel ➔ Do process for influence. When we control our thoughts, we impact our feelings and influence our actions. The first step is to understand what's behind our thoughts.
Remove "Cannot" and "Should" from Your Language and Mindset
As high-performing entrepreneurs, we often do things because we think we "should" rather than because we want and choose to. Words like “should,” “have to,” and “must” are referred to as modal operators of necessity, and they have the effect of removing choice and increasing pressure. Modal operators of impossibility are words like “can’t,” “don’t,” and “impossible.” Our unconscious mind accepts these habitual language patterns as limitations. Hence, they restrict us and prevent us from accessing options and creativity. Modal operators of necessity and modal operators of impossibility are partners that often appear together and reflect our habits of thought.
For example, you may say (or think), “I have to attend the company luncheon, but I don’t think I’ll be able to find the time.” Notice the modal operators of necessity (have to) and impossibility (don't). These thoughts limit our choices, increase feelings of pressure and, ultimately, increase our stress level.
All the “shoulds” and “musts” in our lives decrease our agency and control while increasing the
internal demands that we place on ourselves as leaders. The result is an increase in stress levels, which can decrease our efficiency, hinder our success, and even negatively impact our health. A 2005 study published in the “Annual Review of Clinical Psychology” explored the direct link between psychosocial stressors and cardiovascular disease, upper respiratory diseases, inflammation, the immune system, and physical health. Stress is a real hazard and one that you can control.
Avoid the Burnout
One of the common questions I’m asking when working with entrepreneurs and business leaders is, “How do I avoid becoming burned out?” I created the Stress Management Equation to empower people to understand and manage their stress effectively. Anytime you’re feeling the stress that’s higher than what you deem useful, simply re-evaluate this equation.
Here’s how it works.
Begin by looking at demand. Ask yourself, "what is creating a demand in my life?" In the context of that demand, there are always two factors. First, there are the internal demands you place on yourself with the “shoulds” and “have tos.” Turning these “shoulds” and similar modal operators of necessity back into choices helps you face and control internal demands.
Others also face external demands (business partners, colleagues, spouses, children, etc.). The boundaries that you set help you control these external demands.
Next, let’s examine control. Control, like demand, has internal and external factors. Internal controls include your thoughts, attitudes, language, emotional states, and behaviors. There are also external factors you may or may not be able to control, like the weather, heavy traffic, or a canceled meeting.
Both internal and external demands and controls contribute directly to the levels of stress you experience. Recognizing and reducing these demands is one way to reduce feelings of stress.
In our equation, stress is managed relationally by the amount of demand divided by the amount of control.
High stress can be remedied by lowering the demands in your life while also increasing your control over them. Looking at the left side of the equation, we can better understand demand's role. If your stress is higher than what’s useful, then focus on reducing the internal demands you place on yourself or re-evaluate your boundaries. Setting new boundaries will protect you from the external demands placed upon you.
Setting boundaries is a powerful way to reduce stress because when you lower the demands placed on you, your stress will fall in accordance, even if the right side of the equation (control) remains constant. Alternatively, you can keep demand as is and instead focus on increasing your control to reduce stress. In setting boundaries, remember to prioritize your mental health, too.
Let’s look more closely at how to do this. Remember that external factors are the only variables that can occasionally evade the realm of your control, so instead, focus on the things you can control. Internally, you can control the meaning you attach to events, and you can also control your thoughts, emotional responses, attitudes, behaviors, and so on. Consider if any of the factors that seem outside your control may be more manageable than you think. When you decrease the demand that you place on yourself with modal operators of necessity like “shoulds” and realize that these are choices that you can evaluate and decide to do or not do, you’ll see a proportional reduction in stress. As you go through this evaluation process, make sure that your choices align with your values.
Set your boundaries with the Stress Management Equation in mind, knowing that it’s perfectly fine (and indeed healthy) to hold firm on your boundaries.
For many of us, maintaining our boundaries can sometimes be challenging because we want to be pleasant, agreeable, and liked. In business negotiations, in particular, we are often worried about losing a client or a sale by creating tension. You will likely disagree with someone while negotiating, especially if you jump into too many details too quickly or if you happen to encounter someone attempting to manipulate you for their ends.
As you eventually move into details when negotiating, you may end up with points of contention. When disagreements arise, continue to communicate as you affirm your boundaries. Even if the negotiation stalls, you can maintain rapport and boundaries by agreeing in principle and restating your purpose. This technique empowers you to acknowledge what another person wants while holding to your boundaries. Furthermore, maintaining boundaries can affect the frame of negotiations and remind you to focus on things in your control.
To agree in principle, repeat what the person is saying to you to confirm that you are listening to them and that you understand them even if you’re struggling to reach an agreement. As you do so, remember to consider their eye patterns, their language, the use of predicates, etc. Agreeing in principle in this way allows you to maintain rapport.
Simply verbally reinforce your intention, objective, or boundary to restate your purpose. You can feel empowered and confident to do so while completely free from having to justify or explain your boundary to the other person.
Agreeing in principle and restating your purpose is to maintain your resolve while preserving rapport. This enables you to have a different opinion while holding firm to your overall objectives and boundaries.
Let’s apply this technique to the business luncheon discussed above. You can refuse to accept the invitation to the luncheon by saying something like, “I appreciate the invitation, and I'm unable to make it as I have a pressing deadline this week.” The person may press, hoping they'll get a different response, saying, "You really should come – several important clients will be there." It is easy to agree in principle and restate your purpose by responding, “I understand that many important clients will be there, and I won't be able to make it."
Still, they might persist, adding, “You could move the deadline, couldn't you?" in which case you can respond, “I understand that you think I could move the deadline, and it’s important that I keep the current deadline so that the rest of my team has the time they need to review my work."
Rather than risk breaking established rapport by flat-out disagreeing, continue giving others the experience of being understood, even as you maintain your boundaries, by agreeing in principle and restating your purpose. By maintaining rapport, you can further mitigate the occurrences of impasses in negotiations. Ensuring the stability of your boundaries and your own emotions will reflect advantageously on negotiations, as this type of emotional intelligence is linked to favorable outcomes.
How often do you have to agree in principle and restate your purpose? As often as the person repeats their request. Stand resolute, regardless of how often someone attempts to weaken your resolve. Use this technique to stand firm on your principles, restate your purpose, and uphold your boundaries while maintaining rapport.
Remain Free From Explaining Your Boundaries
During this type of interaction, you are completely free from having to explain why your boundaries are what or where they are. Rather than giving in, recognize the situation, remain firm (with regard to your position), and maintain your sense of empowerment and your boundaries simply by agreeing in principle and then restating your purpose. Remember, agreeing in principle and restating your purpose is different from negotiation because it enables you to hold firm rather than be drawn into negotiating your position. Stress is a negative emotion that sometimes creeps into our lives, causing unfortunate side effects. I encourage you to use the Stress Management Equation to reduce stress and avoid feelings of burnout. Setting and maintaining boundaries is one way to reduce external demands. Reducing the internal demands you face is another way to reduce stress and requires you to take control of your thoughts. Recall the Think ➔ Feel ➔ Do process for influence. When you control your thoughts, you impact your feelings and influence your actions. The first step in this process is to understand what's behind our thoughts, a topic I invite you to explore more extensively.