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How to choose your reaction? Give this trick a try

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

This week I'm asking WWLD - what would Laurel do?

Photo credit Brett Jordan at Unsplash

When I cleared my desk at my last job at Delta Air Lines, I only took two things. A model Delta plane for my home office, to go with my commemorative SkyMiles bear. And a tattered old Post-it note that was hanging off my computer screen, with two words written in scratchy ballpoint: "Be Laurel." In the days of human beings in offices, the Post-it got many questioning glances. I used to explain: do you remember those wrist bands - WWMD/what would Madonna do? I don't have a WWLD one, so the Post-it has to do. Oh, I also used to have a daily calendar reminder that popped up every morning at 8.30. Just in case the Post-it had fallen off that day.

So... who is Laurel and why be like her?

I used to work with Laurel. She is hands down the best I have ever met at letting things slide off her. Whatever the issue is, whoever is talking to her, Laurel has a way of taking whatever challenge comes her way and... dealing with it. Without getting worked up, rolling her eyes, or so much as breaking her stride. She is somehow the human form of the phrase "OK, got it." Please note: she is not a push over. She is not a yes-woman. But she has a way of making the people around her feel like she's not going to argue over the stuff that doesn't matter, or waste any time on the things that don't make a difference. Because, quite honestly, who wants to waste their energy on that stuff? Not Laurel. And besides, she's too busy doing the things that do make a difference. Which you trust her to judge, because she doesn't focus on everything around the fringe.

To be in one of those matrix organizations (the ones that we all SO love for their clarity of decision rights!) with Laurel is to heave a sigh of relief. You feel like she wants to get things done. You feel like she wants to find ways to make things work. You also feel like she doesn't want to get caught up in some pissing contest (not a management term they teach at HBS, but you know what I mean.)

I am quite like Laurel, except when I'm not

In some ways, I like to think I'm like Laurel. I look for the win-win in everything. I stay focused on the objectives, not the politics. But there are things that seem to come naturally to her that I admire and I know aren't always sitting at the surface for me. Don't we all marvel at the things we see others do effortlessly that feel like are somehow just out of our reach?

My natural inclination is to put a lot of myself into everything I do, which sometimes makes it hard to take a step back and be objective. There are things that I take personally, that aren't meant that way. I am pretty direct and no-nonsense and once something is decided, I don't want to have to revisit it. I don't have much tolerance for circular conversations with no actions. To summarize, I was once summed up perfectly by a co-worker who told me that I am the master of the eye roll (and to be fair, it IS my most-used emoji)

For a long time, I thought I was who I was, and I was stuck with it. And I would have to stick to admiring people like Laurel and their non-rolling eyes and their Teflon skin. I was wrong.

I will paraphrase a thousand self-improvement influencers, not to mention the great Lord Buddha, and say that what I have since learned is that, to be the person you want to be, you decide how that person would behave, and you act that way. Then that's who you are. This is true in business as much as in life: although I don't think Buddha had Zoom meetings in mind when he made his original pronouncement. There are situations in my work life where being less like default-reaction me, and more like Laurel, is how I want to act. So, the answer is to behave that way. How?

Here's the thing about business. It's a break-neck-paced, real-time thing, and becoming more so all the time. You don't get the luxury of formulating perfectly the reaction you want to give, the ideal tone of voice, the crisp phrasing that strikes the right note. You need a real-time short cut to help with your real-time response.

So that's why I have Laurel.

I don't have to think: Laurel wouldn't let this bother her. Laurel would nod and agree and move on. Laurel would have people walk away feeling like she'd listened to them. Laurel wouldn't stubbornly stick to that thing just because she'd written it. Laurel would know that this idea is ridiculous, but shrug her shoulders and just do it any way, because she know that's the best way to deal with some ideas. Laurel would know that her idea would work, but she'd read the room and come back to it some other time when people are more receptive.

I just think: be Laurel. And, in those two words, is everything I just described and more.

Twang the rubber band!

Why does it work? Because the association works for me as an instant short cut. If you've ever suffered from anxiety, you may have heard of the rubberband trick: an almost Pavlovian way of training your brain. Twang the band and you bring yourself back to the moment. So when I feel my eyes start to roll, I call on Laurel. And there she is in my brain to help. I don't need to brief her. She gets it.

I am absolutely not advocating creating a fake business persona, one that you put on in the morning with your jogging bottoms and take off at the end of the day when you finally unplug your headphones. As I wrote about before "just being you" is the best leadership advice I ever got. But I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only person that's ever read back a sent email, or rerun a meeting in my mind and thought - that really is NOT me on my best day.

I CAN behave in all the ways I described my idealized Laurel behaving. We all CAN. But whether or not that's my default reaction when someone has pressed one of the triggers in my head... that's something else. So I'm not pretending to be Laurel. I'm channeling her. Because (note to self) we all have a choice in how we react. It's just that some ways are so automatic, it doesn't feel like it.

Why stop at one person?!

When I'm choosing my reaction, that's where my virtual mind committee comes in. Most of the time, they sit eating cookies somewhere in one of my cortexes (anatomy of the brain is not my strong suit, but that sounds feasible doesn't it?) Until I need them. Until I sense a hand hovering over one of those triggers, and I think, OK. It's time to select a better reaction.

You see, I don't just have an inner Laurel. I have a Dan, who tells me that we are where we are, so it's time to move on. And a Maria, who tells me that this thing is worth fighting for, so make your voice heard. Not to mention an Ai Ling, who has no time for anything that isn't straight to the point, but somehow gets people there without leaving bodies behind. Days and weeks can go by when I don't need them. But I know when I do where to find them.


When I tell my clients about this method (if that's not too grand a word? It somehow feels better than "trick"), I'm not going to say that they look skeptical but... generally they do.

Then they try it.

I'm not going to say that they all come back to me and say it's helped... but generally they do.

Like any good coaching technique, it's not something you take off the peg and wear. It's more like the kind of suit that Tan France would have beautifully tailored for a Queer Eye makeover hero. Put it on, feel a bit skeptical because you don't normally wear a suit, get the cuffs to the perfect length, start to see if it works... try it out in real life. And if it doesn't work for you and you don't like the idea, that's totally fine. Because that's WLWD (what Laurel would do.)

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