Deal with it or park it.Jan 11, 2023
Anytime you experience a personal setback that increases your stress, anger or anxiety, the ability for your brain to function optimally is challenged. That’s not only bad for you—packing around unresolved issues can have a significant impact on personal and workplace relationships.
When it comes to issues you are wrestling with personally, my philosophy is simple: deal with it or park it. If you aren’t willing to deal with it (on your own or with support), then park it. Let it go fully and move on. Your inner voice might tempt you to do otherwise. It may ask, “Isn’t it easier to just NOT deal with it, or wait until later to deal with it?”
Let’s say for a moment you decide to hang out in the void between dealing with it or moving on. You ruminate on what you could say or think of all the things that upset you. For most people, this causes even more angst and increases stress levels. Ongoing stress is bad for the body, and it is like chemical warfare for the brain. Left unchecked, it will ravage brain cells and increase the likelihood of cognitive disease.
But it’s not just your health that is under attack. Stress impairs learning and your ability to perform and think. And chronic stress can become a self-perpetuating cycle in which your brain wires itself to act stressfully. Once you are in the habit of being stressed, the neural pathways in your brain become hardwired for that response.
If you want to avoid all of the downsides that come from holding on to unresolved conflict, you have two choices:
As the saying goes, you need to pick your battles. Is this something that you could let go, fully and completely? If so, that might be the ideal choice. Usually with a bit of time and distance to allow our emotional brain to simmer down, things don’t seem as problematic as they once did. On the other hand, if a courageous leadership conversation is needed, parking it is not a good option. This would be avoiding the issue, which amplifies the problem for everyone involved.
However, if the thing that’s bothering you is not a performance issue or an area where leadership is critical, if it is more something that you are personally wrestling with, then parking it might be the way to go.
Parking it starts with distancing yourself from the negative emotions that the unresolved conflict is causing. Practice mindful breathing. Focus on your breath and let all of your thoughts go. If you have trouble with overthinking, try counting aloud or silently to yourself. When you focus on something else, breathing or counting, there is less room to ruminate on the unresolved conflicts that cause stress.
After that, put it in perspective. List all of the things in your life (work or personal) that you appreciate, down to the simplest things. When we practice gratitude, we are forced to see things more optimistically. At this point, you are well on your way to letting it go. Unless, of course…you’re not.
If after trying those exercises, you realize that you still can’t let it go, it’s time for you to deal with it.
DEAL WITH IT
In those times when you just can’t let it go, your brain will thank you if you summon the courage to deal with it. Yes, it can be scary to deal with difficult situations. But emotional intelligence is here to help.
Emotional intelligence is the source of all good and bad interpersonal communication. Those with high emotional intelligence have the ability to understand their emotions, and how to approach a difficult conversation in a way that will support an outcome where both people feel valued and understood. Those with low emotional intelligence lack the self-awareness to understand their own emotions and needs, and how to approach another person to resolve conflict. Having the courage and ability to tackle difficult conversations effectively is an indication of an emotionally intelligent leader.
You might be surprised to learn that emotional intelligence isn’t something we're born with...it's something we can learn. And it gets better with practice and age!
Building up your emotional intelligence skillset is not as hard as you might think—if you break it down into steps. Using a structured model like this allows you to evaluate the situation and minimize the emotion, judgment, and misconceptions that often derail communication. 
- NOTICE - Get a clear picture in your mind of what triggered your emotional response in the unresolved conflict. Was it the other person’s tone of voice, something they said, or something they didn’t say?
- IDENTIFY FEELING - Identify how this situation has made you feel. When you really think about it, you might be able to connect it with a moment from your past. Having a thought like, “This reminded me of that time my brother did X, Y, Z” is not an unlikely probability of your reflection. If you find a comparison to another time you felt this way in life, pat yourself on the back! You’re in the process of dealing with a larger issue that may have held you back in other areas of your personal and business life. By identifying the emotion that is attached to the situation, you are removing yourself from feeling the emotion—because now, you are observing it. Author and Psychiatrist Daniel Sigal calls this technique ‘Name it to tame it.’ If you can name your emotion and reflect upon it, you’ll engage the thinking part of your brain that is responsible for rational decisions, and calm the emotional part of your brain where your threat response was activated
- IDENTIFY NEED - Figure out what it is that you really need. The answer will be different for everyone. For some people, this could be as simple as needing to be heard. For others, it could be a more difficult ask, such as the need to feel valued (this is a tricky one that is usually wrapped up in one’s own sense of self-worth). Often, taking the step to identify your need will give you a sense of clarity and make you feel a little bit better…before you even have that difficult conversation!
- ASK - It’s time to have the talk. Make a specific, reasonable request of the other person. Reasonable is the key word here. Often, situations that are emotionally charged have deeper roots that cannot really be addressed by the person who triggered them anyway. For example, in the case of needing to feel valued, a reasonable request would be to ask for the other person to acknowledge the overtime hours you’ve worked. An unreasonable request would be to demand that they make you feel valued (since nobody can force another person to feel anything, this is an impossible task that they may never achieve). The point of this step is to articulate a reasonable need and then communicate that need. Now that you’re no longer carrying that emotional weight, you’ll be freed up to do your job more effectively and peacefully.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Let’s face it: holding on to issues is exhausting. Using the tools of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, you can be the type of leader who is able to ‘deal with it or park it’ and not let past experiences interfere with current or future ones.
About the Author
Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP
As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging insights from cognitive science to harness the untapped power of the brain.