Knowing how to disengage is a survival skill

Let me illustrate:


A client told me he wanted to leave his employer. He gets good raises and has other signs that he is doing well, but doesn’t hear praise from his boss, which he wants. He has tried everything to please his boss but his manager isn’t the complimentary type. In addition, his boss won’t step in to protect him from senseless demands from another senior manager. These demands not only require hours of extra work, they are public challenges to his credibility.


Frustrated and angry, my client directly asked his manager for support from this abusive colleague, to which his boss said, “I don’t know how to stop him.” Many people in the company are aware of this demanding senior manager, and avoid him. My client went on to say that he liked his job and wanted to stay but just felt he had to leave. Upon further questioning, it became apparent he wasn’t in a position to move for at least three years, since he had children in high school and a new job would probably mean he’d have to relocate his family.


In another case, a friend told me about several incidents regarding fellow senior managers who are resisting her programs, which she is required by the CEO and outside authorities to implement. To these executives, these changes represent a loss of control over how they do business, and they are dragging their feet. She has reacted personally to some of their behavior and it has begun to damage her credibility. She wants to leave but her family situation doesn’t make that a possibility for another year or so.


These two situations can be stomach churning, stress producing traps. The flight or fight response is hard wired into our brains. You want to flee but circumstances prevent it in the short run. This is where disengaging can save your health and prevents your anger and frustration from seeping out, making you sick, or even exploding in dangerous ways.  If you can successfully disengage from the behavior of others that “hooks” you, you can react more objectively and gain a realistic perspective about their behavior—and your own.


Once you are disengaged, you are more likely to see solutions and may not even have to leave. In both of these cases, there were actions they could take to mitigate the situation, which until they got their emotional reactions under control, they were unable to see.


Disengaging from the situation requires some mental gymnastics. You need to frame the situation in a new way, so you can feel some sense of control. For instance, each of these individuals picked a specific date on which they are planning to quit. It helped them to see freedom at the end of the tunnel.  Then, they worked backwards and put some job-hunting milestones in place. For example, the date by which they would have their resumes updated, the networking events they would attend, who they were going to contact and when, and how they would do some informational interviewing.


These proactive steps made them feel a sense of progress toward their goal. It helped dull the sting of the unpleasant interactions, because they could secretly think: “I don’t care what you say or do—I’m laying plans to escape and you will become irrelevant.” These actions and mental self talk help them feel less like trapped victims and more empowered.


Next, they needed to find a way to think differently about the situations that caused them to react personally. For each of them, it helped to think through what was at the bottom of their emotional response. I asked each of them, “Why do you think you get so emotionally hooked by their behavior?” This started a personal deep dive that needed to penetrate several layers before they hit bedrock. The first layer was inevitably something about the other person: “He’s a jerk.” “He’s a bully,” and “He’s supposed to be my leader but does nothing.” But as we kept digging, personal information came out that helped us discover why their reaction was so personal and emotional: “When my boss took his job, he told me he didn’t think he wanted me on his team. I want him to finally admit he was wrong about me.”


To do a little personal reflection about situations that hook you, ask “Why?” five times. It’s a simple way to dig down and explore why you react the way you do. Though it is simple, if you’re honest, it may reveal why you get so emotional and angry about other’s behavior toward you.


I’m certainly not a psychiatrist, but I can tell you that disengaging has worked for me and for many people who feel hooked by the behavior of others. You can only change your own reaction—trying to change others’ behavior is a fool’s game. We all find ourselves feeling trapped on occasion, and disengagement is just one way to find a mental escape hatch.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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