"Taking the high road has never once come back to bite me in the ass." —Kelly Sue DeConnick
Think of the last time someone's behavior triggered you. What did they do that hurt you? What did they do that disappointed you? How did you handle the surge of emotions that followed?
Let's say that your coworker gave you a backhanded compliment and really struck a nerve. He's putting you down in front of other people. What do you do? Do you hit with the same force back, or do you take what I'm going to refer to as "the high road", and work to make the relationship better in the long-run?
When we're triggered by other people, something in the interaction is hijacking our amygdala. The SCARF model can help us figure out what is really being challenged:
Status: our relative importance to others; Certainty: our ability to predict the future; Autonomy: our sense of control over events; Relatedness: how safe we feel with others, and the sense of belonging we have with them; or Fairness.
We all get our amygdalas hijacked sometimes. People do and say things that trigger us. Sometimes, when we're triggered by something and we know that the other person is wrong, we want to shut the situation down as quickly as possible. We want to slaughter them with our eloquent, emotionally-charged words. We get high on our right-ness. We know that we can win this fight. We know we can show them how wrong they are.
We're often being challenged on Status. And we want to establish our real status right back.
A study of middle and high school students found that students at the top of a school's social hierarchy didn't bully other students.
"Aggressive behavior peaked when students hit the 98th percentile for popularity, suggesting that they were working hard to claw their way to the very top. However, those who were in the top 2% of a school's social hierarchy generally didn't harass their fellow students."
Those students didn't have anything to gain by establishing their status. When you find yourself challenged on your status in a group, take a moment to consider whether you really need to re-confirm your status. What do you think you'd be demonstrating by showing that you don't need to punch back?
To me, taking the high road is about productively managing that onslaught of amygdala-hijacking. It typically means sacrificing a very SCARF-satisfying response in the moment, as these responses (though they feel great!) may not help the offender learn, hear you, or do better next time. And frankly, they probably won't do much to solidify your status.
What the high road isn't
The high road is not about suppressing your emotions. It's not about ignoring bad behavior and hoping someone else will deal with it. It's not about "kid gloves", nor is it about "fitting in" or "going along". It's not complaining to someone and hoping that alone will change things. The high road is not subtweeting; it's active, not passive. The high road is also not about risking your safety, nor is it about standing up for what's right in the face of catastrophic danger to you.
What the high road is
The high road is real work that does not feel awesome until it's done. It is about finding a productive way to use your emotions, like finding safe spaces that can turn into allies. It is about protecting yourself and others by using your emotional intelligence to hear what's really going on underneath someone's words or actions, what in their own SCARF model is being challenged. The high road is about having empathy for others, even when they are unlovable, so that you can help enact change for the safety and betterment of everyone.
For example: I could ask my backhanded-compliment-giving coworker out to coffee later. I'd try to find out how things are going on his end. What's he wrestling with in his work? Are there things that I could help with? I could let him know that his comments in the meeting were not helpful for me, and ask him to partner with me on giving each other feedback more constructively. Reaching out to someone who's behaving badly to understand what's at the root of their behavior is one way to build empathy and trust and help that person grow, and to help you grow, too.
Holding on to your emotions for extended periods of time isn't healthy. We all need to vent when we're hurting or triggered. Find a safe space, a person whom you trust, who understands what you're really doing with those emotions. You should have an agreement with this person: they should understand that you're purely bloodletting to get past your amygdala hijacking, and that you are not looking for someone to pile-on and vent alongside you. This person should be asking you questions like, "are you going to give this person that feedback? Want to practice?". They should be creating a safe space for you to share your hurt and begin healing so that you can help everybody around you, too.
I've worked really hard to react to tough situations by taking a breath and giving it time, and it's had an incredibly positive effect on my career. It's only upon reflection do I see that a "take a breath, give this some more time, respond productively" reaction also has an incredibly positive effect on the happiness and maturity of those around me. The high road is inherently not easy, and often doesn't immediately feel good when you choose it. But I am where I am today (seasoned speaker, book author, truly happy at my place of employment, managing an industry-leading team) because of the high road. I've been able to work with the people who have amygdala-hijacked me to figure out what the root trigger for them was, too, and work together for mutually beneficial learnings. The high road is there for the long game — its payoff is massive, for you and for those around you.
Confidently picture yourself as the one who doesn't need to prove your status in a group. The high road is there for you to work even harder to make things better for you, for the other person, and for everybody whom that person's actions impact. The high road is real brain-dehijacking work that does not feel awesome until it's done. The high road is brave, it's important, and I promise: it's tremendously fruitful.