Lynne Curry: Focus on breathing when put on spot

Q: When I'm put on the spot or upset, I can't seem to think or talk and this is causing me problems at work. This morning at a staff meeting I was asked a question I knew the answer to and just froze. Can you help?

A: When you're startled or upset, two factors freeze your ability to think on your feet.

First, information doesn't easily move into or out of long-term memory unless you breathe. This explains why you freeze when you first stand up to give a speech or can't think of a person's name when you meet him on the street but then remember the name when you walk on and relax.

Next, when you get tense, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Under rapid breathing, you have a more difficult time simultaneously accessing both your left (logic and language) and right (emotion and intuition) hemispheres. Being put on the spot throws you primarily into right-hemisphere functioning, diminishing your access to language and words.

You can fix both challenges if you learn to breathe under pressure, using coastline breathing as a strategy. In the way you would watch waves coming toward and away from the coast, notice your breathing, initially with your eyes closed and then with them opened. As you do so, your breathing automatically slows and deepens. Once you practice coastline breathing, you'll be able to use it in situations that once made you tense.

Q: One of the women in our company comes and goes as she pleases and rarely works a full day. She screams at co-workers and others who get in her way but I've been told we can't fire her.

Apparently a senior manager had an affair with this woman three months ago and when their affair went south, so did her performance. Now, we have been told she can't be fired because she could sue.

The rest of us feel we're being held hostage for this senior manager's mistake. It doesn't seem fair that this woman gets away with murder when she was a consenting adult involved in a relationship. Is there any way out of this?

A: Was she consenting or did she feel forced to go along with a senior manager's overtures?

If she truly consented, she can't claim harassment unless she experienced retribution after the affair ended. If harassment didn't occur, your management can address this employee's attendance, performance and abusive conduct issues as long as they proceed carefully and document the performance basis for their actions.

If, however, the senior manager exerted his status or other pressure to induce her into an affair, he harassed her. In a 1998 landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers have automatic liability when employees experience both supervisory harassment and negative job consequences such as discipline or termination.

If harassment did occur or if this employee complained about the situation after the affair ended and then receives a negative consequence such as discipline or termination, your company may find itself fighting and potentially losing a harassment or retaliation lawsuit.

In cases such as this, nonlegal routes work well. Because neither this woman nor your company may find the current situation satisfactory, try mediation. In a mediated settlement, both sides agree to waive future legal action in exchange for a monetary settlement. As mediation saves time, co-worker frustration and legal costs, it may prove your best bet.

-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. Email her at