I was spoiled with high-energy, collegial environments early in my career. Many of my bosses were not my peers but were close enough in age to blur the lines, setting the expectation that all managers should be my friends and act accordingly.

We worked together, did life together, celebrated and fumed together. I was lucky to have many team experiments akin to my standards bearer--"The West Wing."

Until that luck ran out. 

My, how it was a slap in the face when life showed me, not so delicately, that those experiences were not exactly the norm. I spent many years thereafter navigating managers who seemed uninterested, aloof, even cold

But still, they were wildly successful. This baffled me for a long time until I finally cracked the code.

It's not that they didn't care (except for that one person--and that other one.) On the contrary, they cared very much, but they had mastered the art of self containment.

Self containment, most simply, is the ability to regulate your emotions and set boundaries between your experience in the moment and someone else's. It is the next step beyond active listening.

Think of it this way, it is entirely possible for two people in the same conversation to have different experiences. One might be amped up, the other measured, both modes leading to differing takeaways and outcomes.

After identifying self containment as a super power, I set out on a quest to develop my own. Here's what I learned.

Practice stoicism

The art of self containment rests on your ability to be stoic, which--unfortunately--is sometimes misperceived as being aloof. 

You can achieve stoicism by perfecting your neutral setting with non-verbal body language. Maintaining physical and emotional neutrality allows for more authentic conversations because your body language doesn't amp someone up or put them on the defensive. 

This levels the playing field before anyone opens their mouths.

Set personal boundaries

Setting personal boundaries is like (politely) giving someone the mental Heisman--an arm extended between the two of you creating a barrier.

It's not always an obstruction to relationship, rather it's a protective instinct. It's an acknowledgement that their experience does not have to be - and is not the same as - your own, and that you are not responsible for how they feel (although you should remain mindful of it.)

Gut-check the situation

The last tactic that is immensely useful to achieving self containment is gut-checking the situation at the start. This can be accomplished at the same time you are finding your neutral setting. 

It's a strategic business meditation, one I tripped into while reading Nike founder Phil Knight's memoir, Shoe Dog.

During tense negotiations or pivotal meetings, Knight would take a beat by clearing the mechanism (think Kevin Coster in "For Love of the Game"). This is the act of tuning out the noise and energy around you to achieve virtual silence and a myopic vision of the goal--even if only briefly.

In this moment, Knight answered the following questions of the situation:

  • What do I know?
  • How do I know it?
  • Why do I know it?
  • Who does it matter to?
  • How do they feel?
  • What do they want?

This grounding process helps you press reset so you can achieve absolute clarity, and have a more mutually productive experience within the conversation.

The greatest trick to self containment--the one that the most successful leaders master--is the ability to be self contained while also maintaining their humanity. It's the difference between building concrete walls and invisible barriers around yourself. 

The latter is ideal and leads to optimal, interpersonal outcomes at work and in life.