Emma: Today’s about a very specific kind of panic that we thought was maybe too specific to write about until we each kept coming up with example after example after example of it happening. I think of it as “third-party panic” — where you unexpectedly get swept into someone else’s freak out and wham-o, you’re suddenly co-piloting the panic rocket.

Andy: I remember witnessing a very standard third-party panic as it unfolded. The team was on a super-tight deadline to send out thousands of emails. A bunch of people were working in a Google spreadsheet at once — including my seatmate, her manager, and another manager. Manager 1 noticed that Manager 2 didn’t seem to be updating the spreadsheet the right way, and chats started popping up for my seatmate blingblingbling. I could hear them from my desk and I couldn’t help but stare / listen in / get deeply emotionally involved in their experience.

Emma: Those rapid-fire blings! The tell-tale sign of a panic.

Andy: Right? I could feel her stress level ratchet up from my desk. Manager 1 was asking her report what Manager 2 was doing: I think he’s doing it wrong? Is he doing it wrong? What’s he doing!? It was such a classic panic move — now both the manager and her report were in surveillance mode, watching the cursor of a third person. If something was truly going wrong, no one was stopping it. And if everything was going fine, two people were just sitting, staring, and sweating bullets instead of actually working. Either way, it wasn’t great.

Emma: And yet we all do it!

Andy: It’s impossible to simply not panic. For me, when an acute stressor hits, my mind is going a million miles an hour. I have to put on a cardigan to hide my sweat stains. And my emotions are through the roof: confusion, anger, frustration, fear. All this energy has to go somewhere — I need a release valve in order to start thinking straight again.

Emma: Yes! Which is where the third party comes in. I want my release valve to be a brain that’s not on fire. I want to use their calm mind to gut check my next moves, my urgency.

Andy: I like to have a handful of people who I can panic at for different things — and who I can rotate, so I’m matching my panic to the right person, and not exhausting any one.

4 Types of People to Avoid Panicking At

There’s a good chance your panic co-pilot will be unwilling (and unhelpful…and probably pretty miserable) if they fall into any of the following categories.

1. A person with less power in the situation than you.
Instead, panic sideways.

2. A person who’s loyal to someone else involved.
Consider panicking to an outsider.

3. A person who’s somehow responsible for the panic.
Avoid transferring your panic into someone else’s guilt.

4. A person mired in their own panic.
Pick someone with room for your panic.

Andy: One of the things that sets me off is a novel situation: not knowing how to handle something new or different. When you’ve done it before it’s easier. I think it’s kind of like how second-time parents are way more cool, calm, and collected than their first go-round.

Emma: Until you’ve reached that kind of panic zen, it’s nice to have some protocols to enact on auto-pilot.

Andy: Yes, even if you haven’t gone the road before, others have. You can have a panic plan.

5 Ways to Panic Better

This advice isn’t all that different from the advice we gave about emailing while angry and being embarrassed by your team — similarly acute-energy scenarios that can keep you from thinking clearly.

1. Make a list of your go-to people.
Next to each name, list topics / people / events that are off limits — keep in mind the four types of people to avoid panicking to, and panic horizontally whenever possible. As a Deputy Managing Editor at Groupon, Andy had 12 other Deputy Managing Editors to panic to, and it was great. Highly recommend making this list.

2. Set a visible reminder.
It could be as simple as a sticky note: Panicking? Take a breath and look at the list. Depending on the urgency of the situation, you may be able to strategize with one of your approved panic people before hurdling into action.

3. Consider a phone/video call.
When we’re looping someone into our panic, we’re typically either looking for validation (“Is my panic warranted?”) or advice (“What should I do?”). Both feel better and are more effective when delivered by a live human voice. Plus, the type-delete-type-delete style you’ll most likely be using is just maddening for everyone.

4. Post-mortem your last panic.
Get out a sheet of paper and jot down answers to these questions: What was the cause of my last panic? Who did I panic at? What did I say? What could I do differently next time? (If it happened over email or chat, pull up the transcript and see if there’s anything you’d re-write for next time.)

5. Receive panic well.
If you’re being panicked at, try to remember you’re only a release valve — you don’t actually have to fix anything in the moment. Try asking a few questions instead: Is there something that needs to be stopped or paused to prevent things from getting worse? Or, What’s the first step to correcting the issue? I can map it out with you. If it’s not urgent, then you’re simply a listening ear there to affirm and normalize.

Emma: I tend to whip other people into my panic the most when I’m lacking confidence: I don’t know what to do next, or I’m afraid of being wrong, or I’m worried about the reaction I’m going to get. My hunch is that your co-worker’s boss was the same — she felt more comfortable talking to her report than risk confronting her co-manager. I get that, even though I know it’s not ideal.

Andy: Right, ideally, there’s no one on your team who you can’t talk to directly and calmly about whatever it is that’s happening. This isn’t a quality you’ll have on Day One of your relationships, but it’s something you can build toward over time.

Emma: More 1-on-1’s, please!

Andy: If we could enforce one rule for all managers everywhere, it would be regular 1-on-1’s. By talking with your team frequently, getting to know them, showing each other how you think through problems, and consistently reiterating what’s important, you’ll develop a shared language, a shared understanding of your goals. Plus, you’ll learn a lot about how best to talk to the different people you work with.

Emma: I think we all want to work in the kind of environment where your co-worker’s boss could chat directly to her co-manager, or maybe send a group message: Hey, it’s looking like all three of us are doing this a slightly different way. Let’s pause here and walk through it together on a call to make sure we’re aligned. 

Andy: Lol it all seems so reasonable typed out here.

Emma: We’ll get there.