University of North Carolina’s famous Basketball Coach Dean Smith would emphasize being “the calmest head” in the room to his players. Phil Jackson is also well known for his ability to stay calm and “Zen” under pressure. The ability to stay calm and not over or under react to situations in one of the greatest skills a leader can acquire both in sports and in business.
Being “responsive” rather than “reactive” allows us to use the higher level parts of our brain that allow us to think, reason and make wise considered choices. Being responsive also allows us to form and maintain positive and constructive relationships with those around us. When we become triggered and reactive, the thinking part of our brain can shut off and we are operate more on emotion than logic. We run the risk of making rash decisions, becoming overly emotional or shutting down. Research says that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction with a leader, spouse, colleague or friend. So staying calm and under control has long term relationship benefits.
This is easier said than done. There are many courses on stress management which deal with stress that festers over time or a lifestyle that is too busy, too complicated or too demanding. But what about being triggered in the moment? How do we catch ourselves before this happens or before we act in ways that might damage the project, team or individual relationships? Here are a few methods that have worked for others and that might work for you:
Be aware of your triggers. Don’t make them bad. Everyone has them. Be honest about what they are and have a plan for how you want to react. For example, one of my triggers is when people are careless about assignments. I know this and have become very reactive in the past; literally correcting their work in front of them. Of course, this is not a practice that makes people want to show me their work. So, knowing this, my plan is to genuinely compliment the person on some aspect of the task and then ask a series of questions such as: How can we make this better? What do you like about this work and what could be improved? What would the customer say?
Learn how your body warns you before you become “reactive.”. For example, if you know that when you are being pressured about a deadline you have no control of you start to get flushed—use this as your early warning system to do something different rather than shut down, become defensive or other more “reactive” strategies. That closed throat, feeling flushed or butterflies in the stomache are your friends. They let you know what is about to happen so you can choose another course of action. Again, don’t make this bad—it is your body’s early warning system designed to help you cope!
Learn how to slow down your reactions and activate your parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that calms you down. Very easy ways to do this are to take a deep breath with the exhale longer than the inhale, taking the tongue off the roof of the mouth and separating the teeth or touching your hand to the mouth. These automatically slow us down and provide that two or three second pause that allows us to choose our reactions.
Remember to practice these techniques when you are not triggered so they come naturally. Have people comment that you are the calmest head in the room!