Keeping Calm Under Pressure


If you’re feeling flustered or put on the spot, triggered by some else’s remark or reaction to you, it’s often impossible to make the impact you’d like. These are the occasions when you walk away, berating yourself for having said the wrong thing, or snapped and said something you’re later regretting.

Moments like this rarely show ourselves in the best light, and yet are all too frequent. Caught in the grip of high emotion, we’re reacting to triggers and acting on autopilot. We get hijacked by our amygdala; stress hormones course through us and we revert to our habitual reactions in times of stress. We shut down. This has implications for your own career, as well as the results of the team or organisation you’re in.

“The team member, the boss and the organisation all lose when a good idea gets lost due to an amygdala hijack.” (The neurochemistry of power conversations – Psychology Today, 2017)

It’s just these sort of moments at work, however, that we really want to shine and show ourselves at our best – to demonstrate that we can rise to the occasion, be in control and measured, making thoughtful, intelligent responses that shows we can remain calm in a crisis, and inspire trust and confidence in others. Being able to cope under pressure is a skill that leaders with real impact possess by the bucket load. They seem to be able to think clearly.

Here’s an approach for doing that; it will take practice, but the result will leave you feeling much stronger and resourceful, and more able to demonstrate the best of you. It’s about using your high emotions as the driver for your responses, not the vehicle for delivering them, and is grounded in mindfulness.

Firstly, it’s time to do some detective work and identify those times, people and places around which you find yourself triggered, or out on the spot. Often there’s a perfect storm, for example, your boss asking challenging questions in front of the board, when you’re tired. Or giving a presentation to more senior colleagues when you’re feeling vulnerable and slightly out of your depth. Or coping with someone who’s opinions differ quite violently to yours, and they don’t hold back in letting you know this.

You will have your own version of this perfect storm, a set of circumstances that conspire to leave you feeling less than capable of creating the impact that you’d like, that leaves you feeling rattled, out of control and professionally (or personally) vulnerable.

Forewarned is forearmed, and anticipating a situation where there’s a strong chance you’ll be triggered, can help you to cope with it by being alert for it, and preparing.

The next step is to begin to notice the signals that tell you that you’re feeling triggered. What happens to you when you feel yourself reacting to your trigger? Is there a physical feeling? Or do emotions surface? Do you hear noises (a whine in your ears, for example, or the sound of your heart beating), or get a particular taste in your mouth? Do you feel hot and shaky?

You’ll have your own set of responses. Notice them. This make take some time, especially if you’ve not done this before. Pay attention and keep with it.

Then, name your response. This is a simple acknowledgement. For example, my stomach is the bearer of all bad news for me, so I might say to myself, ‘Stomach’. In extreme cases, my hands can go number, so I might say ‘Hands’. You may have ‘Shallow breathing’ or ‘Wave of heat’, or ‘Shaking legs’.

Naming the response is a way of letting you know that you’re being visited by the reaction to your trigger – this gives us some distance from it. You can say, ‘Oh, there’s shallow breathing again’, for example.

In time, this distance will also allow you to understand that you can experience strong feelings and emotions, without the need to fully engage in them or see them as us. They are apart from us. And it’s at that point, that we can choose what we’re going to do next instead of being in thrall to those triggers and getting caught up with them.

“Between the stimulus and a response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response.In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Viktor Frankel

Combine this with breathing properly, down into your feet, to ground yourself, and you have the beginnings of a useful toolkit to help you think more clearly under pressure, and give yourself the best chance to perform at your best.

Remember, with all habit change and embedding of new behaviours, time may need to become your friend. Give yourself some…and go easy on yourself when your habitual reactions prove too great. Become good at paying attention and noticing the small changes in how you feel, and the steps you take to change your reaction into a more measured response.

one_to_one_coachingI’m Susan Ritchie, an author, leadership and executive coach and trainer. My second book, Strategies for Being Visible: 14 Profile-Raising Ideas for Emerging Female Leaders is now available as a paperback, an audiobook and for the Kindle reader.