Showing poise in the face of difficult situations is an important skill to develop your executive presence.
(Originally published in HBR. Photo: CSA Stock)
It’s not always easy to maintain your calm and appear perfectly composed at work. Emotional things happen every day: unexpected comments that derail you, overly harsh bosses, frustrating colleagues, making mistakes. When these things happen in public settings, it can be hard to keep cool, especially if your internal resources are already low.
Despite this challenge, showing poise in the face of difficult situations is the essence of executive presence, or the ability to inspire confidence in others to believe in you. You need to manage how and when you process your reactions to communicate in thoughtful ways and see the outcomes that you want. The advice here is not to push your feelings under the rug. It’s to learn how to pause and gain the clarity you need to respond in ways that serve you — both in the moment and after it has passed. As more teams head back into the office, turning off your camera to temporarily disappear won’t be an option.
Should you find yourself suddenly set off at work, try one or more of these strategies to regain your calm.
Take deep breaths.
When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your breathing becomes irregular, fast, short, and shallow. Changing your breathing pattern is your first line of defense.
Slowing down and deepening your breath will stimulate your vagus nerve — part of your body’s “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system — and help to push you back into a more relaxed state of in mind.
Lengthen your exhales, and focus on breathing from your belly. Try inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of eight. Deep abdominal breathing slows down your heartbeat, stabilizes your blood pressure, and encourages full oxygen exchange, which is critical to the brain’s ability to function.
By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system through this exercise, you can bring your prefrontal cortex — that part of your brain that plays a critical role in cognitive functions — back online, enabling you to think and respond rationally again.
As its name suggests, distraction is anything you can do to direct your attention away from your strong emotion temporarily. For example, focus on another sensation in your body, such as the feeling of your weight pressing into your seat, wiggling each toe individually, or lightly rubbing your fingertips together to see if you can feel the ridges of your fingerprints. You can also try scanning your environment and looking for specific items— perhaps all the red objects in the room — to focus your mind on something else.
Use your words.
Research shows that putting your feelings into words, or emotional labelling, can quickly reduce their grip on you and lessen your physiological distress. When you feel that emotional rush in a meeting, ask yourself, “What are two or three words that describe how I feel right now?”
For example, suppose you’re feeling your blood pressure rise as your teammate showboats with the boss, yet again. In that case, you might say to yourself, “I feel annoyed, frustrated, and worried.” Neuroimaging studies have shown that the act of thinking in words about your emotional state activates your prefrontal cortex and diminishes the response of your amygdala.
The goal of emotional labeling is not to deeply explore and fully process your feelings. It’s about quickly pulling yourself from the ledge of a stress-induced response you might regret later.
Be ready with a script.
The above strategies will help you break free from an amygdala hijack and increase activation of your prefrontal cortex. But there may also be times, particularly in team meetings, when you’ll need to respond right away and won’t have a private moment to collect yourself.
To prepare for these situations, come up with a couple of go-to lines that will allow you to quickly respond and buy yourself more time.
For example, one executive who I coached (let’s call him Todd) had a colleague who consistently made his blood boil. When this happened, Todd would retort with snarky comments. He knew he wasn’t showing up as his best self.
Together we formulated these scripts, which Todd wrote on a notecard and rehearsed:
“That’s interesting. Can you tell me how you came to that conclusion?”
“That’s not how I see it. Can you say more about that?”
“Thanks, I’d like to think about that more before responding.”
The scripts helped Todd bypass the emotional impact of his irritating colleague and deflect attention away from himself in vulnerable moments during meetings.
Write and rehearse two to three short lines that feel natural for you. Choose scripts that are simple to remember and applicable to many conversations. Review and rehearse them weekly so that they become imprinted on your memory, and you can easily access them when needed.
Don’t forget to process your feelings.
While these methods can help you walk back intense emotions, remember that they’re temporary measures meant to help you maintain your poise in the moment.
Suppressing emotions and pretending not to be upset is a common strategy. But it has numerous negative outcomes over time, including elevated blood pressure, increased negative emotions, fewer close relationships, and lower well-being overall.
After the moment has passed, when you have more time to thoughtfully reflect, process your feelings more fully alone or with someone you trust to determine the relative costs and benefits of expressing them. This will help you decide whether to share them more widely — either with your manager or with the person who triggered you.
At one point or another, you’re going to feel a sudden rush of intense, uncomfortable emotion at work. For most of us, it’s inevitable. Learning to recover your composure gracefully is one more skill that will enhance your workplace performance, executive presence, and overall well-being.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina