To keep your cool when a situation gets heated, remember to respond rather than react, says Kathryn D. Cramer, author of Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do (Jossey-Bass, March 2014).
“Responding means to thoughtfully and intentionally adapt your behavior to the current circumstance. It involves the parasympathetic nervous system [the automatic things we do like breathing and blinking], which is activated when the body is calm and at rest. In contrast, reacting means to automatically go into high-alert stress mode. Your brain automatically processes the problem as a state of emergency and your sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing your body to fight, flee, or freeze.”
Cramer describes highly effective leaders as highly responsive leaders, ones who respond to tough situations with high energy and excitement—versus fear and stress.
Learn how to channel your own aggression with Cramer’s three strategies for fewer freak-outs:
Strategy No. 1: Take 10
Consider this saying: “The only difference between fear and excitement is breathing.” Adopt this phrase as a kind of mantra when you start to feel stress-induced anxiety coming on. The physical action (or do) of taking ten deep breaths will help you to interrupt the high-alert cycle and channel your adrenaline positively toward high energy.
Try taking ten deep breaths anytime you would rather be excited than fearful. Taking ten breaths creates a break in your reactivity, clearing the way for your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. After all, you cannot be calm and anxious simultaneously.
Strategy No. 2: Get Off the Field and Into the Stands
Think about the difference in perspective when you are a player on the field versus a spectator in the stands. As a player, you have a more immediate and narrow line of sight. In contrast, when you are in the stands you can see what is happening on the whole field. Your perspective is wider and you can anticipate the plays before they happen because you can track the movement of all the players.
In our day-to-day activity, we spend most of the time “on the field,” intensely immersed in making the best plays to win the game. Sometimes, when the pressure gets too intense, you can reduce your anxiety and facilitate responsiveness by going “into the stands” to see the bigger picture. In psychology, this is called “going meta.” While still engaged in solving problems, making decisions, and other daily activities, you simultaneously rise above the situation to observe the dynamics. From that “meta” perspective you can ask yourself questions like: What am I doing? How are others behaving? What is really going on here?
Going into the stands allows you to mentally extract yourself from your reactions and the immediate demands of the moment. From that more elevated perspective you can see new possibilities. You can better interpret the behavior of others to find the assets of the situation. Going into the stands allows you to better understand what the other players are experiencing, to adopt their points of view, and to stand in their mental shoes.
Strategy No. 3: Act, Observe, Reflect
The extent to which you learn from your past leadership experiences is key to increasing your effectiveness. The classic book Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience by Richard Hughes, Robert Ginnet, and Gordon Curphy describes an Action-Observation-Reflection model. Here’s how it works.
The premise of the model is that once leaders commit an act, they must stop to observe what happened and then reflect on what was done well (or poorly) and what lessons can be carried forward. The model calls for leaders to learn from what they do. Taking the time to observe, and reflect on your actions automatically puts you in the responsive mode. The benefits are also a well-earned time-out from doing and the cultivation of rich lessons for what to do better next time.
Assess what you are learning as a function of what you are doing. You can accomplish this in the privacy of your own thoughts, or you can process what you are learning out loud in conversation with someone else. Both methods work to help you milk your leadership experiences for all they are worth.
Excerpted from Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do by Kathryn D. Cramer. Copyright 2014 by Kathryn D. Cramer. Reprinted with permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.