How to keep your chill under pressure

It’s 10 am and you’re already running fifteen minutes behind. Someone cut you off in traffic on the way to work, and the elevator was out of service when you got there. You’ve been rushing from meeting to meeting, trying to remember your to-do list in between. You’re reading an email from an irate client, while mentally reviewing the presentation you’re giving this afternoon. A colleague intercepts you in the hallway to ask when you can send over the agenda for the next meeting. Which you’ve already sent.

Feeling ready to blow? Time to take a breath. You know that. But how?

A few weeks ago, I came across this photograph of Saffiyah Khan, a young English woman who stepped in to defend a woman wearing a hijab who was being surrounded by right wing English Defence League protesters in Birmingham. What struck me about the photo was her seeming calm, smiling bemusedly at the incensed protester glaring at her. She seems in the moment, composed, and ready for anything. She is present. The photo went viral, the world applauding her for, as a friend described it, “remaining chill”. And don’t we all want to be a little more chill under pressure?

At work and in life, the first step to leadership presence is this quality of being “in the moment”, of finding stillness, even in the midst of a storm – or in the face of an angry mob.

Last week I spoke on leadership presence at the MCWESTT conference in Winnipeg to a group of women in engineering, science, trades and technology. For these women, working in fields in which they are often very much in the minority, the importance of being both seen and heard is paramount.

My advice to them was to step into their own power through presence. And the first step in building presence is, in fact, being present. It is making the choice to pause, breathe and notice.

Here are a few guidelines for finding stillness:

  1. Focus on the breath: Deep breathing can help you relax, calm you, give you focus. You may be thinking, right, I breathe all day long. But breathing intentionally to focus your mind is different than breathing for survival.
    • Sit or stand up straight. Place one hand on your belly, just above your belly button.
    • Inhale through your nose, count to 4. And out through your mouth. To a count of 4. Easy.
  1. Be in the body: Noticing what’s going on in the body pulls focus away from the racing of the mind, or the brain’s amygdala response of fight or flight.
    • Feel yourself grounded in your chair or your feet firmly planted on the floor.
    • Imagine your feet have roots going down into the earth. Feel your feet and be aware of how firmly rooted you are to the ground.
  2. Focus outward: In being alert to our surroundings we can bring ourselves out of panic and into the moment. Notice what is around you; take in what you are seeing. Observe the person you’re speaking to, and really see them.

This short investment of time will pay off. You’ll feel calmer which will help to calm others. You can be present for your meeting, absorb what’s being said, and be able to connect with others, who will, in turn, feel more connected to you.

You may not be facing an angry mob. But some days, it can feel like you might as well be.

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