Emotional intelligence: How to stay calm in high-pressure situations

Keeping calm under pressure can test even the best leaders. Try these four practical techniques to apply your emotional intelligence the next time a coworker or situation hits a nerve
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Effective leaders know how to regulate and manage powerful emotions. Indeed, the ability to maintain composure and steadiness in times of crisis is a key element of so-called “executive presence.” It not only has a calming effect on others but also inspires confidence. This ability falls within the realm of emotional intelligence – and like other aspects of EQ, it requires learning and practice.

Have you ever hovered over the send button, knowing you shouldn’t send that scathing message?

Practice you must, because keeping cool in a high-stress situation – unexpected bad news, a systems emergency, a sudden challenge or confrontation – is easier said than done. “If you’ve ever hovered over the send button, knowing you shouldn’t send the scathing message you’ve written, you know how strong that urge can be,” says Anne Grady, author of “Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph.”

[ How does your EQ stack up? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

We talked to experts to round up some practical tools you can use to keep your cool at high-pressure moments. Try these out:

1. Hit the purposeful pause button

Janice Marturano, founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, explains to senior leaders that when you’re facing a stressor, the fight-or-flight instinct in your brain crowds out executive function – and you may snap at the next person who walks through the door, or make a rash decision. A simple antidote to that is to take a minute, but not just to step outside or, say, close your eyes. If leaders can instead take what Marturano calls a “purposeful pause” – redirecting your attention to your breath or the feeling of your hands on your lap or your feet on the ground – you can bring your mind to the present moment.

This small act of mindfulness halts the hijacking of the brain by the amygdala and can enable an individual to return to clarity, to listen more openly, or to focus on what is most important.

“The number-one thing to do to keep your cool is to put a pause between the stimulus and the response,” says Margery Myers, a consultant and coach with Bates Communications, who works with CIOs and other corporate leaders on executive communication. “Find ways when under pressure or feeling overly emotional to pause before you respond, so that you have time to think, collect your thoughts, and maintain control over your emotions.”

[ What can mindfulness do for you? Read also: 8 habits of mindful leaders. ]

2. Identify your triggers

One of the best ways to deal with a high-stress situation is to have a plan in place for when it happens. That begins by identifying what types of things will set you off. “While it sounds easy, this is anything but,” says Grady. “The best way to identify your triggers is to pay attention to your emotions and physiology. When you are triggered, how do you know? Does your heart race? Do your palms sweat? Do your shoulders tighten? Do you begin to feel anxiety? Once you can identify how you react when you’ve been triggered and what tends to trigger you, you can proactively create a plan to manage those responses.”

For example, if you know you’re going to a meeting with Alex, the VP of marketing who has a tendency to throw IT under the bus, create a plan before you ever step foot in the room.

“This is the way political candidates prepare for debates.”

This will require a little homework. “Take the time to think about what will be said in the conversation. Get into the hearts and heads of those in the room to map out what they might say,” says Myers. “Put yourself in their shoes and assess what emotional triggers that they are facing right now that may be behind their questions or concerns. Consider their knowledge of the situation and their point of view of the issues.” Then figure out which of those things might rattle you and determine what your response will be.

“This is the way political candidates prepare for debates, for example, so they have measured, crisp responses already prepared to the range of possible questions or areas of discussion,” Myers says. “They have done the work to know how they will cope or be triggered and diffuse the tension in advance.”

What about when someone throws you an unexpected curveball? 

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.