I’ve been known to overreact in these situations, have you?

Jo Ilfeld Executive Coach| Leadership Article

*I’m pleased to share this article with you that was published on Forbes.com.*

Have you ever been thrown off your game at a critical moment?

Recently I met with a client who had an upcoming crucial off-site meeting alongside the leadership team she’s on. She was nervous about going to this off-site because she knew that there were several potential sources of conflict between her and other members of the executive team. She also recognized that there were several things she really wanted to accomplish and get buy-in on during this off-site.

How could she prepare? We talked about potential ways she could center herself during this off-site. Yet it’s not just this client; most of us at one time or another find ourselves thrown off our game, whether it’s at an off-site or just a typical work meeting. Someone says something upsetting and you suddenly realize you no longer feel calm, or you might know going in that you’re discussing an issue that’s potentially contentious.

In these moments, you need to think ahead about how you want to come across so that even in heated moments, you’re having the impact that you want to have on other people. We discussed my top five recommendations, and I believe these could be helpful to you, too.

Dr. Jo’s Top Five I-Need-To-Take-A-Chill-Pill Recommendations:

Jo Ilfeld | Executive Leadership Coach 1. Take a deep breath. The first one is as simple as it sounds, yet it’s incredibly hard to remember to do when you’re in the moment. When you take a deep breath, the kind of breath where your exhale is much longer than your inhale, you can change your body’s chemistry.

The reason for this is that often when we get upset and trigger our fight-or-flight instinct, it means that our sympathetic nervous system gets activated and our body can be instantly flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones — great for running; less so for rational thought. When you breathe deeply, with a longer exhale than inhale, you help activate your parasympathetic nervous system to calm yourself down and put you into a more peaceful state.

So when you notice your heart rate quickening, your cheeks flushing and your focus narrowing, that’s a really good time to try a very long exhale. (Just try breathing out to a count of 10.) This can be done very subtly in a meeting without anyone else even noticing.

2. Take a bathroom break. If you need a bit longer respite, go to the bathroom. It’s a natural thing we all have to do, and your body doesn’t always let you choose the right timing. So it’s normal during an off-site to get up quietly and excuse yourself for a minute, mouthing, “I’ll be right back.” When you have that bathroom break, make sure to take a few more breaths until you feel calmer.

If you believe going to the bathroom is inappropriate, or it’s weird you’re leaving at that moment, I recommend faking a coughing fit. What are people going to do? You just started coughing and need to get some water. Then you can step out and get water. Or if there’s water in the room, just step to the side and drink your water slowly, maybe briefly stepping outside. That’s a great way to give yourself a minute or two to refind your center.

If you are at an off-site, I also recommend that when there are breaks, you go outside! Take a walk around the block to get not just out of the room but even the building. Off-sites can be intense and draining, especially if you’re introverted and need time alone. Stepping outside and getting some sunlight or nature exposure can be very grounding and give you a different perspective on what you’re dealing with.

3. Scan the room slowly. Another great tool to settle your nervous system is to slowly move your eyes around the room you’re in, from one side to the other. This kind of scanning, or orienting, as it’s called, similar to longer exhales activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which resets and calms you. As my friend and somatic expert Irene Lyon says, “It also perks up our five senses and attunes us to the world around us, which is such an important skill to refine so that we can feel safe, secure and aware of what is going on around us.”

 Jo Ilfeld Executive Coach |Incite to Leadership4. Pick an ally in the room. The next strategy is to find someone in the room who knows you really well and who you feel comfortable being open with. Then, if you’re starting to feel upset, you can text this person quickly, “Hey! I’m getting upset,” so that they can send you some friendly, understanding glances or even say something in the meeting to take some of the pressure off you. If no devices are allowed, which I highly support, you two could come up with an easy signal ahead of time — then you can use each other as backup if things get heated or challenging. This one is best to arrange beforehand.

5. Make a pros/cons list. If you feel yourself settling into an irrational place, then I recommend starting a list, as you listen, of the pros and cons of the idea(s) being discussed. While this may seem unnecessary when you’re strongly against an idea, it activates your prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center of logical, rational thought. This brings your rational side forward despite feeling strongly about one path. The added bonus is that as you start noting the two sides of an issue, you might see possibilities previously overlooked. Sometimes grasping another perspective can both ground you and help your arguments be more powerful and lucid once you’re ready to vocalize them.

Whether you’re headed to an important retreat in the near future or have a high-stakes meeting coming up, I recommend jotting down your top two in-the-moment, take-charge-of-your-own-sanity strategies ahead of time. Then you don’t have to worry about getting thrown off your game for too long when anything unanticipated creeps in.

I’d love to hear from you now!  Do you have tips that you use to help you perform at your best when it really matters. Please share them in the comments below.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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