When we buy a new pair of walking boots or a raincoat, we never know how well they hold up until we test them out in the extreme weather conditions which we've been told they're designed to withstand. Similarly, when making our way along the path of engaged leadership, it's often hard to truly know how good we are at managing stress or adversity until we find ourselves in the most emotionally triggering of situations.
As engaged leaders, we know that keeping stress levels in check is a huge part of championing wellbeing as a means to a more engaged workplace. Yet no matter how many yoga classes, mindfulness sessions or non-violent communication lessons we've taken or implemented, we never know how fail safe our techniques are until the trickiest of moments. Perhaps it's a meeting that has filled you with rage, or a client who delivers some devastating news. Whatever it is, there will be moments throughout our careers where a high-impact event means that we feel stress rising within us, and fast. How we are able to respond to such stressful moments can define who we are as leaders. Read on for our step-by-step guide to keeping your cool when everything feels like it's going awry.
Stop and feel your body
So, you feel the stress monster rising. Before you do anything, stop and get a firm handle on what's happening inside your body. We all have our stress indicators – perhaps you feel your jaw tightening, heart racing, neck stiffening, posture tightening, or stomach clenching. Take a pause and feel all of these changes happening. Be aware that this is your body telling you to pay attention. Take the time to listen, and feel stress for what it is – a series of shifts happening inside your body.
Find some space
Remember, there's no rush. Avoid the temptation to project your stress in an unskillful, reactive way. Once you've felt what's happening inside your body, take some smooth, slow breaths. Feel the way your body responds to this change in pace. By slowing your breathing down, you'll be able to slow your thoughts down too. Feel this untangling in your mind, and find the space between breaths. This space – this stillness – is where skillful, meaningful action comes from.
Don't react, respond
By going through the two steps above – stopping and finding some space within – you'll create the time you need to respond appropriately to the stressful situation which is occurring. Responding is not the same as reacting. Responding takes into account the wholeness of a situation, whereas reacting tends to function in terms of autopilot.
Work with it
Once the moment of stress arising has passed, don't push it down and forget about it again. Think of stressful moments as signals pointing you to areas where you, as a leader, still require a little work. Take some time to think about what it was that triggered your stress reaction, and get to know the physical sensations which accompanied it. By befriending your least skillful self, you'll be better positioned to move forward with your personal and professional growth. Don't let stressful moments be your sticking point!
Talk about it
As leaders, we can often feel pretty alone. It's easy to forget that we have very human needs too. Reaching out to a friend or peer can provide you with an opportunity to offload in a therapeutic way, ideally without judgement. There's no point in pretending to be invincible. None of us are, and we need good friends to remind us of our vulnerability, and the fact that we're still very much in the midst of a journey. Learning to deal with stressful moments can take a lifetime of practice, so it makes sense to start practising today.