How You Can Stay Calm in Difficult Situations

4 minute read

Answer by Heather Spruill on Quora.

When you’re not calm, you’re reacting. More specifically, you’re reacting to something that touches on fear or insecurity (worried about something bad or defending your ego), and that’s slipping in ahead of your logical thoughts.

That’s a thought habit. You do it because you’ve been doing it, and you can change it with some mindfulness — it’s easier with a little help from a friend or confidant, if one is available.

The hardest part is learning to stop yourself BEFORE you get jammed up. There’s an opportunity to tap the breaks when distressing things arise, and you need to pay attention and look for it. Practice “taking a step back” and thinking about what’s happening in your head vs. what’s actually happening in the world.

There are two types of situations that commonly result in unproductive excitement:

  • Getting confronted when you aren’t prepared
  • Anticipating something with an uncertain outcome
  • The first situation, confrontation, takes discipline and practice. You need to do some mental work ahead of time so that you’re better prepared for the next experience — that means reviewing past experiences and dissecting them so that you have more tools ready to handle the next surprise/uncomfortable conversation/etc.

    The second, anticipation, is something you can work through as it happens once you get some basic ideas worked out.

    Here’s what to think about:

    What’s happening in your head?
    Are you afraid of a particular poor outcome? Humiliation? Loss? Pain? The unknown? Loss of control? Something burdensome or annoying? Bad news?

    What is it that you’re really worried about? How likely is that outcome? How bad would it be really? What’s the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it to go in that direction? So what if it did? How bad is that really?

    In your mind, the stakes might automatically be set at “disastrously high” — is that accurate, though?

    What’s actually happening in the world?
    The other person isn’t a complete unknown. What are they looking for? What are they responding to? What do they need? f they’re mad or intense, what will help them feel less upset? Do they need you to listen? To act? To apologize? To reassure them? To take them seriously?

    What assumptions are you making based on incomplete data? We often assign personal meaning to things that have no implications for us personally, or assume that a particular outcome necessarily follows something that’s really not strongly correlated. Challenge those assumptions. It’s not easy, which makes it helpful to have a calm friend to help you keep things at arm’s length. What’s really happening? What does it really mean?

    Meanwhile — what can you do to make things less fraught? Recognizing you’re upset/un-calm lets you re-negotiate the circumstances.

  • Ask for time, ask for space.
  • Communicate ahead of time to let people you work closely with know that for you, having the information in advance and having a chance to review (rather than just springing an ad hoc discussion on you) it will make meetings more productive, if that’s true for you.
  • Have words ready to de-escalate tense situations. Try to remove emotional language and accusatory statements from your tool box.
  • Stay on what’s real without immediately leaping to what the implications are (or might be) when you’re discussing things.
  • Have questions ready to re-focus things in productive directions.
  • Stay aware of how you’re feeling and what your body language is telling the other person and yourself. Your tension can compound when you feel yourself tensing up physically — concentrate on neutralizing your posture, relaxing your shoulders, avoid leaning forward, and open your hands.
  • This question originally appeared on Quora: How can I stay calm in difficult situations?

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