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Be the calmest person in the room

Margaret Marcuson

September 19, 2019

Anxiety is contagious. You’ve been in those meetings—one anxious person speaks up, and suddenly everyone is infected. The decision that seemed so clear and positive gets postponed—sometimes forever. Or a quick decision is made, not on a principled basis, but to lower the group’s anxiety.

We can see this process on a societal scale every day—simply scan the headlines.

What’s a leader to do? Remember that not only is anxiety contagious, so is calm. One pastor said, “I don’t have to be nonanxious, I just try to be less anxious than anyone else in the room.” (R. Robert Creech, Jim Herrington, and Tricia Taylor, The Leader’s Journey, Jossey-Bass, 2003, p. 70). In some rooms, you don’t have to lower your anxiety too far to be that person. 

When survival is at stake, people automatically experience the fight/flight/freeze response. Their brains tell them they are in danger, even if there is no physical danger present. Whether it’s a political campaign, a church budget crisis, or an interpersonal conflict, the body doesn’t know much difference between that and an attack by a vicious animal.

It can help simply to know this about yourself and others. The response doesn’t seem rational, because it’s not. It’s rooted in the survival instinct. I find this helps me have more compassion for myself and for others. It’s a way to step back and observe what is going on.

In addition, you can calm yourself down in the moment simply by breathing. When we have that fight-or-flight response, our breathing automatically speeds up. It takes some doing to notice this in the midst of an anxious meeting or conversation, but it’s worth practicing. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to practice over the course of a lifetime! Notice your breath. Breathe a little more slowly. When you get caught up in the conversation, come back to your breath. It’s a meditative practice right in the middle of a meeting.

Anxious groups make sometimes make decisions too quickly—the rush to judgment. Or they make decisions too slowly, unable to take a risk of any kind. What’s a leader to do when you see this happening? Often, the best option is simply to define yourself: “Here’s how I see it.” Don’t try to convince people or recruit them for your point of view. Calmly state your perspective and let it go. 

Anxious groups make sometimes make decisions too quickly—the rush to judgment. Or they make decisions too slowly, unable to take a risk of any kind. What’s a leader to do? Remember that not only is anxiety contagious, so is calm.

Part of being the calmest person in the room is not to be too attached to any particular outcome. You have a perspective, and your perspective is an important one. However, in most situations these decisions are not up to you alone. Others share in the decision, and you can’t control what they do. There’s some freedom in acknowledging that. It will help you calm down if you are clear on what is yours to control and what others control. You won’t spend a lot of energy fussing about what you can’t change.

One pastor was worried about an upcoming board meeting where some critical budget decisions had to be made. He was afraid the conversation would be driven by the two most anxious members of the board. The chair of the board could stay calm, but could also get caught in placating the anxious pair. In advance of the meeting, he met with the chair as they reviewed the agenda and told her, “Here’s how I see the budget challenge, and here’s what I intend to say.” He stayed calm, and his calm helped her approach the meeting in a clearer and calmer way. At the meeting the anxious pair ran their usual script with its dire predictions. The pastor stated his perspective, and added, “This is my view, and I recognize this decision is up to you as the board.” Then he just sat back and breathed. The chair stayed calm, too. The two anxious folks lowered the tone of their comments. The board didn’t make exactly the decision the pastor wanted, but they had a thoughtful discussion and came to a useful agreement on the budget. 

There’s no guarantee in any of these efforts, except one: If you can stay thoughtful, your contribution will be more valuable, even if things don’t go your way. Take the long view as well, and remember, these conversations recur again and again in organizational life, and our personal lives. You’ll get another chance—perhaps even today.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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