Her whole body seemed clenched, even over the phone.
Even though my client was calling at her regular time, she wasn’t using her “regular” voice.
“How are you?” I asked her, with both curiosity and concern. “You won’t believe it!” she started off. She sounded so distressed that I broke in to ask where she was, whether she was sitting or standing, and where in her body she was most feeling the stress.
My coaching clients are used to such interruptions. When they’re expressing a lot of intensity, I might suggest a brief physical sequence to return to a calmer body state and release some of the tension that’s winding them up.
We’re not trying to avoid emotions or pretend everything’s fine; we’re creating both the physical and mental space so we can sort through whatever’s going on, communicate and make decisions more thoughtfully.
We all need this practice. When we’re wrapped around our own axle, so to speak, our thinking can become garbled or frantic, and our tension, anxiety or frustration can make us less clear and less credible.
Regaining physical control and composure can make a significant difference. It won’t eliminate the original problem, but it can adjust the nature and quality of our response.
Here are three techniques to calm yourself and cope with someone who’s taking advantage of your time or good nature:
1. Get your shoulders out of your ears. If you’ve raised your shoulders and scrunched up your neck, you’re not just protecting that vulnerable neck; your body is telling your brain that you’re scared. Perhaps more damaging, you’re also making yourself look anxious and weak. To counteract this tendency, work on the vertical aspect of your presence. Every time you exhale, be conscious of lifting the top of your head toward the sky and dropping your shoulders.
2. Loosen your throat. Our throats may tighten when we encounter a violation of truth or fairness, as if we just can’t swallow the indignity. Unfortunately, a tight throat also raises vocal pitch and reduces volume. Plus, the tightening can cause you to swallow hard or clear your throat repetitively, which makes you sound nervous or frightened. Then, if you get frustrated with yourself for sounding less than confident, that behavioral feedback loop can trigger tears. So, loosen that throat. If you are alone, try sighing or using the word “hummmm,” which lets you expel air forcefully, creating some vibration at the end. If you’re in public, exhale through your mouth, and inhale through your nose. Start your next sentence with “Huh” or “Hmmm” to activate your throat, and then ask a slow and deliberate rhetorical question: “Hmmm, well, what do you think about X?” Don’t wait for an answer; this is just a warmup so you can present your perspective calmly and in your normal tone.
3. Release your chest if it’s tight or heaving. Focus on slowing your breath, letting it flow in and out of your abdomen, rather than taking sharp, shallow breaths into your upper chest. Check to see whether you’re hunched over or you’ve crossed your arms, as if to protect your heart. Sit up taller, square your shoulders, and rest your hands on the desk or on your thighs. Think: “My heart is strong and full of courage.” Now say or do whatever you think is the best next step.
Whatever prompted your discomfort might not be fair or right or even practical, but you are not powerless. You have choices about how to behave and manage yourself, and once you’ve decided how to manage your body, you can decide how best to respond.