8 tactics to keep your cool in stressful business settings

Plan and prepare for tough questions, find your internal allies, and dispel any notions that you don’t belong.

How to endure stressful business settings

The higher you rise in any organization, the more you’ll find yourself in pressure-packed, high-stakes meetings.

Unfortunately, these meetings are often filled with people who are either rude, arrogant, vindictive or downright hostile. It’s always jarring to encounter what feels like personal contempt and blatant disrespect, but enduring these heated moments is part of the process of professional growth.

Instead of being shocked, angered or flustered by hostility in these intense settings, it’s better to accept it, get over it, and prepare your message and mentality to win the moment. After all, these tense professional moments are tests of both your knowledge and temperament.

Try these eight tips to keep your cool in stressful workplace situations:

1. Prepare your attitude; this is an opportunity.

If you get invited to present to executives or board members, remind yourself that it’s because you have ideas worth sharing. You do belong.

Of course, if you do get a chance, don’t take it for granted. Executive and board meeting agendas are typically jam-packed, and earning your way on, even for a short update, is a tremendous opportunity to gain visibility and experience. Prepare for your moment as if it’s the most crucial presentation of your career—because it just might be.

2. Align with your advocate.

Whether it’s your boss or another senior manager or board member who invited you to the meeting, align your talk with that person’s objectives for your portion of the program. Your goals are to deliver value to the audience, assist your advocate, and gain support for your ideas and initiatives.

3. Know your audience.

Try to seek input and ideas from others who have presented to this group in the recent past. Also, try to uncover:

  • Personal preferences, pet peeves or passions of the individuals you’ll be meeting with.
  • An understanding of their respective areas of expertise.
  • Details about the power structure of the group.
  • Anything you can gain about attendees’ particular interests or pet projects.
  • Which people are aggressive questioners.
  • Their preferences for information consumption (slides, handouts, etc.)

Armed with advance knowledge, you can tailor your message as needed—or simply be prepared for questions and interactions.

4. Plan your message and supporting points with care.

Plan and prepare with the tenacity of a successful serial entrepreneur seeking funding from tough-minded, cynical financiers. Keep your message crisp, support your key points with examples and evidence, and be prepared to field some tough questions.

Anticipate pushback, and formulate how you’d like to respond to specific questions or critiques.

5. Confidence is crucial, optimism is infectious.

Executives and board members are particularly attuned to confidence, and bigwigs sense “lack of confidence” immediately. Company leaders can also be unusually sensitive to any attempt by presenters to dodge key questions or provide excessively sunny projections.

Confidence and optimism—blended with transparency and authenticity—are vital ingredients to survive high-stress meetings. Trust in yourself, and don’t let harsh questions dampen your enthusiasm.

6. Passion is positive and contagious—to a point.

Passion is priceless—and persuasive.

If you find yourself having to manufacture passion to suit the event, your fellow attendees will notice. So, don’t fake it. Too much energy can work against you. Keep it real, and temper your passion for the issue with transparency about risks and challenges.

7. If confusion breaks out, get to the whiteboard.

If you’re having trouble clarifying a complex issue, a polite acknowledgment such as: “Yes, this is confusing. Let me try a diagram to clarify,” is all you need.

This shift away from words to an image is often a powerful method for regaining attention, drawing participants into the discussion and eliminating confusion. It’s also impressive to the audience that you had the courage to adjust your approach on the fly with the skill of a practiced instructor.

8. Prepare to keep your temper.

You’ll eventually run into that individual who needs to put you in your place. When this happens, you need a circuit breaker that flips and keeps your temper from flaring up.

You need to create a circuit breaker that stops the flood of adrenaline that either drives you to ground (flight) or causes your temper to explode (fight). Regardless of your propensity for one or the other, both represent a loss of control from the part of your brain that you desperately need in this situation.

Think these calming thoughts to keep your cool.

  • This is one of those “testing” moments. Flip the circuit breaker, and keep calm. 
  • I wonder why this person is taking this approach?
  • I need to breathe. 
  • I need to relax my posture
  • I need to do something positive. What should I do?
  • I think I’ll ask a clarifying question. Then I’ll return to my key points. 

That might seem like a lot to do in the heat of the moment. However, it’s just takes seconds  to recalibrate and recover. You can also look away from your antagonist as part of the process. The mind-body connection in this circuit-breaker routine draws control away from your fight-or-flight center and keeps control in the region of your brain responsible for logic and reasoning.

Practice your circuit breaker move so that it’s second nature when you recognize the situation. This calming mechanism is your best defense against individuals who try to derail you.

There’s no avoiding difficult communication situations, particularly as you gain responsibility in your career. But the more you endures these tests of your temperament, the more respect, authority and clout you’ll earn.

Art Petty is a leadership coach, blogger and speaker. A version of this post first ran on his site.

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