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Under Pressure - Thinking correctly under pressure

“How do you do it? I just don’t know how you managed that. You had everyone wanting an answer and applying pressure and you just dealt with it so calmly. How do you do it?” Jack was in awe of his boss Emily after watching her handle a meeting that was as intense as it was important. Emotions were high, and at times a little heated, but she seemed so calm, cutting through the pressure with a well-reasoned and clearly explained solution. He wanted to know her secret.

Emily, leaned forward with a wry smile. “Ah, the secret is... I talk to Arfur.”

Jack was none the wiser. But Emily put him out of his misery quickly. “Jack, it is all about managing the emotions within yourself in those moments. I have a simple acronym that helps me. ARFUR. Let me explain.”

The trick to thinking clearly under pressure is allowing yourself to use the correct part of the brain. In high threat and high-pressure moments, the emotional centre of the brain will be sending out messages that can crowd your judgement. So, in these moments, it is about getting the emotional messages under control. To do this, we can look to Emily’s friend ARFUR:

· ACKNOWLEDGE the emotions,

· RECOGNISE where they are coming from,

· FOCUS the emotions to what is helpful

· UNDERSTAND the demands, your ability & the true consequences

· REALISE this is a learning opportunity not a pass/fail moment

ACKNOWLEDGE the emotions

Steve Peters, in his book Chimp Paradox, talks about our emotions as being like a chimp and that we need to use language that will help to reassure our chimp. This ‘chimp language’, which we can use to calm our emotional chimp, comes in 3 parts

a) acknowledge the emotions

b) remind yourself of a time it has been ok

c) give yourself a bit of time for the logical part of your brain to catch up.

We can’t dismiss the emotions or ignore them – it just makes our chimp more agitated. So, what is it that I am feeling? If we were to ask Emily, she would say that in that moment she felt alone, lonely. Just acknowledging and naming these emotions takes some of their power away, and is the first step to managing them and helping you think more clearly.

RECOGNISE where they are coming from

Awareness is the key to managing your emotions in high pressure situations – being aware of your emotions and then understanding where they might be coming from. In Emily’s case, with everyone wanting and answer and no-one looking like giving a solution, she recognises this weight of responsibility might explain why she feels lonely and, therefore, threatened. The deeper layer is recognising what element within her is sparking this feeling. Sometimes it can be due to an experience in the past that is being triggered in the memory. Maybe a playground incident as a child or a time at work previously. Sometimes it is something we are passionate about, like our purpose, strengths, or values, that is being rubbed by the situation and it is creating friction within us. If you were to ask Emily, she knows the loneliness evokes some unpleasant memories of childhood and the gang of girls leaving her out, as well as causing friction with her core values of ‘belonging’ and ‘team’. Her feeling of being threatened comes from wanting to get things right and be seen as competent. When we become aware of what is behind our emotions, it strangely feels less personal because we realise what is actually happening.

FOCUS the emotions to what is helpful

When we first feel under pressure and the panic in us builds up, we have to recognise who is talking. Is it our emotional chimp? Our chimp is in fact a friend. It will assess all the possible threats and warn us. The trick, though, is to keep this in balance. So, ask yourself some key questions:

· Is this reaction helpful?

· What do I need to help me to achieve a calm response?

· What do I need in this moment?

· What do others need from me in this moment?

When we recognise an emotion that is hijacking us, we need to know what helps us to regain composure. In my upcoming Leadership Lounge Podcast interview with headteacher Vicki Gascoyne-Cecil, we discussed how she deals with high pressure moments. During our conversation, she recounted the threat of a drive by shooting that she was tasked with handling. During this stressful situation, she knew a short walk in nature, in the school grounds and woodland, would enable her to calm down, find composure, and allow thinking time to construct a plan. For others, it is breathing exercises or visualisation or a moment of quiet. What gives you this space to think?

UNDERSTAND the Demands, your Ability & the Consequences

Pressure moments can evoke us to catastrophise. It is natural for our mind to do this as we are designed to look out for threat and avoid it. So, in high pressure leadership moments, we can think that we are responsible for everything and should be able to control everything. We can think that we don’t have the skills to do this and that the consequences will be the end of the world for us, and everyone involved. But we need to keep this in balance. I will explain more on this in the next blog, but the key element here is to consider what is actually, really at play here. Sometimes we can make bigger issues of things in our minds than it is in reality. In this moment, it is about quickly evaluating what the key responsibility we have is, what we have at our disposal to meet it and who around us can help to meet any gaps.

REALISE this is a learning opportunity not a pass/fail moment

This is hard to do in the moment, because high pressure situations often have high stakes. The key here is to practise this attitude in everyday challenges. Making a habit of asking ‘what worked well’ and what would be ‘even better if’ in the everyday moments allows this to be a way of thinking. Then, in those moments of high pressure, you already have that attitude embedded and it takes an element of pressure off. Any moment is only as big as we make it in our mind. To use a phrase from when I coached teenagers at football, “It’s the game in the mind, lads.” If we see it in our mind as another opportunity to do our best and then learn from it, then it un-demonises it.

Over to us

There is a lot going on in our world at the moment. Having ARFUR as a friend can be useful for the everyday when we feel an emotional response to what is going on, both in the wider world and our own world. Do tune into our Leadership Lounge Podcast with Vicki Gascoyne-Cecil on Friday 18th March, as we share more tips on how to manage our emotions and think clearly under pressure.


Can we help you?

How are you with dealing with pressure and a crisis? Coaching can help you grow in confidence in dealing with these tricky issues. Everyday Leader’s team of coaches can help you understand what is going on in your head and how you can manage your emotions and other people in those moments. Give us a call on 01449 710438 if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you and your team.

Everyday Leader is here to empower, inspire and equip you to do that. If we can help you find a way forward, through coaching, training or consultancy, do let us know. Contact us now:


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