Ever been thrown into a high-pressure situation that requires you to either sink or swim? How have you handled it, when staying calm under pressure seemed impossible?
I’ve encountered some tough situations along the way but one of the toughest was when a team member made a huge error in a presentation for one of my MBA classes.
Imagine this scenario: I was to deliver a group presentation for an MBA class I was in, in which I desperately needed a good grade. At first, everything seemed to be running smoothly.
However, during our presentation, one of our group members made a huge mistake–he said a process that only took 40 minutes was going to take 40 hours!
I felt my breath catch in my throat and panic started to rise. I could see that our classmates heard the error and it was only a matter of time before someone put us on the spot.
I was furious for letting this get by us, but it was too late to do anything about it.
Time was running out before the Q&A portion…
How was I going to respond to this? I asked myself frantically.
High-pressure situations are difficult to deal with but they’re also necessary for the pursuit of success. When you’re following dreams and asserting yourself, you’re more likely to end up in the hot seat. You will be tested. It’s natural to get scared and lose faith for a moment. But, you can’t give in to the fear of failure. Staying calm under pressure is difficult but there are ways to make it much easier. I’ve used these ten tips time and again and I feel I can tackle any stressful situations that may come my way.
1. Deep Breaths: In an earlier post, I’ve discussed how just breathing can have a calming impact. I caught myself starting and stopped. Staring out at a room full of people, I relaxed my lungs and started to breathe. Things felt better immediately. Train your brain so this is your first response to any stressor and keeping calm will be a lot easier. Breathe in and out through your nose. Fill your lungs with air deeply to a count of 5 and slowly breathe back out. You should feel a nice, relaxing sensation and your head should feel a bit clearer.
2. Slow Down: When the pressure is on, our brain is ready to snap into overdrive. But this isn’t always the best move. When thoughts are racing frantically, ideas get jumbled together. My mind was racing but I didn’t feel like I was coming up with anything useful. The rushing can make you feel better but it isn’t the key to finding a solution. Try to separate your thoughts from each other deliberately and not hastily. I had to slow down to find the answers. We had a lot to cover before the Q&A portion of the presentation, so I still had time to think of a way out of this pickle.
3. Think Before You Act: Speaking of thoughts, it’s important not to jump to the first thing that pops to mind. You’ll be tempted to spring into action but our initial impressions aren’t always the best. One of my first reactions was that we should just blame the group member who caused the error but it wasn’t going to do anything to improve our situation or our grade. Your first few choices can set the tone for the rest of the situation. Don’t waste time with half-formed ideas—you may run out of steam midway through and really drop the ball. Snap judgments will hurt your overall goal.
4. Form a Plan: Now’s the time to really grab hold of those brain cells. You want to avoid rash and impulsive behavior but you do need to have some kind of strategy to take the pressure off. Don’t try to make things too complicated. You’ll likely only have a short time to plan and execute, so find a straightforward resolution to whatever’s pushing down on you. I knew I had to come up with an answer before the Q&A at the end, so I began to think of the simplest explanations possible and anticipate follow-up questions.
5. Remain Confident: You’ve taken the extra steps to calm yourself down and think more rationally. You have a solution that’s going to make things better. Focus on the strengths of your plan and your own skills. Believing in yourself is what’s brought you forward so far in life. Continue on that confident path and you’ll have a much easier time staying calm under pressure.
Once I had a potential answer, I remained confident in it. There was no time for second-guesses or worrying since we still had a presentation to deliver.
6. Silence Your Inner Critic: Once you’ve made your plan, silence the voice who’s trying to doubt you. We all have our own antagonist. It’s good to listen to this voice in moments of reflection and try to find genuine paths for self-improvement. However, if you have a crisis on your hands, it’s time to have the utmost faith in yourself. In my situation, it was easy to doubt myself and let my inner critic win, but I quickly reminded myself there would be time to sort out what could have gone better in the future. Keeping a muzzle on your inner critic helps you get through the obstacles seamlessly.
7. Focus On What You Can Control: Most of the elements of a situation are completely out of our own hands. Whether you’re trying to impress new people, pull off a huge event, or just make it through a presentation, there will be challenges you couldn’t anticipate. I wished for a time machine immediately so we could go back and avoid the error altogether. But life is happening right in front of you and there aren’t any magical fixes. Look at what you’re capable of changing and try to let go of the other pieces.
8. Avoid Multitasking: Thinking we can multitask is a dangerous trap and it’s much easier to fall into when you’re in a high-stakes situation. Time might be short but it isn’t going to change the way your brain works. Splitting your attention will always have inferior results compared with keeping your mind on one activity. Once I had an idea of how I was going to solve the problem, I had to put my focus back on the rest of the presentation to avoid other issues.
9. Make Adrenaline Work for You: When your heart starts pounding and your head starts spinning, that’s adrenaline kicking in. This hormone gets our body keyed up for any physical challenge that may come from this stress. Although too much adrenaline can send you into a panic spiral, it’s an invaluable tool in providing focus and energy. Use your adrenaline like a laser beam and run with the extra strength and vitality our bodies try to give us. For me, I used the adrenaline coursing through my veins to focus on making the rest of the presentation the best it could be.
10. Stay Positive: Keep on smiling and walk right through any troubles. You’re much more acutely tuned into your perceived failings than the people around you. If you have an upbeat attitude, stumbles in wording or last-minute crises seem to roll right off your back. And it’s not just a perception—taking a more positive approach to life and trying to roll with the punches as they come is a much easier path to happiness than thinking negatively.
By the time the inevitable question came up, I had mentally prepared a short response about the sensitive information we needed to process increasing the overall time. I briefly discussed the possibility of class action lawsuit based on even small data mismanagement (which was actually true). Everyone recognized this as a possibility and it seemed like a reasonable explanation. By keeping a positive attitude and staying calm, I managed to save the presentation (and, more importantly, the grade!).
How we act under pressure ultimately comes to define us. When people recall the most important moments of their lives, they usually coincide with some struggle or challenge. You have the power to take control of situations and make them better. You have the strength to survive the difficulties. When you take a moment, focus on a need, and maintain confidence and positivity, you’ll be able to conquer situations that previously seemed insurmountable.