I recently went white-water rafting on the Lehigh River – a relatively tame river and a great opportunity to spend some fun time with my daughter and her family. I had anticipated doing a lot of paddling and entertaining my young grandchildren. But, I didn’t expect to get pancaked between a raft stuck on a rock and another raft coming at us at a high speed.  The force of the second boat threw four of us out of the raft. After violently hitting the bottom of the river, I started to come up for air only to realize I was under a raft, and was being carried down the river – under the boat!  I started to panic, but luckily, I regained my composure and realized I needed to find the end of the boat. When I got to the end I surfaced and just floated on the water catching my breath, glad to find that I was alive.  A leisurely day with family turned into quite an adventure!  

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I had anticipated the weather conditions and dressed appropriately.  But I hadn’t anticipated being trapped under a raft.  However, I had enough “training” in survival situations to know to remain calm and to determine my options.  As panic set in, I coached myself to regain my composure – the most effective behavior to maximize my chances of getting out of a bad situation. 

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Maintaining your composure – proving to be steady in a crisis, bringing objectivity and perspective in critical decisions – (one of the 15 facets in Bates’s Executive Presence Index) is critical, especially in today’s competitive environment where the unexpected can be expected.  Here are several steps to prepare for what could go wrong, and keep steady when the situation calls for it.

Anticipate and prepare ahead of time. Many circumstances are more predictable than you might think. Take the time to prepare ahead of time for what is likely to happen, so if and when it does happen, you have a plan ready to go.

For example, you know that when Jack comes late to your meetings you tend to lose your composure and immediately say something you later regret. If he comes late the next time be prepared to stop yourself from immediately reacting harshly to his behavior.  We often share the A, B, C, D rule with the executives we advise:

  • A = Ask a question. Inquire “Jack, is there something going on right now that made you late?” Not only will this stop a negative or heated reaction; you have invited a discussion that might help you understand Jack’s behavior (maybe his was putting out a fire his boss asked him to take care of).
  • B = Breathe Take a deep breath to give yourself a chance to calm down and consider an appropriate response.
  • C = Count Count to ten.  Like taking a breath, it helps you separate the stimulus (Jack’s lateness) from your impulsive response (“Jack, your total lack of regard for all of us who are here on time is totally unacceptable!”)
  • D = Defer Put off dealing with the issue now so you can deal with it when you have gained your composure.  For example, tell Jack that you would like to talk to him later. This places distance between the stimulus and your response.

Keep the ABCD technique handy for on-the-fly response. If you are caught by off guard something completely unexpected, adopting the A, B, C, D rule can give you time to come up with a thoughtful response.

Fight the urge to hunker down. Finally, resist the temptation to go off and solve the problem by yourself. If it isn’t clear what to do, get the advice of others. Too often when a crisis happens, executive shut themselves off just when getting other perspectives can be most valuable.  For more on this, please see this blog post on not hunkering down when faced with turmoil (https://www.bates-communications.com/bates-blog/inspiring-through-turmoil-dont-hunker-down).

One of the items in Composure in our ExPI Model is “knows how to shift others from a reactive to a proactive frame of mind.”  Leading others through the unexpected means acknowledging the emotions of the situation (“I might drown”) but quickly shifting to a calm, deliberate problem-solving mode (“Find the end of the raft”).  Putting some tools in place to make that shift easier will help you keep your composure, survive the unexpected, and come out alive and well.




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