Calmness is a superpower you can practice

As a leader, one of the best things you can do in stressful or challenging situations is remain calm.

The other day I was in a one-on-one with one of my team members, talking about a difficult and sensitive team dynamics issue—a series of miscommunications that had gone sideways—when this person paused in the middle of our conversation, looked me in the eye, and thanked me for “being so calm.” I was struck by this response, immediately caught off guard. It was piercing, direct and powerful. In all my years as a manager, nobody has ever thanked me for being calm until that day.

In the moment, all I could think to myself was: “Could I really be any other way?” After all, I was trying to create a space of safety for this person, where we could have a direct and honest conversation about an emotionally challenging topic. Acting agitated or excited or annoyed would have been counterproductive. But I simply returned the complement by thanking her in kind for the observation and we moved on.

It was only after a bit more reflection later that day that I realized that my calmness in that conversation did not come “for free.”

Steph Ango calls calmness a superpower:

People like to be around others that make them feel calm … Calm people seem to be more helpful, they seem to see the situation more clearly.

The ability to remain calm is an essential skill for leadership, parenting, marriage, friendship, and so many other areas of life. (Let me tell you, nothing has tested my ability to remain calm as strongly as being a parent. And I have failed many times!)

Calmness engenders trust, fosters an environment of safety and predictability, and allows those with whom you are interacting with to share deeper truths.

While it is true that some people have a naturally more calm demeanor than others, calmness can also be cultivated. In difficult and emotionally-charged situations it is true that you can choose to be calm. Calmness is a superpower that, through dedicated practice, you can develop within yourself.

There are many ways to cultivate calmness, but for me, this practice has always been meditation. The reason that I was able to remain calm in that challenging one-on-one conversation is because I practice calmness almost every day.

I started practicing meditation when I was twenty-one in response to a leukemia diagnosis. I needed a way to stay calm through the adversity, the doubt, the fear, the confrontation with my own mortality at a very young age. Mindfulness-based meditation provided this for me and more. It was a way to practice being calm. A few years later, I started practicing Zen Buddhist meditation and never looked back. It remains an essential practice and guiding philosophy for my life to this day.

But I don’t talk about Zen or meditation with my team at work. Most of them—unless they read this blog post—have no idea that I have a regular meditation practice or consider myself a Buddhist. It’s not important. What is important to me is how I show up for them every day. Am I being calm? Am I being mindful?

Mindfulness-based meditation works because it’s simply a practice of noticing your own thoughts and feelings over and over again, moment to moment. When you spend a lot of time paying attention to your own feelings and how you react to things in any given moment you start to insert these tiny moments of choice between stimulus and response. It’s in those tiny moments that calmness arises, where you can decide to let go of your default reaction and be something else. It’s in those moments where you can choose to be calm.

As Steph Ango says, “You can be the calm one.” I agree. Like any other skill, it’s just a matter of practice.