The ability to think clearly under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations is a skill that many of us wish we could master.
Business leaders are expected to give their best performance consistently, while leading in fast-paced environments with time pressures, and adapting their strategy to suit a continuously changing world.
Such expectations and responsibilities can be overwhelming, which causes stress levels to build, making it difficult to think on our feet.
It’s comforting to know that you’re not alone. Most senior leaders struggle to communicate effectively. Our research report, Thinking on Your Feet, identified that 81 per cent of senior leaders feel that they’re often placed in situations where they find it difficult to remain calm and clear-headed.
Furthermore, 37 per cent of leaders stated that high-pressure scenarios made it harder to prepare their thoughts. Our research found that board meetings (31 per cent), and video conference calls (30 per cent) most frequently impacted senior leaders’ ability to act authentically and think on their feet.
It’s vital to build resilience and confidence in these scenarios. Fortunately, there are techniques, which build upon an actor’s craft, to help leaders prepare their minds and bodies.
What are these techniques, and how can leaders apply them?
The first stage is to release any physical tension. Muscular tension feeds back to the brain that we are under stress, which makes us think reactively, rather than responsively.
It becomes harder to think or act flexibly and curtails our creativity. What’s more, showing physical signs of stress may cause our audience to feel uncomfortable.
So before that key meeting, stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees unlocked. Scan up your body, focusing on the muscles of the legs, then the belly, followed by the shoulders, neck and arms.
Give each muscle the instruction to soften and release. Lift your shoulders to your ears, squeeze hard and then drop them down. Rotate your shoulders forward, then back. Allow your arms to hang by your side — free of muscular tension.
Now focus on your neck. Turn your head to look over each shoulder, in turn. Allow yourself a huge, open yawn to release the jaw muscles and tongue. Finally, take a moment to shake out all muscular tension.
Also, consider your breath. Focused breathing helps to manage nerves, which often manifest themselves in high-pressured situations. Imagine your belly expanding as you breathe in.
Try counting, breathing out for seven seconds and in for five seconds. This will help to calm your nervous system, freeing you to think with greater clarity.
Think in the moment
When learning improvisation, actors are taught to turn off their inner critic — the voice in our head that tells us to get it right. Great improvisers focus their attention on their fellow actors and listen, responding to whatever they say or do. Often the simplest response is what is needed.
It’s the same in business. If you take the pressure off yourself, you give yourself the chance to be “in the moment” and your best ideas can flow during a meeting, rather than 15 minutes after you’ve left.
We can’t expect to set the world alight every time we think, so take the pressure off and keep it simple. In the heat of the moment, have you really listened to the question? Do you understand it?
If not, resist the urge to start speaking. Pause, think, and ask for clarification if you need it. Breathe and try offering your responses in short sentences for good impact.
As Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage.” That includes the boardroom.
Kate Walker Miles is a tutor at RADA Business.