Communicating a Calm Presence

Sometimes a simple change in how we communicate is all it takes to begin the process of calming an anxious system. One organization we worked with was experiencing a rise in both acute and chronic anxiety, and many employees (including some of the members of the senior team) were displaying reactive behaviors. Knowing that it was up to them as leaders to calm the system, they asked us to share with them some strategies for how they could communicate more effectively as step-down transformers and bring some measure of calm to a highly reactive system. We shared with the team the behaviors and communication strategies and asked every leader to pick one to commit to practicing over the course of the next month as the process and reorganization changes were rolled out.

Communicating a Calm Presence

When we met with the team a month later, one senior leader spoke about how he had decided to become a “curious questioner” rather than a “know-it-all leader.”

Instead of succumbing to the pressure he felt to supply the answer to every problem or question his employees brought to him, he practiced asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity to draw out the facts and their own best thinking. In doing so, he reported a significant drop in their level of anxiety and reactivity, and also in his own.

Asking questions from a place of curiosity is a powerful way to lower anxiety and to bring greater thoughtfulness to a situation. In fact, neuroscience research tells us that it is next to impossible to be both curious and anxious at the same time! That said, asking questions alone is not enough. We’ve all been at the receiving end of interrogation, which is all about asking questions, but not from an open, curious stance. Inquiry, on the other hand, means “to inquire from a place of openness” and requires a willingness on our part to be influenced by what we hear. Leaders who act as step-down transformers understand this distinction and work to practice skillful inquiry rather than interrogation. The example above underscores how adopting even one of these step-down transformer practices can make a big difference. From a systems perspective, this makes sense, as what affects one affects all.

The Difference between Urgency and Anxiety

While chronic anxiety (and the reactivity it provokes) often makes things worse by interfering with our capacity for calm, clear, thoughtful action, urgency, on the other hand, can contribute to making a difficult problem or situation better. Anxiety makes clear thinking less likely, has a frenetic quality to it, and spreads like wildfire. Urgency is focused, purposeful, and steady — a relentless yet thoughtful pursuit of important goals and priorities and a call to action in the face of critical threats or vital opportunities. A leader who cultivates a sense of urgency focuses people on what matters most, clearly articulates the need for change, and galvanizes people to act. An effective leader learns how to operate as a calming influence during anxious times, lowering anxiety and reactivity in the system, yet also promoting a sense of urgency when and where it is needed.

How to Communicate as a Step-Down Performer

  • Be quick to observe, listen, and be curious, rather than react. Use playfulness to lessen tension in self and others and don't take yourself too seriously.
  • Ask questions to gain better perspective, deeper awareness, and to build common understanding. Try to reframe the issue.
  • Invite the group to step back and see the bigger picture of how they may be contributing to things, by posing the question, "What's our role in this?"
  • Focus others on the facts, rather than assumptions, judgements, and gossip. Bring clarity to the ration system by communicating and regularly clarifying roles, goals, and priorities.