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10 ways to keep cool and not lose composure

5 min read


When leaders blow up, lose their tempers or let their emotions get the better of them, they can quickly develop a reputation as volatile, moody, defensive or having a lack of leadership presence.

Unfortunately, all it takes is one public outburst. When coaching leaders who have received negative 360-degree feedback about composure, I’ll ask them when the last time they lost their cool was. In most cases, it’s on a rare occasion, maybe months ago. However, people remember, and it becomes a tough reputation to overcome.

Maintaining your composure can be hard! Emotions serve us well, especially in dangerous situations. Chemicals are triggered that enable us to run away from or fight an angry bear. Which serves us fine if we are in the woods confronted by an angry bear. Not so good when confronted by an angry co-worker in a meeting.

So what can you do to overcome the urge to throttle your co-worker that says something that sets you off? Here are 10 techniques to try:

1. Channel your emotions deliberately. Learn to use your emotions as a tool and not let your emotions control you. Great leaders understand the power of emotions. They use them to inspire, to demonstrate passion, and to be seen as authentic. However, they never let their emotions take over their brains and make them say stupid things that they later regret.

2. Identify your “triggers.” What people, behaviors, or situations tend to set you off? Think back over the last six months. Chances are, you’ll identify patterns. Give up on the expectation that the world or others need to change to stop setting you off. Own your triggers and take responsibility for changing how you react.

3. Practice active listening. When you feel that trigger and adrenaline rush, keep your mouth shut and listen. Ask clarifying questions and paraphrase your understanding of the other person’s point of view. Active listening will not only buy you time to regain your composure, it will help diffuse the emotions of the person that’s attacking you.

4. Count to 10. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it works!

5. The 4:7:8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

6. Exercise, diet, and sleep. A lack of any of these will lead to stress, which leads to a greater likelihood of losing your cool.

7. Take a “helicopter view.” Imagine yourself rising above the situation and looking down at what’s happening. Analyze the situation – try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and figure out where they are coming from. Then, come back down and attempt to address the issue.

8. Learn to accept feedback as a “gift.” Learn the art of giving and receiving feedback.

9. Take it “offline.” If it’s an issue that should be resolved between you and “the bear,” suggest that the issue be discussed and resolved after the meeting. Doing so allows both parties the chance to calm down and prepare to focus on problem solving without emotion getting in the way. Sometimes, what seemed important even goes away or becomes much less important.

10. Learn alternative approaches to handling conflict. Most people have a preferred style of handing conflict. There are actually six: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. None are better than the others, they all can be very effective. See the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKITM) for more on the six conflict styles, and take the assessment to find out what your preferred style is.

Try out a few of these techniques until you find one that works for you, and you’ll be seen as a leader that stays calm and can take the heat when it gets hot in the kitchen.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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