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Keeping Calm When All Around Are Not: Quiet Curiosity

How can you keep calm when all around you seem to be getting angry and frustrated?  There are some people who manage to do it easily, and keep control during difficult conversations.  They come across as quietly assertive, and are highly respected for their communication skills.  But unfortunately, most of us don’t, and we find our emotions hijacking our thoughts and behaviours.

A coaching client recently asked if I’d ever got really annoyed with team members or my bosses when I was leading teams in a stressful environment – and the answer, of course, was “definitely”.  However, I’ve now been able to learn a few techniques which can keep me more level headed, rather than arguing back or having to bite my tongue (and screaming in silence!!).

When we’re angry or frustrated, our instinctive, primitive brain will take over.  Any discussion that goes against our values or sense of fairness becomes what our minds determine as a “threat” to our sense of self.  This in turn triggers the amygdala to send stress hormones round the body and we default to one of four responses:

  • Fight (keep arguing the point)
  • Flight (hide behind group consensus)
  • Freeze (keep quiet and disengage from the discussion) or
  • Appease (agree with your challenger).

But we know from experience that fighting anger with anger gets us nowhere fast.  When we can remain calm, it doesn’t take long for the other person to reduce the volume of their voice and start to calm down too.  And it’s at this stage we can have a conversation that is more likely to result in collaboration and agreement.

This was highlighted to me during one direct report’s angry outburst.  The next day they apologised, appreciating my calmness, saying that if anyone had spoken to them that way, they would have sacked them!  It helped that I was able to understand their frustration, not personalise it … and they were also able to learn from it.

There are a few techniques which can help you over the long term, but there’s one quick technique which you can use immediately.  And that’s curiosity.

This is our ability to be curious about what the other person might be thinking and feeling, or what is driving their behaviour.  We are able to consider why they are acting and reacting in the way they are, and whether they may have a point of view we should be listening to.

And this is all done quietly in our own minds, NOT spoken out loud. Eg.  thinking I wonder why ….. you are saying that, you think that way, this discussion is upsetting you … etc.

Quiet curiosity activates the part of our brain that is designed for sharing, it drives us to open up to questions, and is directly linked to our “reward” system (which reduces any feelings of “threat”).

When we have that sense of curiosity we listen deeply, are able to connect to others better and turn off judgement.  This improves collaboration, trust and openness so that all involved can share what’s really on their minds in a way that can get results and solutions.  When we’re fearful or stressed (in “threat”), the power to connect to others shuts down and we are less sensitive and tolerant to others’ perspectives.

Curiosity also helps us to step out of our own personal overriding emotions of anger and frustration, so that we can remain calm and in control.  By using this technique, it helps you to see others as human and not as just the cause of all your stress.

If you find yourself in a difficult conversation you can:

  • Try taking 10 minutes out – say you need a cuppa, comfort break, check on something.
  • If that’s not possible, then immediately practice quiet curiosity, to consider what might be causing the behaviour you’re seeing. You don’t have to be correct, as it’s the internal thinking process that will help you calm down.
  • Once the emotional barriers are down, then you are best placed to enable better discussions.

Quiet curiosity can be practised by all in the team, as this will encourage communication and better working relationships. It’s probably useful when talking to some customers too!  Wouldn’t that be a nicer place to work?

To find out more techniques to enhance leadership skills, please contact us for an initial discussion.

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