Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]

We’ve all experienced times where the situation can get heated. Whether it’s a tense family gathering, a stressful workplace dynamic, complex negotiations or a complicated community debate, keeping your cool when others around you are losing theirs can be challenging.

Why is this? Have you heard of the theory of ‘Emotional Contagion’?

Wikipedia tells us that it is “a form of social contagion that involves the spontaneous spread of emotions and related behaviours.” You don’t need to be a psychologist to know this is very real. Imagine walking into a house filled with your favourite people after a super challenging day at work. Happy people laughing and telling funny stories, your favourite tunes playing and great food on the grill. The sights, aromas, sounds and great vibes can have you instantly lifting your spirits and unconsciously packing all your troubles in your old kit bag.

However, the same can also happen in reverse to various degrees. You can be having the best day and BOOM. One underhand comment from a neighbouring pot stirrer with a sly look on their face can instantly dampen your shine – “You look terrible … are you sick?” Let alone finding yourself in the middle of meltdown central with a colleague impersonating an angry mob fixing for a fight. It’s human nature to mirror behaviour so without composure we can find ourselves wishing we could hit the reset button.

Sometimes good people behave badly under pressure. We’ve all got chapters we don’t want to read out loud, and I’m sure I’m not the only one where the wisdom of hindsight would have me wind back the clock and behave differently.

By honing your self-awareness, cultivating effective strategies, and keeping your wellbeing and the big picture at centre stage you can stay super calm amidst the sound of chaotic voices. Not only will you be doing your own nervous system and immune system a favour, but you will be taking others on the ride with you. Switching up the vibe. Role modelling alternate ways of being. Looking for the win win and inviting the world to be a more peaceful place to inhabit.

These two mindfulness hacks with catchy acronyms can help you navigate such scenarios and so many more. Practice them often when the heat is off. Like an Olympic athlete of life preparing for the next big event. As you are reading this article you may already have these in your tool belt of life or have developed you own. Try systemising and practising them often and then once it’s show time you will have the process firmly woven into the fabric of your being ready to roll. You as the best of the best exploring how to get even better.

1. S.T.O.P. This fundamental mindfulness practice helps you build self-awareness as well as self-management.

• S = STOP When we are faced with a perceived threat (i.e. someone flipping their lid) it is likely that we will move into fight or flight mode. The stop is a pattern interrupt. A chance to consciously stay in your power. Posture of confidence. Essence of a smile. Grounded. Centred. Present with what is.

T = TAKE A BREATH A series of low slow conscious abdominal breaths has the power to activate the higher brain regions, especially when practiced often. Olympic Gold swimmer Michael Phelps was rumoured to be able to get his nervous system into the optimum place to win in just three breaths.

• O = OBSERVE Observe to gather information. Notice with curiosity your body, feelings, or your thoughts. Observe with kind, non-judgemental, compassionate noticing of whatever the present moment contains. Observe what is important to you in that moment.

• P = PROCEED Proceed skillfully in presence in your new state of being.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

The stop practice cultivates this space bringing growth and freedom. Pause. Breathe. Smile. You may discover once you have STOPped that you have the freedom to choose to remove yourself from the situation. Picking your battles wisely. Not your circus not your monkeys. But if that’s not an option, then once practiced this ‘SALT Assertive Communication Tool’ will stand you in good stead.

2. S.A.L.T. Assertive Communication Tool

This simple yet powerful communication tool was taught to me some years ago by seasoned trainer, Patrick Sherratt, from Hawke’s Bay-based education training company Innervate.

Patrick shared, “There is an old expression ‘rubbing salt into a wound’ referring to making a difficult situation even worse. However, salt water can actually help clean and promote healing by a process known as osmosis.” Here is my take on adding a little SALT in the mix: 

• S = STATE State your point of view and experience in terms of observing the events or behaviors. In a mindful mode of kindness to self and others avoid blaming, forming assumptions, telling how it is, accusing, demanding or judging.

• A = ASK Ask the person/people involved for their point of view (gather information).

• L = LISTEN Listen in 100% presence with the intention of understanding the thoughts and feelings of the other person. Without interrupting. For most people this is the hardest part. Without interrupting. Remain neutral or friendly. Maintain eye contact. Posture of confidence. Cycle back to ask more questions if needed once they have finished talking, and again listen without interrupting to their response.

• T = THANK & TAKE ACTION Thank the person for sharing their point of view. Take action to finding a solution (e.g. “What is the best way forward now?”, “Can you start a taskforce to tackle this?” “Can I take time to mull this over and get back to you?”

Staying calm when others around you are losing their composure is a truly valuable skill. Embedding these mindfulness strategies, cultivating honest and gentle self-awareness, and prioritising your well-being take conscious commitment but it’s worth it. It makes us less frustrated and more able to navigate the many adventures of life with more grace and composure. 

We know from research that as little as 10 minutes a day of mindfulness subtly changes the actual structure of your brain and in turn the way you respond to everything. Give it a go super nova. Keep exploring the best version of you. Live and let live, don’t take things personally and always look for the best in others. Let me know how you get on! 

Suggested reading:

Notes to Self: The Secrets of Calm by Rebekah Ballagh

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr Stephen R. Covey 

Kate McLeay is a mindfulness mentor, yoga teacher and retreat host based at Cape South Country Estate and Wellness Retreat near Waimarama, Hawke’s Bay.


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