Staying cool, calm and collected under pressure is one of the most important business skills anyone can have, yet also one of the most elusive. We'd all like to think we've mastered this, until we get in a pressure-packed moment and realize that maybe our game wasn't as good as we thought on this front.
So why not learn how to up your game from someone who has to up his game at this in the direst of circumstances? A U.S. Navy bomb disarmament expert (officially called an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Specialist by the military), shared his secrets, under the need for anonymity, with the Observer on how he remains calm and gets the job done when stakes are high. And by high-stakes I mean when he's disabling torpedoes, chemical weapons, and even nuclear weapons--while underwater.
I'll add to this with my own experience in needing to keep calm in high stakes situations, albeit with dramatically lower consequences, when keynoting in front of more than a thousand people. Altogether, you'll have a good plan of attack so you don't panic in high-pressure situations.
1. Ignore "What if?"
The military parlance here is to first and foremost make an accurate threat assessment. Simply put, don't catastrophize things.
When the pressure's on, stop triggering an onslaught of stress by imagining everything that could go wrong. As the bomb disposal expert says, don't go down the rabbit hole by asking yourself "What if" this or that for 10,000 scenarios. Resist the temptation to see the worst in the situation. If you don't, it just might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I once heard famous race car driver Mario Andretti tell a crowd that the key to racing is to look ahead and not at the wall, because you steer where your eyes take you. Concentrate on all the potential negatives of the situation and you'll steer right into them.
Anytime I feel a "What if" coming on, I replace it with a "What will", as in, "What will now happen is that I'm going to open this keynote strong and have them hooked all the way through." You get the idea.
2. Link to past experience.
The odds are, whatever high-pressure situation you find yourself in, you can find something about it that will link back to things you've been through before. Leveraging experience and a sense of familiarity has a tremendous effect on calming your nerves. Even for someone disarming bombs it can have a calming effect because as our bomb expert said, "you leverage that experience to see things as just another version of a problem you've solved before."
Some have told me they could never speak in front of a lot of people for fear they'd freeze up. But when you have experience after experience of that never happening when giving a talk, it becomes proof-positive to draw on if the thought ever pops up before taking the stage.
3. Incite cascading positivity versus spiraling negativity.
This is about emphasizing the positive of the situation and focusing on what you can control. It's about finding one small positive in the high-pressure situation and then using it as a jumping off point to pile on more associated positives. This is much better than the opposite--spiraling downward one imagined event at a time.
The bomb expert told the Observer of an instance when his boss got trapped underwater, unable to move his hands or feet, while defusing a bomb. The next thought entering his chief's head was, "I'm still breathing, now what else do I have going for me?" If you have to start with this small of a win in your own high-pressure situation, do it. Then build from there.
4. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
I wrote about how this mindset was the key to Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad finally achieving true success. It's about using process as a comforting force in the midst of what feels like chaos. Just focus on the next small step in front of you versus focusing on your fear of what the overall outcome will be.
For the biggest keynotes I give where I might have a few butterflies beforehand, I focus on the opening line of my keynote, then the opening story. Once I'm into those small steps, I've already reached a state of flow and any nervousness has vanished.
5. When fear is taking over, ask if your thoughts are helping.
Simple. Really effective. If you're panicking about what might happen if you cut the red wire versus the blue wire versus looking at more schematics or whatever, it's probably not helping. When the negative thoughts start forming in the midst of pressure, take a deep breath and redirect your thinking patterns to something more helpful.