Calm Down: A Checklist

leadership Mar 13, 2023
Calm Down A Checklist

By Lucas Marcouiller

Step 1: Accept the Reality of Chaos

Me: “What the heck is going on, Kevin? Nobody on the team knows what is happening right now, and people are starting to panic. What is our next step”

Kevin: “I have no idea. The computer model isn’t even finished and we’re supposed to start prototype testing next week. The funds for another iteration fell through and I’ve already requested time extensions twice, anyways. I’m going to lose all credibility with the board, with you, and the rest of the team. I don’t know what I am doing, I am completely in over my head.”

Me: “Ok, uhh, just calm down.”

Just. Calm. Down. This horrible phrase may be the worst thing to say to a person who needs to calm down, and at the same time, it is the only advice we ever seem to have for someone confronted with a crisis. We all intrinsically know it is what we need to do, yet we have no idea how to do it. What we do know for sure is: the worst time to learn how to calm down is when you really need to calm down.

Stress can come from anywhere, so similarly, times of crisis where the stress seems to boil over into complete chaos can also come from anywhere. Making money, building relationships, achieving goals - all of these things require taking risks that have the potential to collapse.

In turn, chaos becomes an important and beneficial part of our existence that we have to accept. And those who can navigate it effectively are primed for both personal and professional success.

Let’s take a look at what it means to be calm, why it’s an important skill, and some tools we can lean on. The following steps are designed as a checklist to support you in bringing some calm to a struggling team.

Step 1: Understand the Nature of Calm

Calm is something that we are, it is not something that we do. We don’t say “quick, do calm!”, we say “be calm”. The problem is, trying to direct someone to be calm is like trying to flatten the surface of a pond with a clothing iron. Trying only moves you further away from your goal. 

Calm isn’t something that radiates out from us, it is a refusal to reflect what is radiating towards us.

In the opening example, we can see that the project manager, Kevin, reflects and amplifies the chaos that his team member brings to him. He reiterates the same concerns his team member has and is equally panicked, only confirming the impending sense of doom they are both hoping the other can stop. Kevin was provided an opportunity to bring calm to the situation by refusing to contribute to the stress, but he was clearly stressed himself. So how would he even begin to do that? How can he get past this physical and emotional discomfort to give his team what they need?

Step 2: Calm the Body

Think back to a time you were in the midst of a hectic or chaotic situation. What were you feeling? A lack of control, difficulty in seeing a way forward, a high likelihood of a bad outcome? More generally, the feeling of potential danger.

The opposite is likely true when the waters were calm. Think back to a time when everyone around you was on the same page, the path was clear, and the team felt like they could handle anything thrown at them. With the chaos far out of sight, the signature sentiment of calm can arise: safety.

So when our organization plunges into the danger zone, how can we possibly make everyone feel safe?

Creating Safety within Danger

This safety vs danger polarity is ingrained in the most basic parts of our mind. Our fight or flight response is still as active and present in our daily life as it always has been, however what we call ‘danger’ has evolved. Our nervous system reacts very acutely to danger and our body uses all the same chemical levers when we think you’re going to get fired as it would if we were being chased by a bear. If we want our minds to feel safe, a great place to start is with our body. Before we can make others feel safe, we need to make ourselves feel safe. We do this with our first tool, our breath. These practices are medically reviewed and provide some relief to our body’s natural responses to stress:

  1. Lengthen your exhale. Physiologically, this is critical to calming down. Stress causes us to inhale more than we exhale, so we must combat it with the opposite. Whatever your practice ends up looking like, make sure you exhale longer than you inhale.

  2. Belly breathing. This is a very easy and consistent way to attach your breath to a physical sensation. Without counting or memorizing, just breathe from the deepest parts of your belly.

Another great way to practice slowing your body down to slow your mind down is through 75 Slow, a 75-day program designed to cultivate more groundedness and slowness in your life. Oh, and it’s free :) 

Step 3: Absorb the Chaos

As a leader, we also have a whole team that needs the clarity and calm we have found in ourselves. While breathwork is powerful, it will do little to solve the actual problem that our teams are faced with. It just gets us in the right state of mind to face the chaos and not reflect it.

Here is where our most valuable leadership tool comes in: asking questions. Curiosity and judgment can’t exist in the same space.

I’ll say it again: curiosity and judgment can’t exist in the same space

We see this often and overtly in political debate. One side yells at the other while they exchange combative volleys. Rarely, do we see either side stop and ask a question. Neither is concerned nor engaged in open-ended curiosity. However, if they were genuinely curious and asking their colleague about their political views, would we call it judgment? Of course not, they just want to know more. These two sentiments can’t exist at the same time, and we can use that to our advantage.

Asking questions does three important things:

  1. It keeps us in a state of curiosity. We are only playful and curious when we feel we are safe, that is why children are so great at asking questions and being playful, they are protected from a lot of dangers and are therefore free to explore. If we are asking questions, we are staying open to the possibilities that we need.

  2. It provides a vehicle for forward progress. If we are making statements, judgments, about our situation, we aren’t moving through it. We are going to be stuck in it. Asking questions gets us more information - the information we need to move forward.

  3. It creates space rather than noise. Questions are followed by empty space. Adding more statements (judgments) onto the pile you have in front of you will not help, but a question can create a bin into which you can start sorting the information you have. If you’re standing in front of a pile of your laundry, step one is to pick up one single t-shirt and say, “What am I going to do with this one?”

Step 4: Define the Chaos

After asking some questions you’re likely to get at least some answers. Use these answers to start to paint the picture and define what the stress actually is.

Well-defined chaos loses its power. The feeling of danger we feel in a chaotic situation arises precisely because we have too many undefined variables around us, and even though we possess the tools to get the answers, we don’t know where to start. We are spoiled for choice, and we freeze up. The order to “Calm down!” becomes just another thing we have to do that we don’t know how to handle, and therefore freezes us more.

If calm is about sorting and removing the chaos, we sort by asking one question at a time. Ask one question, get one answer. Each answer brings us more understanding, and the chaos loses its power over the situation as we build out our understanding, question by question. The questions compound on each other, and with all compounding variables, the first one is the hardest. So be brave, refuse to entertain the chaos, and ask that first question.

As you slowly walk your team out of the danger zone, and you use breathwork and questions to facilitate a shared understanding of what you need to do, check out some of our resources such as our ‘Control the Controllables’ worksheet, learn how to ‘Embrace the Mess’, or if you have the time, you can even do this Fear Setting Exercise to help you with Step 4: Define the Chaos.

Step 5: Prepare

While you can’t necessarily prepare for a specific chaotic event, you can practice these steps to prepare for chaos in general. Kevin had no idea that this project he was managing was going to lose funding, or that the prototype would be delayed. But what Kevin absolutely could have predicted is that something was likely to go wrong.

If you were in Kevin’s situation, or are currently facing some chaos of your own, I hope you’re now confident you would know how to deal with that situation. You now know that calm is really about refusing to reflect chaos, and you are armed with breathwork to calm yourself down and questions to settle your team, as well as some resources to get the train moving forward again.

The next time you begin to feel the chaos arise, and someone tells you to “calm down!”, you’ll know exactly what to do.


Works Cited: 

  • Science Direct, The Sympathetic Nervous System


  • Healthline, 8 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety


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