Why You Should Ditch ‘Calm Down’ and Reframe Your Approach During a Crisis

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Have you ever been told to “calm down” in the middle of a crisis?

I’d guess that not only was that counsel ineffective, but it intensified your stress in the moment or caused you to completely lose focus. “Calm down” may be one of the worst things to say to help someone navigating a crisis situation.

So what is the best way to handle a crisis and not only survive it, but thrive as a calm and collected leader in the moment?

As a former Navy SEAL, I spent years trying to perfect the process of crisis response – and surprisingly, the methods I developed in my SEAL training translate well to defusing crises in my work life and personal life too.

Leaders, ditch the phrase “calm down” and instead, reframe your crisis response approach in these five steps to achieve more level-headed decision making:

Plan ahead.

One reason leaders or their teams struggle through crises is because they have not spent enough time (or any time at all) preparing for any crisis scenarios. While it’s difficult to plan for every possible crisis–few among us were expecting a global-scale pandemic in 2020, for example–there are at least a handful of likely scenarios that come to mind when you think about what a crisis could look like for your team.

Create step-by-step action plans for each scenario and spend time with your team reviewing and practicing the response for each. Always designate one person on your team to be the decision-maker. The team can execute actions much more quickly if one person, not several, is giving instructions.

Size up the situation.

It’s important to take a moment to stop, breathe and assess the situation once faced with a real crisis. Making detailed observations about your situation can make a crucial difference in mitigating the problem correctly.

I learned this firsthand as a SEAL when my team was assigned a high-priority mission focused on deterring further attacks to the U.S. shortly after 9/11. Understandably, tensions were high. With very little time to prepare, we worked through multiple scenarios of conducting the mission with many unknowns and no time to wait to gather more intelligence. Key roles were assigned and likely contingencies were rehearsed exhaustively. Although it was not pretty, we successfully executed this mission without any injuries, and the team excelled at making on-the-fly decisions thanks to our preparation and assessment of the mission details.

Even in the boardroom, leaders should size up small details such as the chain of events, key players, and previous communications leading up to the crisis, in order to lead the decision-making process effectively.

Rely on your past experience and training.

There’s a reason why SEAL team training is famously intense–I spent a lot of time with my fellow SEALs rigorously preparing for the many life-or-death scenarios we would eventually face in the field. Now, as a civilian business executive, the crises I face are a little less scary, but I am able to get through these situations because I rely on my knowledge and training in the same way I did when I was a SEAL.

The level of preparation you do before a crisis happens does have an effect on how you survive the crisis itself when there’s no room for error, very little time to make key decisions and a lot more pressure that can cause you to freeze up. Be so prepared that if you do feel yourself start to panic, your training kicks in to reinforce you.

Keep a cool head.

Remaining calm in a crisis scenario is easier said than done. It’s natural to feel the rush of adrenaline, even for a seasoned pro who has trained for every scenario. Here’s the trick to keeping a cool head: maintain a positive outlook on the situation. The more you can visualize your successful outcome helps you project an aura of calmness that reassures the rest of your team.

One of my most challenging crisis scenarios occurred not on a mission, but during a recreational boating accident that significantly injured my neck and left me immobile in the water. I knew that how I handled this situation would determine my ability to have neurological function throughout the rest of my life. The pain was unbelievable, but I was able to communicate with the personnel on the boat and provide instructions for my own rescue without incurring further injury. I even tried to crack some jokes to calm my wife and friends that had to observe this event. After an aggressive surgery for a serious C5-C6 dislocation and crushed spinal cord, doctors told me that I would never walk again. I knew without doubt that I would defy the odds and regain my mobility, and I instilled that belief in everyone around me. I walked out of the hospital and have continued to see gains in neurological function even 17 years after the injury.

Try a glass-half-full attitude next time you’re faced with a problem – you’ll surprise yourself with how much your attitude alone can uplift you and the rest of the team.

Don’t second-guess your decisions.

In my experience being in many crisis-type scenarios, leaders have a very short window of time to make decisions that could lead to mission success or mission failure– or even life or death. There is no time to second-guess, as hesitation or changing your mind has a chain-reaction effect on the rest of your team. Effective leaders who survive crises understand this and act confidently and swiftly in making decisions. This skill comes with time and experience– more training in stressful environments will help improve your ability to decide with focus and clarity.

Think about a possible crisis your team could face in the next six months. With these five steps in mind, what actions could you take now to ensure you’re more prepared to survive and thrive in that scenario? If you have mastered one or more of these five skills, don’t settle and stop there. Push yourself one step further by teaching those who are junior to you about handling crisis situations. With ongoing mentorship, others can begin training and develop the life experience to achieve mission success the next time a crisis occurs.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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