Staying cool and calm: Communications can be a pressurised environment. So we asked 10 leading communicators for their top tips advice for remaining calm under pressure?’
collated by Darren Caveney
“Recently I thought I had lost my car key (and door key attached) during a 10km race. The thought crossed my mind that a) I was delusional from the heat and b) it ‘had to be somewhere’. What had transpired was I’d just left it in my bag in the car, so it wasn’t locked which wasn’t ideal, but at least I knew where it was.
I know that my job in Comms has led me to that age-old-but-it-works strategy of not panicking when faced with ‘ye gods’ moments, and what felt like a pressurised moment to ensure I got me and my two passengers home ended up just being something we could laugh about (mainly at my expense) rather than stress or get upset over.
The best thing I have found is to find humour. I seek out an opportunity to either crack jokes with my team and enjoy their ‘please, not again’ grimaces, or text a friend something ridiculous that will get us both laughing. That, and a walk. Ten minutes around the block, some space to breathe, and a dog to pat – there is always a dog-walker to be found somewhere – does wonders for just easing some of the air out.
It is also fine to remind people we’re not putting man on the moon and that things will get done and done well – not easy when everyone’s feeling it but give it a go, and it might turn out ok.”
Joy Hale, Head of Communications at East of England Ambulance Service
“Know your team and know their strengths. When the pressure really hits you’ll need to rely on them and their judgment to support you.
Step back and assess what the challenge is and what you need to do then make sure you communicate the plan with your team so that they know what to expect and how to work with you.
Keep your customer updated. Whether it’s your chief exec, a client or a colleague, keep them in the loop so that there are no surprises and they know that you are in control. Last thing you’ll need is additional pressure because they feel uninformed or out of the loop.
Ask for help if you need it! It’s not a weakness to say that you find something hard and need help.
Look after yourself. Take some time out for you, do something you enjoy. You’ll perform better as a result.”
Victoria Ford, is director of Perago-Wales
“I’m not sure I can confidently claim that I always stay calm, but I can think of three things that help on a bad day.
First is to trust the people you work with. I work with some amazing, talented and dedicated people, and knowing they will deliver even in the most trying times, is a real strength.
Second is to focus on the good that we do – on the outcomes – and to remember that it’s not about us; it’s about the customer, the citizen, the city or place, the community, the progress, the democracy… We should try and remember that we can and do make a real difference to people’s lives, because that helps provide the resilience we might need.
And third is to try to keep perspective (and maybe even some humour). While “this too shall pass”, we are pretty privileged to have the roles we have; there are people in much worse circumstances, people doing much crapper, harder jobs, and usually somebody somewhere dealing with bigger problems – even on our worst days. “
Eddie Coates-Madden, Head of Communications at Sheffield City Council
“Ah now this really is a trick to master, isn’t it? In my experience many comms folk are passionate about what they do and – shall we say – ‘eloquent’ in the way they express themselves in times of pressure.
Personally I think it’s important to be able to vent and let the steam out of that pressure cooker. But it needs to be in a safe space that doesn’t worry your team and other colleague and make them think you’ve lost the plot!
Online and face to face groups of peers are great – they allow you to share your frustrations but also to find your way to solutions and use best practice and experience from elsewhere.
Other things I find very effective are:
– Deep breath, count to 10
– Walk round the block and approach the issue afresh. Or after work, walk the dog.
– Remind yourself of the good stuff the team is doing (easy to get mired in the problems and pressure – but remember to pat yourself on the back too)
– Have a night out with the team – remind yourselves that you’re people not just workers
– Enjoy and appreciate time with friends and family – work is only one part of your life
– Drink wine (or other tipple of choice), though obviously not AT work! As my grandma used to say: "A little of what you fancy does you good."
Sally Northeast, Deputy Director, Organisational Development Communications and Participation
“This is a difficult one because at the heart of this issue are fragile human beings. As well as being a high profile, pressurised job comms also comes with the added pressure of being at the heart of crisis response – often acting as the face of an organisation that is being criticised.
Resilience is one of those terrible buzzwords but something that we all need to constantly keep working at. There’s no silver bullet and I think it does take practice to be able to put things to one side and then get up and do it again the next day. There are some great apps like calm and headspace that are worth a look, but being able to separate work from personal life and the ability to laugh at yourself are also important.
Indulge me slightly here but in 1911 Englishman Bobby Leech became the first man to survive the 167 foot drop over Niagara Falls after throwing himself over in a barrel. During the publicity tour celebrating his achievement he slipped in the street on a discarded Orange peel and died. Sometimes you need to be very mindful that people may seem calm and composed, but that’s not always the case after the event.
When you’re representing an organisation, particularly in the public sector, the criticism can feel personal. It isn’t, but that often doesn’t make it feel any easier. Remember it’s a job not a religion.”
Ross Wigham, Head of Communications and Marketing, QE Hospital Gateshead
“Swearing. A lot. But only about the situation not at people. I find it great therapy and helps me get any annoyance out so I can focus. Those who sit near me can tell how bad the week is by how bad my language gets…
Most importantly though only focus on, and worry about, the things that you can actually influence and control. Then making sure you do the best you can in the situation you’re in.
Make sure you take time to do things that are fun and make you happy- if work stops being fun and is constantly stressful then that isn’t right.
Talk to people, there are some great people in our industry and if ever things are getting a bit too much for me I talk to them and just vent or get advice or both!
And always keep a balanced view – what is causing you pressure today will be gone soon, and once it has you want to be able to look back and either realise you’ve learnt something or be proud of what you achieved. “
Eleri Roberts, Assistant Director, Communications, Birmingham City Council
"When you’re feeling under pressure remember the old adage, ‘will I still care about this in one weeks/months/year’s-time?’ Often the things we’re bricking ourselves about don’t have much wider significance in the longer term. That doesn’t negate their immediate importance, but it does help contextualise your deepest worries and fears.
"Also – remember in the vast majority of cases it’s worth remembers that ‘no-one dies’ if we get things wrong. Others in local government, for example social care workers can’t say that. In communications we get it relatively easy.
"Finally, remember it’s supposed to be fun. If it feels like an endless hamster wheel of stress akin to bomb disposal or Brexit negotiations then it’s probably best to do something else. Ultimately you have that control – just knowing that can help alleviate a lot of stress.
"PS. Running is also good. I keep my kit at work and sometimes run home. Thankfully I live less than three miles from my office…"
Will Mapplebeck, Strategic Communications Manager at Core Cities UK
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a leader of comms faced with pressure must be in want of a good coping strategy…
Since pretty much every day presents us with either a new or ongoing issue, our approach to coping with pressure needs to underpin the very way in which we work. Because our jobs are never finished – and there is always more we could do, the pressure can be relentless. As leaders we have to recognise and understand that most of our team will be feeling similarly. It is incumbent upon us not only to deal with our own response to pressure but also support our teams to cope.
First is to be truly organised. Stephen Covey – he of the seven habits of successful people fame, is an advocate of list making. Lists made at the beginning of the week; even better on a Sunday evening, give us a small window of planning time and we all preach that good planning is essential to good comms…
Encourage your teams to make lists and when there is simply too much on those lists, never underestimate the power of sitting down with someone and helping them to break down a huge task or list into bitesize, deferrable or delegatable chunks.
Schedule some down time into your week – whether that means nipping out for a quick walk at lunch time, blocking out 30 mins in your diary toreflect and plan some more or simply doing some reading on-line or of trade magazines, choose something which takes you away from the office pressures.
Monitor and evaluate…
Note what, if anything makes you feel calmer and do more of what does. If you’re struggling to find anything, try some truly basic stuff like sitting properly at your desk (both feet flat on the floor, upright, breathing in deeply and slowly through the nose, holding for a count of three and breathing out again through pursed lips).
But perhaps what most impacts on the ability to stay calm is our mental attitude. It would seem that one of the most effective ways to develop positivity, remain so and therefore be better placed to deal with pressure is to celebrate the good things in life, however small. Being thankful – and taking the time to notice what those things are is a delightful task. When doing a leader’s course recently, we were challenged to write down ten different things every day that we appreciated. In short, we were celebrating all the good things which can so quickly be obliterated by the relentless onslaught of every day pressure. Being thankful and celebrating those things for which we are grateful, it seems, is key to happiness and resilience. Perhaps we can even celebrate our hectic, pressurised lives in comms.
After all, as Jane Austen also said “None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Jayne Surman, Communications and Marketing Manager at Warwickshire County Council
“Focus. It’s possible to become distracted by the anxiety or expectations of others. If you lose focus, you lose control and can end up taking actions you might later regret and spend long periods of time trying to fix.
Have faith in yourself. Communications experience counts. If you’re being paid and trusted to make a decision or give advice when it really matters then trust your intuition.
Use common sense. My best decisions have been when I’ve acted pragmatically. You can over think a situation, especially in a pressurised environment and good communications are often simple in approach.
Prioritise. Yes, it’s the classic text book answer, but it’s still the only way I can work when faced with challenging situations. Whether alone or within a team, set out the actions you need to take in order of importance – literally write them down. Then, as above, stay focused.
Be polite! I’m not saying I’ve always kept my cool (I recently had to buy a packet of smarties to say sorry for snapping), but I don’t think you should ever be too busy to treat people respectfully. If you’re remembering to say it with a smile, a please and a thank you, the chances are you are managing to stay cool, calm and collected.“
Glenn Sebright, Head of Communications at London Fire Brigade
Many thanks to our 10 communications leaders for their insight and advice.
Talking Heads 10 x 10 will be back next month.
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
image via History in Moments