Breathe—just breathe

Posted on 20. Mar, 2014 by in Reflections

I looked around the conference table at the tense faces, clenched fists and raised shoulders and said, “Breathe, just breathe.” I was consulting with a group that had a long history of mistrust and miscommunication between the team members and management. As we tried to work through the differences, the tension in the room grew. Rather than using the effective communication skills we had agreed upon, some people were starting to blame and accuse, while others were becoming defensive and argumentative. Before the situation deteriorated, I led the group through a deep breathing exercise and watched their faces calm and their shoulders relax. We reminded ourselves of the agreement to communicate with respect and moved on to have a productive discussion.

“I thought we were running the whole process off the track at one point” a team members said to me after the meeting. “I really think the deep breathing changed the course of that conversation.”

Twenty years ago, I started teaching deep breathing techniques in my stress management classes. As I experienced the profound calm that settled over a classroom of people breathing deeply together, I began to weave breathing practices into other lifestyle and wellness classes: Living Energetically, Simplify Your Life, or Creating Balance Between Work and Home.

Today, I incorporate breathing and calming techniques into leadership and communication classes

Many of the situations that present themselves at work cause a stress response: performance reviews, difficult conversations with customers, presentations and differences with colleagues, to name just a few. When we experience stress, our heart rate quickens, our blood pressure rises, our muscles clench and ready for action, and our blood leaves the complex thinking parts of our brain and flows to the ready-for-physical action part of our brain. Our ability to respond with mature, respectful and skillful words literally is hijacked by our reactive selves.

When teaching a recent Resilient Leadership series, I asked the students to practice deep breathing between classes. Sam, a highly analytic 30-year-old supervisor, was especially skeptical.

“This is the silliest thing I ever heard,” he told me after the first class. “How could this possibly help me be a better manager?” I encouraged him to try anyway, just to see what would happen. He came back to the second class and reported that he’d tried the deep breathing once and nothing had changed. “I’m going to keep doing this just to prove you wrong,” he laughed.

Sam learns to love deep breathing

Over the course of the 8 classes, he started using the deep breathing techniques when he was facing:

  • Meetings with his boss
  • Coaching an employee who was under-performing
  • A conflict with another team lead
  • An especially difficult customer
  • Difficult decisions in team meetings

“I’ve always been nervous in certain situations at work. I tend to get amped up and then later I realize that I talked too much.” He reported that when he used the breathing techniques, he could:

  • Think more clearly
  • Calm himself when he wanted to flee the room
  • Pick his words more carefully—and pick more diplomatic words
  • Impact the meeting so that everyone stayed more calm

After a session with his most challenging employee, he told me, “I actually think this may be catching. The guy didn’t know that I was breathing deeply, but at the point where he usually gets hot and starts shouting, he actually calmed down. I don’t know what changed, but I know the breathing didn’t hurt!”

Sam became the biggest supporter of the technique and actually started encouraging his team members to incorporate deep breathing into their challenging situations.

Try it, you’ll like it

Whether you’re at work or at home, a few deep, relaxed breaths can bring calm to almost any tense situation. While there are hundreds of techniques, the only thing you really need to do is consciously slow and deepen your breath. It helps if you feel physically stable, whether sitting or standing. If you can, relax areas of your body that you tend to tense, like your shoulders, neck and jaw. Then, breath in deeply, sending your breath down past your lungs and letting the breath gently expand your abdomen. Take a brief pause and gently breath out. Take another pause after you exhale, and begin again.

Do this several times and you’re well on your way to clearer and calmer communication, more respectful relationships and a calmer, less-stressed self.

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