He came after me like a bull charging a matador.
“What’s your success rate? I need numbers. What percentage of your clients get promotions?”
These were fair questions for a prospective client interview, and I’d heard them before. But this man, an up-and-coming executive, delivered them with an intensity and ferocity that was surprising. He was testing not only my experience, but also my fortitude.
“I’m not sure,” I stammered, suddenly feeling like a six-year-old boy facing the class bully in a far corner of the playground. “I, um, haven’t tracked that too closely.”
Six-year-olds don’t make good matadors. This bull tasted blood.
“Then what are you going to do for me? What…are…you…going…to…do…for…me?”
My body collapsed, and my heart sank. Compared to my brain, oatmeal was solid as steel. I couldn’t remember a single accomplishment in my life. Not one. Everything faded from view amidst this onslaught.
I felt the gash in my side. This interview was over. There was no chance he was going to hire me as his executive coach. As that young guy in the movie Aliens says, “Game over, man! Game over!”
Sure enough, he hired a different coach.
And it took me a week to recover my bearings.
Losing Your Center
Here’s the thing about losing your center. Once you are off balance, any slight push can knock you over.
That’s what happened to me seven years ago with this strong-willed leader. I lost my center.
The context is important. This wasn’t the best period of my life. In fact, it was one of the worst. Several months earlier, my wife and I had lost our baby daughter. She was born a few weeks early. Lungs not ready for the world. After two hours of life, she had died in my arms as I lay next to my wife in a hospital bed.
This tragedy happened at a time that was already challenging. I was rebuilding my business in a new city. When we arrived in Portland, I knew only two people. Despite quickly building a network, it was mostly one of loose ties, and in a city where people hire people they’ve known for years. So I was struggling to attract clients and questioning the decision to leave a place where I was known (San Francisco) for one where I was essentially a stranger.
Our daughter’s death, and the traumatic way it occurred (which is a story for another day), left me feeling a loss of trust in myself and the universe. It wasn’t rock bottom—I never gave up, never stopped trying—but it was as close as I’d been as an adult.
This was the world I lived in when I entered the room with that leader. My entire being was already off center. He could sense it, and because of the type of person he was, saw in my vulnerability an opportunity to attack.
What do you do when you’re off center? What can you do to regain center?
Five Tips for Regaining Center
- Know what knocks you off center. For me, it was someone ferociously questioning my competence. I knew this was a vulnerability for me but didn’t have it in mind when I walked into the room. What’s the case for you? If you can see this situation from a bit of distance (before you are in the thick of it) you can prepare for it—or at least be less surprised.
- Identify the early indicators. Our bodies and emotions respond to perceived threat—or anything that throws us off center—faster than our minds. Do you tighten your stomach? Furrow your eyebrows? Tighten your jaw? Start to sweat down your neck? Shoulders and chest collapse? Get a headache? The sooner you recognize the early indicators, the better chance you have of making an appropriate response.
- Ground yourself physically. Are your feet flat on the ground? If not, move them. Notice what it feels like to contact the surface beneath them. Some of my clients like to wiggle their toes to further ground themselves. If you are seated, feel your bottom and back as they contact the chair.
- Do the 5:5 Breath. When you’re in fight-or-flight, it’s time to calm down the bodily systems that are in overdrive. Your heart rate and blood pressure, for example, and the stress hormones that ramp them up. Nothing works better for this than deep belly breathing. Slow breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. In the words of stress researcher Esther Sternberg, “Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake.” To use this break, breathe in to a count of 5, and breathe out to a count of 5. Call it the 5:5 Breath.
- Use words to buy time. It helps to have a few default phrases or questions to toss into the conversation to buy time. Why? To give yourself time to ground and do a few iterations of the 5:5 Breath. Nowadays, if I sense myself off center because someone is questioning my competence, I might say, “I’d be happy to answer that. But first, help me understand, what makes that important to you?” You may prefer to say “That’s a really good question” or “Sure, let me give you my take on that” or “Please say more about that” before responding. Having a few default phrases is the equivalent of having a fire extinguisher—it help you contain the flames until the big red truck with the heavy hoses arrives.
When the bull strikes and you’re feeling off center—if not bludgeoned—these five steps can help you regain center and respond more skillfully. Of course, it never hurts to have good physical energy hygiene—sleeping 8 hours a night, taking breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work, engaging in strength training, yoga, or other physical activity, drinking a lot of water, and staying off the sugar treadmill.
Make it a deliberate practice. And start today.