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Show Grace under Fire in a Stressed Out World

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Global pandemic. Economic meltdown. This world of ours is a little less comfortable and a lot more frightening right now. And in moments of turmoil, what do we need from our leaders? Is the noisy and finger-pointing politics so prevalent over the last few years fit for this crisis? Or is a calmer, more measured, more empathetic tone music to our ears in these uncertain times? 

Soaring ratings for leaders who communicate control suggest that’s the case. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has seen a boost in his popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, with polls showing his highest approval rating in two years. 

In a recent speech, Macron said it was time to “take a new path, leave behind ideologies and reinvent ourselves. Me, before anyone else… This crisis offers a chance to bring us closer together.” 

Other leaders, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand have seen similar soaring ratings in response to their calm handling of the crisis. In the United States, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been the hardest hit, has extremely high approval ratings for his handling of the crisis. 

So, what is it exactly that we need from our leaders in times of turmoil? Arjen Boin, a political scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands has studied crisis responses and co-authored the book, The Politics of Crisis Management. Boin and his co-authors suggest that the best communicators in a crisis do these five things: “Offer a credible explanation of what happened, offer guidance, instill hope, show empathy and show that leaders are in control.” Current examples of these five qualities appeared in Macron’s recent speeches, as well as in Queen Elizabeth II’s speech to the UK in early April.

But these five aspects are only partly about what the leader says. In particular, the ability to instill hope, show empathy and provide assurance that things are under control has a lot to do with how they say it. An audience is always comparing the words with the delivery. If the words and the delivery are congruent, calm, and in control, then we trust them. But if there’s a mismatch or a dissonance between the words and the delivery, or if the delivery seems to betray a lack of control, a lack of hope, or a lack of empathy, we quickly start to lose trust in the words. 

How they deliver their message is predominately about the voice. Voice is carried on exhaled air. And exhaled air tells us what’s happening deep in the nervous system. It reveals the truth about how the speaker is feeling. And whether consciously or unconsciously, our leaders’ nervous systems matter to us. If they aren’t stewards of their own heart rate and breathing, can they be entrusted to lead? 

Leaders who make us feel a sense of hope and control are doing something significant. They’re using a secret superpower. It’s called good “vagal tone,” and it’s available to all of us.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It extends from the brainstem to the abdomen. Its name means “wanderer.” Your vagus nerve sends messages to the heart and lungs, which slow down and increase the depth of your breathing. This nerve also controls the muscles that constrict the throat and produce the voice. When you have good vagal tone, your voice is softer, more melodic, and easier on the ear. It soothes others around you. When you have poor vagal tone, your voice flattens and loses the variety that keeps an audience interested. It produces stress in those listening to you. 

Your vagal tone is crucial because it affects your “neuroception” — which means how you read the world. Whether you feel safe, and whether you are safe aren’t necessarily the same. A situation can look very differently depending on how you read it. An audience in a conference center, or a panel of interviewers at a job interview could look welcoming or threatening, and that often has as much to do with their nervous systems as yours. 

When your vagal tone is compromised, your system fires up in a “foe” response, with symptoms such as a dry mouth, nervousness, a shaky voice, and quickened speaking pace. There’s no flow of emotions or voice tone. You react to what others say in a stressed way. You avoid eye contact, staring down or looking away. 

When your vagal tone is poor, your system will pay attention (and respond to) very low or very high sounds. These are usually of the threatening kind — taunts, sneers, shouts. If you’re addressing an audience, you’ll tune out the normal human range of the voice where the engaged connection lies and only react to rude tonalities and aggressive questions. A perfectly agreeable audience may seem threatening. A disgruntled audience might seem overwhelming. 

On the other hand, when you take care of your vagal tone, you experience the world with empathy and assurance. You show up relaxed and at ease. If you take the time to center yourself, you’re able to take any adversity in stride. 

You know when someone has good vagal tone because their voice and face are open and responsive. They show up as empathetic, they’re engaged, they see you, they hear you, and they respond to you. Their voice is melodic and alive. They’re relaxed and confident. It’s not a canned performance. They have a plan, yet they allow their responses to be spontaneous. 

Use these tips to show up with grace under fire: 

1. Take several moments to center yourself. If you want to create a good vagal tone when speaking before a group or an audience, you need to calm and center yourself before you speak. The best thing you can do is take a quiet few minutes. Turn off alerts on your phone. Your devices fire up your fight-or-flight response. (It can help, however, to listen to soothing music or a guided mindfulness app through your device.)

2. Focus on your body and your breath. Feel your feet on the floor, hands in your lap, and air on your face. Tune into how you can best be of service to your audience. Explore what it feels like to have good vagal tone by lengthening your out-breath. By breathing out long and slow, extending your exhalation, you stimulate your vagus nerve to send calm through your system. Try breathing in through the nose for a count of four, then out through the mouth for a count of six — and again exhaling for a count of seven, and then eight.

3. Shorten your sentences. When you speak, you can keep the calm in your voice by following Winston Churchill’s advice and speaking in short sentences. Let every sentence have a full stop, and allow yourself time to take a slow, centering in-breath. In this moment, tell your system that it’s safe. That, in turn, tells the systems of your audience that they’re safe, too.

The leaders who give us a sense of hope during this COVID-19 crisis are aware that it’s not just what they say, but how they say it. They take time to become centered and they steward their nervous systems before they speak in order to tune into what their audiences need. It allows them to show up at their best. A sense of empathy and assurance, of grace under fire, is what we need from our leaders in a stressed out world. 

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