Under pressure? Then take a breath

The more aware - or mindful - I am of my reactions, the clearer I can be in my decision-making.

I started taking a course on mindfulness in the hopes of getting better at dealing with stress.

The basic premise is simple. The more aware – or mindful – I am of my reactions, the clearer I can be in my decision-making. If I can step back and notice how I’m responding, I can hopefully then choose to think rationally instead of freaking out.

Sounds simple, but it’s not so easy. However, just last week, my mindfulness course truly paid off during a trip from Los Angeles to Tucson, Arizona. I arrived early at LAX for a 12:30pm flight on Southwest Airlines. At 12:15pm, the gate agent announced that maintenance was looking at the plane, and we would get a further update in 15 minutes. Two hours later, we boarded the plane and began to taxi for takeoff.

After 30 minutes on the runway, the captain announced we would be heading back to the gate for more maintenance. We spent the next two and a half hours on the tarmac, inside the plane, awaiting the outcome.

At 5:30pm, the captain announced that we’d be getting a replacement aircraft and would soon deplane for another gate. At this point, I had now been waiting five hours for a one-hour flight, three of which were spent on a packed plane.

I’m pleased to report, however, that I kept myself from losing it. I contentedly watched old episodes of Breaking Bad, read my book, and played games on my iPhone. I practiced mindfulness by noticing when my blood was starting to boil, then acknowledging that there was truly nothing I could do, and that getting angry or complaining would not actually alter or help the situation. And so I was calm and relatively happy.

My old self would have been on the phone berating somebody – either my assistant or someone at Southwest. My historic method of choice for berating was sarcastic humiliation. I have since come to accept that this is not particularly effective. So I held my tongue and tried to stay calm.

By 5:30pm, I decided I was done. I called Southwest – while still sitting on the tarmac – and booked a flight for 10am the following morning. Southwest kindly said it would refund my current flight, but that I had to speak to someone at the airport in order to complete the transaction.

There was one man in front of me at the airport counter, and he was not mindful. In fact he was pissed off. I stood and watched an old version of myself giving hell to the Southwest supervisor. After much dialogue, Southwest gave the man a $100 voucher and he left angry and unsatisfied.

I, however, had been mindful of my reactions, and chose not to get angry. So I schmoozed with the counter person, and commiserated with her about the difficult situation. I did not ask for any compensation, just a refund for my flight. She happily refunded the ticket, then handed me another document and said: "We’re going to give you a $200 voucher for your troubles."

I was stunned. I had not asked for the voucher and was surprised and touched by this unexpected kindness. The following day, my flight to Tucson left on time and arrived early. In reflecting on the incident, I realized that by choosing not to get lost in anger, I not only calmed myself, but the people around me as well.

My only regret was the last 30 years I spent getting angry with people instead of taking a breath and accepting the reality that sometimes things simply go wrong. No big deal, I suppose, it was only 30 years. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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