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Managing Workplace Anxiety

Everyone feels anxiety from time to time. But managers cannot afford to succumb to it, especially not when they are heading up a meeting or workshop where contentious issues must be worked out. There are simple ways to avoid, minimize, manage, and overcome this type of emotion. None requires special training. Consider the following techniques.


A natural tendency when you are anxious is to hold your breath. We may do that any time we are faced with stressful problems, difficult people, or intractable conflicts. Your palms sweat, muscles tense, and you feel jumpy or nauseated. Breathing relieves these stress symptoms.

The next time you feel tense, make yourself aware of your agitation, your fear that things are getting out of hand, and your impulse to fix it fast. Take a deep breath and hold it a few seconds, then exhale as much air as you can. Repeat the process several times. This will help you to calm down and think more clearly.


Some anxiety is unavoidable—it is brought on by a situation beyond your control. At other times, you generate angst internally through negative thoughts. Everyone does this. They expect the worst, making themselves dread whatever the upcoming event is. That's clearly a behavior that needs to be unlearned.

Such negative predictions are not of what's really happening but of what could go wrong. You jump into the future, thinking, "This is going to fall apart," or "I can't pull it off." You feel as if your prediction has already come true. While the scenario isn't real, the feelings are.

To derail this negativity, remind yourself that nothing has happened yet. The best way to approach a forthcoming situation, such as a contentious meeting, is with curiosity. What will this group do? Don't act in haste. Observe what is occurring. Remember, you can always act or change direction.

Inner Dialogue

Our inner dialogue never stops. We worry that we're moving too fast or too slow. We wonder what the quiet people think. We worry about having too much information or not enough. We wonder if we really have the right people, given what they are saying and doing. Contain the inner dialogue by asking yourself if you are reacting to something in the room or just what's in your head? Have other people voiced their opinions or are you assuming them? This reality check is often all that's needed to get you back on track.


In our facilitation workshops, we sometimes ask people to stand up, close their eyes, and imagine leading a group. We have them say out loud, "Does anyone have anything to add?" Their imaginary group says nothing. They are to stand in silence, eyes closed, and to raise a hand when they feel they must say something. In every group the first hand goes up in about six seconds. In 20 seconds, about 25 percent raise their hands. About 90 percent of the attendees raise their hands within a minute. A few people are completely comfortable remaining silent. If you are among them, you can skip this practice tip.

If you are not, here's your homework for your next meeting. When a group falls silent, try holding your tongue while counting slowly to ten. It will seem like an hour. However, you will do no damage to the group. You might leave enough space for someone to say something important.


Nothing relieves anxiety better than physical movement. In meetings with large groups, we look for opportunities to let people move. One strategy is to break them into small groups. It is natural for people to move when breaking into small groups.

We ask people to post their own flipcharts. We solicit their help in taking notes, leading conversations, summarizing what they hear. It is natural for people to move if they need a break. We suggest that people who need a break take it at any time. They need not wait until midmorning or afternoon.

When a meeting offers places for people to walk outside, we may ask a group if they want to take a longer lunch or take a short walk during the afternoon break. We may also combine movement with work by asking people to pair up, take a walk outside the room, and talk over an issue of concern to the group. All of this movement helps defuse any tension. It also helps people pay attention when they aren't moving.

Problem Statement

If there is tension in the room because the meeting has bogged down with a lack of consensus or off topic remarks, put it on the table by clearly stating the case. This helps relieve anxiety and move the discussion forward. Here are some phrases we have used over the years: "There are many opinions on this. Do we have them all?" "We've spent a long time on this topic. Is there more to say, or can we move on?" "I'm confused about how this conversation relates to our purpose." "At this moment I haven't the foggiest idea what to do." Anytime you state the obvious, wait five to ten seconds for a reaction.


In meetings, managers should stretch their capacity for tolerating statements they don't believe, ideas they oppose, and interaction styles that make them cringe. While the initial comment may not be what you want to hear, it may lead to something useful. You should not cut off these potential avenues for ideas. Moreover, letting people speak their peace defuses their anxiety.


Stay focused on the larger purpose. The meeting may seem tedious or some aspects of the discussion may seem like a waste of time, creating a certain amount of anxiety, but the meeting was called to further some objective. Do not lose sight of that objective. Keeping that in mind can reduce anxiety.

It is the nature of business that anxiety is inevitable. But you do not have to let your anxiety take over. By following these simple tips, you can minimize and master your emotions, and get on with the business at hand.

Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff are co-directors of Future Search Network, an international consulting firm. This article is excerpted from their book Don't Just Do Something, Stand There, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers of San Francisco. To purchase the book call 800/929-2929 or visit