The following column is by Janet Stanton, Partner, Adam Smith, Esq.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” – Rudyard Kipling
Ever wondered why clergy seem almost preternaturally calm? I certainly have. Were they born that way and, therefore, self-selected their chosen callings? Or was there something else? Turns out it’s answer “B.”
Early in their seminary training, many clergy-to-be are taught the concept of the oddly-phrased “non-anxious presence.” What this translates to is to be the one in the room who maintains a calm demeanor when everyone around them is losing it. They are to be present in a way that reorients the emotional atmosphere in tense or even terrifying situations.
If ever we needed non-anxious presence, now would be the time. And, a lot of it.
The most vivid current example of “non-anxious presence” is the governor of our state of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo. Previously he was often viewed as imperious, thin-skinned and Machiavellian. Peggy Noonan used to describe him as deeply “unlikeable;” he is now in her words, “a folk hero.” Many, many agree, making his daily mid-day briefings on the Coronavirus “must see TV.”
One of the most striking aspects of Cuomo’s data-informed briefings is his calm demeanor. No bluster. No cheap shots. No sugarcoating. These are “just the facts Ma’am” PowerPoint presentations. The opposite of recklessness or ego-driven. In addition to facts, he offers reasoned opinions (categorized as such), clear-eyed assessments of what we may expect – and what he does not know. No apologies for that nor quibbling. He offers reassurance and compassion, some quiet humor – and in some cases charming stories about his growing up or “Dad” stories from his own life – in short, he’s human and humane. It is remarkable to me that, under what must be grueling circumstances and unprecedented demands on his time, he never seems rushed or impatient. It is especially impressive that he affirmatively refuses to take the bait of the vertigo-inducing bile spewed by 45.
How does this relate to Law Land?
As in any human realm, there are times of stress and, occasionally high drama. By the adversarial and, sometimes contentious nature of law, it may arise more frequently in our industry (even before confronting opposing counsel or entering the court!). Staying cool and rational while also being cognizant of the factual and human implications can facilitate a better outcome for all.
We don’t need a pandemic of Biblical proportions to begin to aspire to be the non-anxious presence. Nor is this the purview of leaders, only. Remaining calm, focused, and authentic (cf. Cuomo) can help mitigate all sorts of charged situations, potentially preempting something more explosive; heading it off at the pass. Steadiness and emotional honesty are great ways to build trust and effective collaboration in a wide range of business situations and human interactions.
Not that it’s necessarily so easy to be that “presence” in all fraught situations. The ebullient clergy member at church who introduced this concept to me, and connected the dots to Cuomo, said she often struggles to maintain her cool. But she continues to strive – perhaps we should as well.
Non-anxious presence. Why not try it on for size?