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Several years ago a mentor of mine used a term I had not heard before—he said he wanted to be a “non-anxious presence” for people.

I didn’t really get it at first, but after years of hearing him talk about this, I think I am finally beginning to understand why it is so important.

I now see cultivating a non-anxious presence as one of the most beneficial leadership gifts we could ever give to our teams, and families.

Thanks to Bud Lamb as the catalyst for this post.

Tuning forks

I recently heard about an interesting experiment involving two tuning forks.

If you strike the first one, it will of course vibrate for a while.

But as you move this tuning fork closer to the tuning fork you did not strike, when it comes within a certain proximity, the second tuning fork will begin to vibrate at the exact same frequency as the first tuning fork—even though you did not ever strike the second one.

Neuroscience research shows that emotions work in a very similar manner with people. This phenomenon is referred to as emotional contagion and a wealth of scientific studies support it.

If you have ever spent time around a highly anxious or tense person, you might notice that you end up feeling a certain level of anxiety or tension yourself.

We usually find it difficult to be around people like this for very long.

Like the frequency of a tuning fork, our moods can be passed on to those around us.

Emotions are contagious

Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman has spent decades helping leaders understand this research by unpacking the role of emotional intelligence in organizations.

He highlights that the leader’s mood has the most influence on a team and seems to “trickle down” to everyone else in the organization.

Listen to Goleman’s words, “From this body of research, we discovered that emotional intelligence is carried through an organization like electricity through wires.”

The leader’s mood literally drives the mood of everyone else, which strongly affects employee behavior, and the resulting organizational performance.

It comes as no surprise that his research has also shown an indisputable link between the leader’s emotional maturity and the teams financial performance.

A calm and upbeat leader creates a culture of trust, open sharing of information, healthy risk taking, and learning from mistakes.

An irritable, insecure, or fearful leader may be able to generate results in the short run—but will eventually drive people away by creating a culture of fear, unhappiness, and burnout.

Evolution seems to have hard-wired our moods to be dependent upon other people to a large extent. Think of a mother soothing her newborn.

This is referred to as the open-loop nature of the brain’s limbic (emotional) system.

Neuroscientists only recently discovered that we all have mirror neurons in our brains that are activated when we observe the behavior in others. In brain imaging, this firing looks similar to when we perform the behavior ourselves.

Scientists also use the term “interpersonal limbic regulation” to describe how the way that one person acts toward another can affect functions inside the other person’s body—such as hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, and immune function.

Here are a few studies that help explain how emotions can be transmitted between people:

  • Research from intensive care units shows that the comforting presence of another person will lower the patients blood pressure and decrease chemicals that block arteries.
  • Laboratories have measured the physiological profiles of two people having a good conversation, showing that after 15 minutes their profiles look very similar.
  • Even back in 1981, research by Friedman and Riggio found that when three strangers sat in total silence, the most emotionally expressive person influenced the moods of the other two, even when no words were ever used.
  • In 2000, research from NYU (by Bartel and Saavedra) showed that people in meetings together ended up sharing the same emotional state—good or bad—after about two hours. They studied 70 teams across diverse industries.

I am lucky enough to have several close friends who exemplify what it means to be a non-anxious presence for others.

When I am around them, I am free to let my guard down, be myself, and to share my struggles or shortcomings without judgment, irritation, or impatience.

After a long conversation with them I can feel in my body that my burden is lighter.

Do you know anyone like this?

Being around them is like a healing salve or soothing balm to the soul, and provides a much needed respite from the harried busyness and social comparison of modern life.

I am now convinced that one of the greatest gifts we can ever give—to our teams and families—is the pursuit of becoming a non-anxious presence for others.

When I catch myself being impatient with my children (which is a LOT), I am reminded of my deep longing to be a non-anxious presence for them.

How might they turn out as adults if I try to shape their tiny nervous systems not toward fear and anxiety, but peace, calm, and patience.

It’s important to remember that eliminating all anxiety from life is not possible.

We will all have periods where we feel anxious and will unintentionally transmit anxiety and fear to others.

The point is to strive in pursuit of greater awareness for how our moods may affect others and to see as a primary goal of leadership to work on our own inner state.

How can you take action?

Here are a few ideas for how you can work on becoming a less anxious presence for people:

  1. Talk less, listen more. A great start to being a non-anxious presence for people is to let them talk. Listening is very hard for most people. It’s very hard to resist the urge to talk when we have an idea, but it’s a great gift you give to others when there is plenty of space and the conversation doesn’t feel hurried or rushed.
  2. Ask questions. Show you are listening by occasionally asking a question that shows you are really paying attention to what they are saying and curious about people’s lives or situation. Don’t ask too many questions. Find an easy pace.
  3. Spend more time in silence or nature. In the modern world, we typically bombard our nervous systems with constant stimuli. Get back to your human roots by listening to the birds or sitting by the ocean. Put the phone down and let your nervous system recalibrate.
  4. Slow down, commit to less. I realized a few years ago that it was very difficult to be a non-anxious presence for people if I was chronically in a hurry because every minute of my calendar was booked up. I simply couldn’t be patient because I was always watching the clock for the next thing I needed to do. Research strongly suggests this type of workday puts us into a mild state of fight or flight which is pretty much biologically impossible to snap out of when we want to suddenly slow down and connect with someone.
  5. Work with a therapist or coach. If you struggle with anxiety or are naturally restless or high-strung, you might benefit from working with a or coach. They can help you with feedback on how others might perceive you or understanding your impact on your team or family. It’s often difficult to take the first step, but well worth it.
  6. Do a 360 survey on yourself. Research shows that feedback is hard to get, especially if you are the boss. If you want anything close to real feedback, it must be anonymous. Email me if you are interested in a free (and copyright free) form I created to do a 360 survey on yourself using questions based on research.

Have a great weekend!


Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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