How to Keep Calm and Carry On

By Susan de la Vergne

“You got something to say to me? Then tell me to my face!”

That’s what we say ” or would like to say ” when criticism is lurking in the minds of people who won’t tell us what they’re thinking, or who will say it, but not to us.

“Got something to say? Go ahead!”

It’s not so much an invitation to clearing the air as it is to a confrontation. When someone does say whatever it is to our face, what do we do? We get angrier. (We were already mad.) We position ourselves to counter their opinion at every turn, explaining all the ways in which they’ve got us wrong.

It’s a rare person who says, “Hey, thanks, I never saw myself that way before.” Even rarer, “You know, you may be right” or “I really appreciate your take on that.” Instead, we resist, stress out, get madder.

No one ever sees us as we see ourselves. No one sees things quite as we see them. That means even if we’re right, even if our actions are justified, even if we’re perfect (!), we’re never exempt from criticism. People who don’t get you denounce you. People who think they could have done better will pass judgment, like a competitive co-worker who wants you to know his expertise exceeds yours. He lets you know that by criticizing what you’ve done. Even people who want to encourage you will sometimes find fault, as if that’s a way of bolstering your progress, like the boss who withholds a compliment because he wants you to reach higher and fears you won’t if you think he likes your work.


Since criticism is a given, it’s a good idea to be able to take it on the chin without retaliating or crumbling. Here are some practices and perspectives to help you do just that.

Keep Calm

Overreacting to criticism is a sure way to start an argument. Once an argument has erupted, actual communication ” where two people exchange ideas and information ” goes out the window. Arguers never do much listening. They simply make and re-make their own points more and more intently, all the while trying to talk over the other person.

Communication ” and relationships for that matter ” are better served by not overreacting and leaping into a dispute. But that’s a lot easier said than done. “Keep calm and carry on” is a popular slogan, but the practice hasn’t caught on, and it’s unlikely to for reasons I’ll explain in a bit. There’s also a lot of bloggy and pop culture advice that says you can just resolve to keep your cool in the moment. Walk away. Take a beat before you speak. But that doesn’t work either. Instead of genuine cool, you find yourself biting your tongue and trying not to react, even though inside you’re reacting like crazy.

Suppressing an angry reaction isn’t the same thing as keeping calm.


Instead of tongue-biting and making resolutions that are hard to keep, try putting the criticism in perspective. For starters, criticism doesn’t last long. It’s temporary. It always is. What’s front-and-center today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Let’s say someone tested some code you wrote and found many more errors in it than you expected. They attach a stack of defect forms to an email that says, “Did you even test this before you gave it to me? Schlocky work. Way too many problems.”


Ouch, you think. Well, hey, this was tricky stuff, hard to implement, and I did my best. You try doing better. All that crosses your mind. But that bit of criticism you got in the email, will it matter next week? How about in six months? It won’t. Recognizing that, let it go now.

One more perspective: Will anyone besides you even be thinking about the criticism you received? You’re the only person for miles around who’s bent out of shape about it. The only person in the world, maybe. Is it really all that important if you’re the only person on the planet who cares?

If you look back at other times in your life where someone torqued your ego ” talked badly about you, shot your idea out of the sky, or picked on your software ” how important are they now? No matter what the unpleasant conversation or disheartening feedback you’re getting now, it’ll be a much smaller deal as soon as next week and entirely forgotten before long.

Technique: Try fast-forwarding in your mind beyond the moment you’re in, and see the unpleasantness that’s being lobbed at you now in the same way. It’s temporary. It won’t live long. Then ask yourself, Should I really get wrought up about something that will be forgotten soon? Something no one in the world (besides me) cares about?

It’s a lot easier to keep calm and let go when we realistically see that there’s really not much there to hold on to.


The reason that well-meaning advice, like “walk away” and “keep your cool” don’t work is that we have way too much practice at reacting with annoyance, frustration ” or worse. Like anything we have a lot of practice at, we slip into that reaction easily. Advice like “Relax” and “Let it go” rings hollow because relaxing and letting go doesn’t come naturally. After all our years of stress and anger practice, we can’t expect to relax about something just because we tell ourselves to. It takes mental practice.

We have to manage our state of mind because that’s where anger comes from. Stress and anger are states of mind.

Say you’re in a project meeting and the project manager announces that the deadline has been accelerated several weeks because the client is threatening to withhold payment if it isn’t done by then. There will be different responses to this news on the team. Some will hate the news and resist the pressure. Some will love it because they find deadlines energizing and a chance to shine! Some will be neutral because they don’t really care. That’s because each has a different mindset when it comes to deadlines.

Not everyone gets stressed out by deadlines, because deadlines by themselves aren’t a cause of stress. Stress is a state of mind. There has to be a mind of stress in order for stress to exist. If deadlines were truly a cause of stress, everyone would be stressed out by them. The fact that they’re not tells us something: that the source of stress isn’t “out there,” isn’t the deadline; it’s within us. If deadlines were truly a cause of stress, everyone would be stressed out by them.

The same can be said of anger. It’s a state of mind, too. What makes one person angry doesn’t make another person angry. That’s because their minds are different, not their situations.

That means stress and anger are optional. We don’t think of them that way because we have so much practice at going there that they seem unavoidable. We practice getting angry, so we get angry. But if we practiced being calm, we could respond calmly.

Okay, a moment of disclosure. I’ve been meditating for years. It’s where I came upon these practical and very logical ideas. You manage the mind in order to manage the stress. When you try to manage the deadline or manage the critic, that doesn’t resolve stress. That just makes it worse.

And you can still hit an aggressive deadline with a calm mind. It might be hard to imagine, since aggressive deadlines hitters are usually freaked out. But there’s no rule that says you have to be stressed out to make a hard deadline. In fact, you can do great things with a calm, controlled mind. Stress and anger are not required elements of outstanding performance. On the contrary.

An 80/20 Observation

Some years ago, I was driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood looking for a way around a traffic jam. I was about to be late to work, thanks to the traffic problem, and on top of that I realized suddenly that I was lost. I found myself in front of a church that had a sign out front that caught my eye. It said “Life is 20% what happens to you and 80% what you do about it.”

We can’t rearrange traffic or control what other people think. We often can’t talk clients out of shortchanging a project timeline. We can’t make our manager be more civilized or a better communicator. That’s all in the 20%. The good news there’s still the 80% we can do something about.

So, two things to remember:

Perspective ” it’s temporary, it’s not that important.

Practice: cultivate patience and nurture composure.

Then go out and tackle whatever aggressive deadline or unrealistic client comes your way ” with a mind that’s neither stressed nor angry. It’s possible.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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