Episode 68

Practicing Deliberate Calm with Jacqui Brassey

Today's organizational leaders need more than quick reactions to unpredictability; they need 'deliberate calm.' This skill is all about responding thoughtfully to challenges, not just keeping your cool. But how do you develop this ability?

In this episode of the HAPPINESS SQUAD Podcast, we delve deeper into this topic with Ashish Kothari and Jacqui Brassey, a renowned expert in health and wellbeing and Co-Leader of the McKinsey Health Institute. 

Jacqui, who also contributes to the World Wellbeing Movement and Wellbeing at Work, and is part of the World Economic Forum's Health Workforces Initiative, brings over two decades of experience in international business and academia. 

In this conversation, Ashish and Jacqui discuss her bestselling book, 'Deliberate Calm,' offering practical advice on maintaining calm, shifting mindsets from protection to learning, mastering dual awareness, and fostering purpose and psychological safety in teams.

Things you will learn in this episode:

  • The importance of deliberate calm in decision-making
  • How deliberate calm fosters team collaboration and understanding
  • The concept of dual awareness
  • How to practice deliberate calm


• TEDx Talk: Zoning In and Out of Stress by Jacqui Brassey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XasET2Psi7c 


• Deliberately Calm by Jacqui Brassey: https://www.amazon.com/Deliberate-Calm-Learn-Volatile-World-ebook/dp/B09TKZ96PB 

• Authentic Confidence by Jacqui Brassey: https://www.amazon.com/Authentic-Confidence-Jacqueline-Brassey/dp/9462158266 

• Hardwired for Happiness: 9 Proven Practices to Overcome Stress and Live Your Best Life.https://www.amazon.com/Hardwired-Happiness-Proven-Practices-Overcome/dp/1544534655


Ashish Kothari: So nice to be with you, Jacqui. Seems like old times. Welcome to the show.

Jacqui Brassey: Thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to be here.

Ashish Kothari: You know, I'm going to share with people that you truly are practicing deliberate calm. I got a message from Jacqui yesterday while I was on a flight. It was a phone call and a text message. It was a frantic message saying, my husband's in the U.S. I've got sick kids, I'm not sure I can do the podcast.

And then, time is the biggest cure. By the time I landed, Jacqui had found deliberate calm and said, "I am going to practice deliberate calm. This is a moment that I need to practice." And we are on a podcast now. So, I am grateful. I know you're juggling a lot, but thank you for being with us.

Jacqui Brassey: Thank you. You need to be honest there. I withdrew my message. So I was really struggling with it, but I found Deliberate Calm. You said it beautifully.

Ashish Kothari: Yeah. So, my friend, you and I go back a long way. We started with adaptability and resilience. We wrote our article, and since then, you've done so much research on that topic and wrote Deliberate Calm. So, talk a little bit about what deliberate calm is and why it is so needed for leaders, especially today.

Jacqui Brassey: Yes, thank you for that question. I want to add that I coauthored it with Michiel Kraut and Aaron De Smet, who deserve to be named. So, what is deliberate calm and why is it so important today? Let's start with today.

One key thing is that if unpredictability increases, the need for deliberate calm increases exponentially with it. What is happening today? There's so much unpredictability at home, as I experienced here, and also out there.

The world is changing; it's unpredictable. The weather, the climate is changing. A lot of great things are happening as well, but with developments in IT, gen AI, and more, that also means a lot of change for people.

One quote made me realize it is important today, but certainly also tomorrow. Many people have said, "The pace of change today is never going to be as slow as it is today." That is really true.

So, what is deliberate calm? When unpredictability increases and changes fast, you need to know when to pause and take a calm step back. How do you do that? It's about keeping an open mind, being aware, and being able to take the right decisions in moments that matter.

Ashish Kothari: I love it. This phrase gets thrown around a lot: "Change will never be as slow as it was yesterday."

between the start and end of:

From 50 years to 10 years to 10 months, and we are just getting started. I love this notion, Jacqui, that when things are happening so fast, they trigger us. We think, "Oh my God, what does it mean?" Many people feel things are changing so fast. Let's move.

Your invitation is beautiful to say, yes you need to move quickly, but before you move quickly, find that place of calm so you can choose consciously where you want to go rather than just react in the way you always reacted.

Jacqui Brassey: Someone said it beautifully recently: the most powerful tool we have in uncertainty is to pause and not respond. The first thing we want to do is respond because that is our normal human nature, but pausing is super powerful. Often, it is the wisest thing to do.

Ashish Kothari: Exactly. It's human nature because we like to keep things under control. And how do you take control? You act. Oftentimes, we don't realize we make things worse when we just act and then there’s another issue.

Now, you talked about pause as being an effective key step towards practicing deliberate calm. What are some other key elements that fall under deliberate calm?

Jacqui Brassey: At the heart of what we practice when we practice deliberate calm is a concept we call dual awareness. It sounds beautiful, and everyone then wonders what dual awareness is.

It might seem too theoretical, but it's actually about being aware of what is needed in the moment or in a situation and connecting it with what's needed for you, what's going on inside.

Often, what is needed externally is not in line with what goes on inside. So, if calm is needed inside but you feel stressed, how do you level set that, or the other way around?

It's all about dual awareness in neuroscience. I like the concepts of interoception and exteroception. It's that combination, bringing them together and then finding the right tune to play between them.

Ashish Kothari: So, describe to folks who are watching or listening the two concepts, interoception and exteroception.

Jacqui Brassey: If we talk about what's needed in the moment, the “extero way”, it's about finding yourself in a moment that requires calm, pause, reflection, and an open mind.

The situation may be high stakes, unfamiliar territory. We have a simple two-by-two in the book that explains this. An example of high stakes, unfamiliar territory is when you're under pressure and need to do something new.

What you often feel internally is stress and the need to respond very fast or to try to get in control. I'll give you two scenarios to explain it better.

Scenario one: there is a house on fire, high stakes, but for a trained firefighter, that's familiar territory. Stress, but the best thing the firefighter can do is focus and perform, execute. You should not wait and think because the house is down before you know it. He needs to act.

There's a formula by Timothy Galway that looks at potential, saying potential is performance minus interference. The stress you experience is the interference. If you manage your stress, that is where you can perform. For business leaders or anyone in high stakes, unfamiliar territory, it's all about managing your stress.

Now, imagine another situation. A family member got a call from someone claiming to be from a bank. High stakes, unfamiliar, the family member thinks what's going on. This was a scam. The scammer puts time pressure and complexity on top.

Before you know it, you go into a closed brain and want to respond because you want to control the situation. Long story short, he got scammed. He gave in. That is the moment you need to learn to pause and not give in, but you get tricked into thinking you need to quickly respond. What you need is the open mind instead of the quick response of the firefighter.

Ashish Kothari: I love that. Noticing where it is familiar territory, something we know how to handle, where we need to move quickly but through a regulated nervous system. We don't need to rediscover what needs to be done. We just need to act, but with full awareness and control over the choices. I love the second example.

This is one where it is unfamiliar territory and high stakes. Your invitation in that moment is to say, even if you calmed yourself, it's not about taking action in terms of doing, it might be taking action around inquiring or curiosity. It's choosing a different way versus just responding.

Jacqui Brassey: Yes. And if you continue to play in that space, and you and I both talk a lot to leaders in a business context, then this becomes a journey of discovery and adjusting on the go.

Sometimes you go left and then realize you should have gone right. It's not about always having the right answer, but about adaptively learning and growing and becoming better with an open mind and heart.

Ashish Kothari: Implicit in there, you touched on it briefly. I would love to have you share, in your own words, the importance of mindsets, protection versus learning mindsets.

Talk to us a bit about these two and what are some of the protection mindsets and what are some of the learning mindsets, especially important in situations with high unpredictability, so that we can be deliberately calm.

Jacqui Brassey: One thing before I do that, many people have heard this before: if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. In a mindset, I sometimes wear my glasses.

If you talk about the innovative mindset, this is the innovative mindset set of glasses. This is how I look at things with an open mind. The protection mindsets are more about the status quo mindsets. This is another way of looking at things.

Now, I'm not saying one of these is bad and the other one is good because sometimes it's very good to use these, especially when you don't need to innovate, you just need to execute. Can be very good.

Ashish Kothari: For those who are listening, Jacqui is putting on and off these really cool purple and red glasses. Just so you know, if you're just listening. Of course, if you're watching the video, you'll see them. They're both really cool. I need to get one of these too.

Jacqui Brassey: Yeah, I want another set actually. Anyway, that's for another podcast. But no, that is what it is about. It's basically one set is more suited for situations where you need to act and just perform. We just spoke about that.

Stay with the familiar, you know, you have everything you need. But a mindset is a way of looking at the world. It can be a fixed mindset, or all kinds of ways of looking at the world. Sometimes they have a negative connotation, like a victim mindset.

I don't like those in general, but if they are there, they are not always harmful, but they're not always harmful when you need innovation, creativity, open mind, and space. Because this is the glass half full, then everything will limit itself versus if you look at the glass half empty versus half full.

So if you look for opportunities and possibilities, you will find them. And if you look for impossibilities, you will also not find the rest. It's all about priming the brain.

Ashish Kothari: Yeah, and I love it. We were looking at resilient and non-resilient, which is really about protection and learning.

And friends, another phrase to remember is, "You see the world as you are, not as the world is." It is so true. And I love the framing because often in this work, we see either-or situations. I love that you said it depends on what the situation is, which mindset might suit you best.

So it's not that you always need to think about a learning mindset or curiosity, or abundance. If a house is on fire and you're a firefighter, there's a particular way you need to go at it. Let's not rediscover a new way to fight a fire today.

But in situations that are more in the predictable world, complicated, simple situations, it's fine to go in with what you're calling a protection mindset, like finding the root cause quickly and addressing it.

Jacqui Brassey: To circle back, why did we bring this up in the context of deliberate calm? Knowing and understanding the mindsets active in a specific moment may help you reframe in that moment. It can help you practice deliberate calm and create that calm, but also the open mind.

Ashish Kothari: I love that. Now, we are talking about changing behaviors, Jacqui, and you and I both know behaviors are only the top of the iceberg. You highlight this beautiful four-layered iceberg model to say, if you really want to shift behavior, go explore deeper.

Can you share a bit about the three additional layers that sit deep behind behaviors that we need to face and shift to make the behavior sustainable?

Jacqui Brassey: Make the behavior sustainable, yes. We use the analogy of the iceberg because everybody knows that picture. The top of the iceberg is the ice or the snow above the waterline, representing behavior.

The way you look at me, the way you kindly smile at me, the way you ask me questions, that is something we see, but there is a lot happening that I cannot see, that's going on inside of you. It’s a very helpful way for people to understand how then the change happens.

The first layer under the water are your thoughts or your feelings. They influence most directly the immediate behavior, the immediate action. If you have a specific thought, then you act or respond consciously or unconsciously.

Feelings work the same way. It can be a feeling because you sense something in your body, or it may be the result of a stomach pain or whatever.

Then the layer under that is those mindsets that feed the frame, and then your thoughts pop off of that, your values or your beliefs. And then that is rooted in your identity and where you come from. There's basically a layer up. It's the hardest to change.

And it’s true, where you grew up and what you learned as a child will be with you forever. But it may get in the way of how you behave, or you discover that is actually happening and you create another route. So then other options are there.

So you widen the aperture of what you believe or who you are. But those layers are not important to change behavior directly, but they're helpful to understand because you need to become more conscious about what's holding you back.

Is it a thought, or is there something else? They inform the nice thing is also another way of looking at it is we predict until we actually know for sure. And that prediction is based on what is under there, what we have been given in the past.

Ashish Kothari: This model, as I talk about in 'Hardwired for Happiness', is familiar to those who've read the book. Think about how powerful this framing can be deep within.

Imagine, if you are like I was, shy and had performance anxiety when talking in front of a lot of people. The behavior when I'm anxious might show up as explaining more, or people can sense it. My thoughts are, "Oh my God, people are going to laugh at me. I'm going to mess up."

The feelings are my body getting ready to run, my heart rate racing, palms getting sweaty, feeling clammy. These are signs that my body is saying you're doing something you're not meant to be doing.

The fear might come from an early age, like getting up to sing and someone made fun of you. That fear of being laughed at makes my body sense danger, my thought is this is not going to go well, and my behavior is showing up really scared.

Now, you can say all you want, "Don't be scared, people are caring," but what made the shift for me was realizing that fear was one situation that wasn't always. Deep underneath, there's a bigger need to say the work I'm doing now is so important that even if people laugh, I don't care because there are so many people who need this help.

The next level above is reframing at the feelings level. One interpretation of the body reacting with sweaty palms is that it's nervous. The other is, it's being prepared to help me give the best performance ever. The symptoms are the same.

My thoughts become less about people laughing at me, but more about them giving me the gift of their time and wanting to listen. They're not here to laugh at me. I show up as my full self rather than my contracted self, with love and passion, and that energy connects everybody.

This iceberg model is important to make any behavior change. Jacqui, you talk beautifully in the book about how you can try to fake it till you make it, but it's not going to take you far unless you do the deeper work around recognizing what gets in your way in terms of your fears, thoughts, and feelings, to make the shift.

Jacqui Brassey: Another thing we found is that it's not only about how beautifully this enriches you. Once you have these skills, there's no way back. It makes you a better performer and a more overall human being. In the work I do looking at people's holistic health, we saw that their health is improved.

A pilot study I've done also influenced heart rate variability directly. There are so many benefits. Sometimes I call it a new way of life. For me, there's no way back. I don't know about you, but I love it. It's not easy because becoming more aware, you pick up everything, but there's no way back from it.

Ashish Kothari: Five years ago, I would never talk about spirituality in the context of McKinsey, but since in the holistic wellbeing work, you put spirituality in the model. Science and spirituality are pointing to the same thing.

What you're talking about is a new way of life, an invitation to evolve our consciousness to a higher level so we can create solutions from that evolved state of consciousness for the world's complex problems.

Einstein said we have to evolve our consciousness. You cannot solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them. The world is more complex, more unpredictable. We have to change how we show up.

Jacqui Brassey: We often say, less inspirationally, but still relevant, "Healthy work, healthy employees, healthy organizations, healthy communities." This set of skills is at the heart of it, and spiritual health is so important and relevant. It's about purpose and meaning.

Ashish Kothari: That's the spiritual core, recognizing that we are part of a bigger whole. It's about union. In organizations, this is not just important for individuals for their wellbeing, but also in a team setting and at an organizational level.

Can you tell a story, Jacqui, around a client or a team you've done this work with, and how you saw them evolve, how they showed up, and what became possible for them?

Jacqui Brassey: Yes, this is all about understanding the iceberg model. What I see you do doesn't mean I know what you think and believe. That's where we talk about how icebergs can collide.

People sometimes think they can predict what others think because they can read faces, but that's not true. Science has proven that. So, the advice is to stay curious. You may laugh or look happy, but who knows what's going on for Ashish at the moment, or for anybody in the team.

But anyway, in team settings, we have many beautiful examples. It depends on where teams come from, but the first thing is always to give them the language and tools to understand what this is about. You start with the individual and then expand with the teams.

A team is a set of icebergs together. If you can start working together, that is wonderful. But if you all collide, it doesn't lead to many effective outcomes. It's about teaching people what this is about, having a language, and then start practicing in the moment.

With a good facilitator, you can realize that and eventually people start using the language and intervene. They say, "Can we have this little moment? Can we have an awareness moment?" It's about having the ability to give words to what people feel in their stomachs.

When it's really well applied is in operations meetings or when you need to think about the future of your organization and talk about innovation.

If you don't allow deliberate calm, humility, and openness in the room, and have the right words to talk about different problems, then you get little chiefdoms and kings at the table that fight invisibly. You see it, but it's not said.

When this is brought into the mix, it unleashes a lot of potential because people start listening and understanding each other.

Ashish Kothari: And it's less about blaming, right? They stopped blaming each other, making villains.

Jacqui Brassey: They start taking accountability for the fact that they feel like they want to blame, but now they won't blame.

It's really beautiful. It's not so much about him that is blamed and that feels horrible, and everybody feels it, but nobody can give words to it. But then everybody shows up and says, "Hey, listen, I take accountability for my misbehavior here,” or “I take accountability for speaking up."

It's a journey, right? You need time. You can't just push a button and now your team is deliberately calm. It takes time.

Ashish Kothari: I want to go there next, but before that, this other element that you beautifully weaved in is at the heart of the work I'm doing. I'm so glad you have this as a core, actually.

At a team level, learning and being able to voice requires psychological safety. And unless the leader creates that as a critical foundational element to practice deliberate calm, we're not going to get there.

Jacqui Brassey: It's contagious. If a behavior is contagious and if the leader is showing up with deliberate calm, that's contagious, but also the other side, toxic behavior is contagious. So what are you going with, sunshine or do you put the cloud over the team? That's basically the question.

Ashish Kothari: How does a typical journey look like for a leader, like a CFO or head of a business, who sees the benefit and realizes we're not pausing enough to create the space? What would a journey like that look like for them to really build this core capability, this new way of operating in the world, that's going to be the driver behind their success or failure?

Jacqui Brassey: There are multiple routes, but a very successful route is you start with the leadership team and work with them to learn and embody this new set of skills. It's not something set apart from the business context.

You weave it into the business context and agenda. You feed it with content and take them on a journey of weeks or a couple of months. Sometimes it takes a different location. There are different variations.

Then you cascade it to the teams of the top leadership team. We have successfully rolled it out in a whole organization using digital assets, training a whole organization on these skills virtually over a number of months. If the engagement is high, we see fantastic outcomes versus lower engagement. We had a control group setting for that.

Ashish Kothari: How do you increase engagement? What might be some tips for people, because they are incredibly busy?

Jacqui Brassey: These are the basics in any good learning and development program. Have engagement from the top, a role model embedded in the organization, make it relevant for people to join, and communicate about it, but also follow up.

If you embed it and make it part of a learning journey, that justifies people's participation. Make it really worth their while and integrate it in the work they need to do. You only need one good pilot and everybody wants to have it. It's very simple.

Ashish Kothari: Role modeling, start with the top team or a leadership team that is willing. If they want to implement it, don't just rely on a facilitated journey. You can also do digital learning as a way to scale. The more people do together, the better things are.

The role of role models is so important. Leadership's going to show up and through daily actions, make it happen. If you have a successful pilot, more people will want that. Nothing succeeds like success.

Jacqui Brassey: That's absolutely true. Role modeling is super key, and that is sometimes underestimated. It's so important to have a few people that can champion. If you get the good version of this, they will.

Ashish Kothari: Exactly. So, I want to shift a little bit, Jacqui, keeping an eye on the time. We talked about deliberate calm, the framework, and the importance for organizations and teams. I want to put the spotlight on you and hear from you on what are some personal tips from your own operating model.

You're at the heart of the research the firm does, wrote two books in the last two years, at the heart of the well-being research work, helping client teams, a mom, a daughter. You always find the energy to navigate all of this. What's your secret? What are some non-negotiables for Jacqui that allow you to deliver and perform at the level you do?

Jacqui Brassey: At the heart of everything is that I really live my purpose. I focus on what I want to do and it cuts out the stuff I don't want to do. It's very liberating, but for some people it feels risky. I really don’t identify with a role. So I really do what’s purposeful.

Purpose is a huge deal for me. Non-negotiable for me is trying to sleep very well, daily walks, and showing up when the children and family need me.

The way I manage stress and have the operating model gives me a lot of flexibility. I love hard work, but I need time to recover and work with people I trust. I'm lucky I can be totally myself.

When I feel challenged, I practice a lot of breathing exercises, centering, getting into my body, and taking a break. Sometimes I stand at my desk. I set an intention in the morning, looking ahead at the day. If it's fully booked back to back, I take action because I believe in taking breaks.

I try to eat healthy, but that's hard for me. I love sugar. And Ashish, I love laughing, positive progress, doing positive things. That is beautiful, but I have my struggles as you know.

Ashish Kothari: We all do. I mean, I've told you my life has struggles, but it's these skills and habits, routines that we build. This is not about perfection, but it's about progress.

Jacqui Brassey: It’s the imperfections that is so beautiful. That's life.

Ashish Kothari: You know, I was walking with somebody the other day near Chautauqua. He's a super senior, very successful person. He said he feels like a fake because he knows his imperfections.

I asked him to look around at the beauty of Chautauqua, the flatirons. No tree is like the other. We accept nature in its true imperfect form as a perfect scene. Your life is the same. Why are we constantly judging because we know ourselves best?

We know our doubts, even when others don't see it. It's okay. Maybe I ate a little too much sugar today, maybe tomorrow will be different. I can start tomorrow. I love this notion of healthy routines, Jacqui, that you talked about: walking, breathing, breaks, sleep, standing, laughter. If we start to build these habits one at a time, I think we will be better in our life.

Jacqui Brassey: Yes, it's very powerful. Also, there are two things: We all have our backpack. You put things in perspective, especially when you've recently turned 50, things get easier, and we made it here. That's wonderful. It's different for everyone.

We all can find what works for us. I like so many things, but they also change over the years. I go back to others. I like running as well. The moment I used to believe I need to start a new habit on a Monday, it needed to be perfect.

Then if I missed it on Tuesday, okay, next Monday, I start again. No longer. You can start now. If you mess up, start again the same minute. It's an ongoing thing. It's fine.

Ashish Kothari: Every breath is an opportunity to start a new thing.

Well, this was amazing, Jacqui. Thank you for fitting us in. Thank you for spending the time. I am grateful for our friendship, for all the time we worked together. You're amazing. Keep shining your light, my dear friend.

Jacqui Brassey: Thank you so much. Likewise, and it's been a delight to be here.

About the Podcast

Show artwork for The Happiness Squad Podcast with Ashish Kothari
The Happiness Squad Podcast with Ashish Kothari
Unlock your full potential with the Happiness Squad podcast! Host Ashish Kothari, Founder & CEO, brings leading experts to help you live with more joy, health, love, and meaning. Discover the art and science of happiness to live and operate at your best.

About your host

Profile picture for Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari is the Founder and CEO of Happiness Squad, a company focused on democratizing happiness and touching a billion+ lives over the next 20 years and helping them live with more joy, health, love, and meaning.

Prior to founding Happiness Squad and writing his best-selling book “Hardwired for happiness”, Ashish spent 25 years in consulting, including the last 17 at McKinsey and Co, a premier management consulting firm, helping thousands of clients and their organizations achieve breakthrough performance by building new mindsets and capabilities.

Ashish is a trained ontological coach and a lifelong student of human thriving.