What are you like in a crisis? I don’t mean the life or death, split-second decision type crises that we all hope we’ll never face – escaping a burning building, being taken hostage by terrorists or other stuff of nightmares. None of us really knows how we’d react in those situations and, if we’re lucky, we never find out. I’m thinking more of the standard ups and downs – or, more specifically, downs – of life that we all face at some point – failing at work, losing your job, falling out with a friend and so on.
Some people cope better with these events than others. They’re more resilient. Eventually everyone reaches an emotional limit where they’re tipped into anxiety or even panic, but some people’s thresholds are lower than others. This post is about a 4-step technique to help all of us develop more resilience in the face of difficulties.
Crisis? What kind of crisis?
Before we look at the techniques, I want to distinguish between three different types of anxiety-provoking situation:
Something bad has happened, e.g. you have lost a client, you have been sacked, and now you have to deal with the consequences.
A potential crisis
Something bad is probably going to happen if you don’t do something, e.g. you’re likely to lose a contract if you don’t do something to regain the client’s trust.
A ‘maybe’ crisis
Something bad may be about to happen – you’ve picked up some sort of negative signal (a hint that something is wrong, a harsh tone of voice, a strange look from your boss) – but you don’t have the full picture.
The last type can be particularly pernicious because the lack of certainty gives room for your imagination to run riot. If you have a particularly low anxiety threshold and a well-developed imagination, you can go from “Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting?” through “I’m about to be sacked” all the way to your partner leaving, your house being repossessed and your children being taken into care in a matter of minutes. It’s called catastrophising and some people are really skilled at it. It’s a skill it’s worth trying to unlearn or, at least, counteract.
4 steps to greater resilience
I’m indebted to Lucy Ryan from mindspring for this, having seen her present it at a recent business psychology conference. A key element of resilience is the ability to disentangle your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This is one of the most structured ways I’ve seen of doing this. It comes in the form of four questions.
1. How much control do I have over this situation?
In a potential crisis, there’s always something you can do, so do it. In other situations, you may be able to get more information to give you more control. There may be circumstances, however, where you genuinely have no control at all, in which case, all you can control is your response. If the best you can do is control your behaviour, do that. If you find yourself about to say “I probably shouldn’t say this but…”, stop right there. Likewise, resist the urge to slash the tyres on the MD’s BMW. If you can get a hold of your thoughts, so much the better, which is where question 2 comes in:
2. What’s the most positive, yet realistic, interpretation of the situation I can muster?
This is particularly useful for catastrophisers, especially in a ‘maybe’ crisis. Yes, your boss looking serious and saying she needs a word with you might mean you’re about to lose your job but it could mean she’s got a serious problem on her hands and thinks you’re the person to deal with it. Mark Twain said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”. Don’t let the catastrophiser in you run the show.
It’s important, however, that this step is realistic. This is not “There, there, it’ll all be alright”. In an actual crisis, the most positive interpretation may be “I will get through this”.
3. How am I going to maintain, or regain, focus?
To get through a crisis, you will need to get your head together somehow. How you do this depends on your personality and the circumstances you find yourself in. It might involve making a plan, going for a walk or a run, doing some mindfulness meditation or even driving around singing to loud music. Figure out which coping strategies work for you and then use them. The better you get at using them, the more confident you feel that you can handle a crisis, creating a virtuous circle.
4. Who can support me with this who won’t feed in to the negative?
You can probably do negative interpretations of the situation all by yourself, so you don’t need any help with that. Under no circumstances should you contact the colleague who panics easily, the ‘glass half empty’ friend or anyone else who will add to your sense that the end is nigh. You need people who make you feel more positive and remind you of your resources.
So there you have it. Deceptively simple but when your mind is running away with itself and anxiety is setting it, it’s useful to have a simple framework to hold on to.