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Resilience in a crisis

We are living in uncharted waters where no one knows what the long-term consequences of Coronavirus and the lockdown will be or look like.

This climate of anxious uncertainty is lending itself to finger pointing and recrimination, even conspiracy theories. We can put our faith in empirical evidence and trust that solutions will emerge. Who really knows when this will be, how we will feel and what the solutions will look like? What we can say is that life will be different.

I hope that readers will find this article helpful to develop their own ways of living through an unprecedented situation.

Why resilience is important to success

The drivers for dealing with a crisis come from our different needs. The main ones now are probably being resilient, being able to cope by being calm and positive and thriving afterwards.

We usually seek help either because we don’t know what to do or, if we do, we don’t know where to start. What may be obvious and right for one person will not be for someone else. Moreover problems can present themselves as opportunities in disguise. We need to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to spot them.

Traditionally we show resilience when we bounce back by coping with challenges when they happen. So it is normal to think about being resilient only we need to do so. Now, more than ever, we need to incorporate resilience into our strategic mindset in order to bounce forward. Being positive and calm is part of this.

In planning for the future we need to

• Create strong, agile and collaborative structures around us and in our work.

• Help leaders and managers to understand how to create resilient teams and ones with a growth mind-set.

• Take a long-term view now for when some normality resumes. People remember acts of kindness when they were appreciated, supported and genuinely listened to when the chips were down.

Seeing the wood from the trees

In a crisis the amount of information in circulation seems to increase. While we need to be informed, we still need to be productive and not distracted.

One of the challenges to resilience is information overload and the effect it has on how we feel and act. How often do we consider

• Whether we need or want all the information we receive. Is it so that we can appear knowledgeable or is it because we fear missing out?

• If we try to absorb too much, whether we are risking becoming jacks of all trade and masters of none.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of strengths that enables us to thrive. It is based on the belief that we want to develop what we do best, so that we can reach our full potential and lead a fulfilling life. This should not be confused with positive thinking, which is a ‘can-do’ approach to achieving something and may not always be grounded in reality.

Our thinking can be affected by negativity and criticism. Sometimes we see differences in other people as failings when they are not. We also get drawn into situations that we can neither control nor influence. As a result we become distracted and less interested in how well we may be doing and what we need to do.

Positive psychology shifts our focus from what is not working to what is working, by enhancing our strengths and building resilience, optimism and hope. Coaches use a variety of models to help people understand this and they are often revealing.

The tipping point between the positive and the negative occurs when we can strike the right balance between our strengths and weaknesses. It is not about ignoring weaknesses but respecting them and working to minimise them by playing to our strengths.

Of course there are times when we need to stretch ourselves, even if this takes us outside our comfort zone. However we still need to be realistic while being optimistic. Realistic optimism is a concept popularised by Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’. It is named after James Stockdale, vice presidential candidate and a Vietnam prisoner of war. Tortured, he had no reason to believe that he would survive. And he discovered that those who were overly optimistic did not. He found his own way of doing so by embracing the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism.

Put simply, we should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Boosting our resilience

Over time our brains are shaped by experiences. If we constantly shift from one activity to another, our brains’ attention systems will find it harder to focus. This in turn impacts on our productivity and can lead to frustration.

We can boost our productivity and positivity in a number of ways

1. Take regular breaks

10 minutes an hour is ideal. As our brains are more energetic in the morning, consider doing the challenging activities then or after a break.

When we are active, neurons use nutrients, delivered by blood to our brains, to function well. When we get tired or stressed, nutrients shift to the most vital organs. So our brains are starved and our performance declines.

2. Reduce stress

When we get stressed, our brain and body chemistry changes to create a ‘fight or flight’ mode. This prepares us to escape from real or perceived danger and we go into action mode.

What is happening that blood is rushing to our limbs, so the supply to our brains is reduced.

This affects our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our rational thinking, sound decision making and problem solving. It also controls critical evaluation. When we get stressed, we don’t realise how poorly we are doing.

Deep breathing, meditation, sleeping well and exercising all help to combat stress. But they can trick our brains into believing that all is well, when they are not the complete picture.

Pressing the pause button and increasing our sense of self-awareness will help. We need to stand back and reflect what is causing the stress and then decide what is important and what needs to be done.

Put another way, there are times when we need to show compassion to ourselves and other people (and what they need from us) and use our strengths to find a path forward.

We do not win races just by being the most physically fit. We do so through the determination to do something that may be challenging and by having goals, being committed to reaching them and finding pathways towards them. As an example, suppose you are tired at the end of a long day when you receive an email that makes you annoyed. What do you do? React or stay calm?

The first golden rule is do not answer it immediately, otherwise you may say the wrong thing and regret it. By all means draft a response, but send the next day because you will almost certainly change it.

What has happened is that you have woken up your amygdala (the emotional part of your brain), when you need to be tiptoeing around it so that it remains asleep.

Equally you should avoid driving your annoyance underground by ignoring it. So consider how best to address what has happened in a way that will make the other person listen.

If you are dealing with a difficult person, you are not going to change them. What you can do is change your reaction to them. These are some suggestions to consider.

• Only respond when you are ready. What will happen if you delay your response?

• Listen ‘actively’ to what they are ‘really’ saying. Active listening is listening to the meaning of the words being used.

• Explain how their actions affect you, so that they can see the consequences for themselves, if they have similar motives.

• Set out your position in a calm, non-defensive manner. Telling someone that you are right and they are wrong tends to inflame matters.

• Advocate your position positively, while seeking to influence their behaviour. You can do this by using inclusive language, communicating togetherness and looking for common ground through mutual interests and using open rather then closed questions to get information.

3. Monitor multitasking

There is nothing wrong with multitasking. However our brains can only focus fully on one thing at a time. This is due to a limit called cognitive load.

What is happening when we multitask is that our brains are switching quickly from one task to another. So we have to spend time adjusting, are prone to making mistakes and become stressed more easily.

To avoid this, you can prioritise and focus on one task for a short period.

One method is the Pomodoro technique. This involves

• Choosing a task and the total time you need.

• Setting a timer for, say, 25 minutes, though it may need to be flexible.

• Taking a five-minute break to renew your energy.

• Repeating four times before taking a 20 – 30 minute break.

You can do this with multiple projects that you have on the go, but working on one at a time adds variety and energy.

4. Take small steps on projects

Most of us need projects and to-do lists and they keep us going.

If we have a big project that we keep putting off, we can break it into small achievable chunks.

If a project seems overwhelming, this activates our brain’s pain centres and makes us likely to procrastinate. If we take one big leap, we risk crashing and retreating to our old ways as our enthusiasm fades.

Small steps help give our brains specific commands to complete tasks, otherwise we waste energy and get disheartened. The key is to pace ourselves and feel that we are making progress.

5. Reward for achieving tasks

Completing tasks activates the reward centres of our brains, as they give us a buzz of dopamine once they are completely or partly done. This creates a sense of achievement, pleasure and motivation.

Our brain blood vessels are dilated when we are in enjoyment mode. This give our brains more fuel. When we are like this, they are at their best in terms of efficiency, communication and creativity.

In his book ‘The Happiness Advantage’ Shawn Achor talks about the seven principles to fuel success and work performance. One of them is to train our brains to capitalise on positives to improve performance.

Julian Roskill is a Coach and Mediator and part of Consensum. If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article, he can be contacted at julian@consensum.org or on + 44 (0) 7831 229122.