From reactive to resilient

Posted on May 4, 2016

Blog by Eve Poole, Know Yourself, Be Yourself, Look After Yourself facilitator and lecturer at Ashridge Business School

Resilience as a core leadership skill is all the rage at the moment, probably because we're all running on empty, particularly in the social sector. When I facilitate workshops with Clore Social Leadership, I use a timeline exercise with the Fellows and short course participants. Using a piece of A3 paper, we draw our leadership career as a timeline, with highs and lows either side of a line across the page. Highs are personal bests, and lows are when we have really struggled.  We usually focus it on strengths, necessary conditions, triggers, and career trends. But perhaps it is most powerfully a reminder of our extraordinary resilience. On the page, those lows invariably turn once again into highs, and the story behind this transformation is the one I want to focus on. What have you learned about your own patterns of resilience from how you have bounced back in the past? Are there ways you could cushion yourself better next time?

We all suffer from set-backs. The neuroscientists Kevin Ochsner at Columbia and James Gross at Stanford University have shown that teaching people to reframe stimuli, changes how they experience and react to them. You can train emotional regulation, first by controlling attention to emotionally evocative stimuli, then by cognitively changing their meaning. In the jargon, this is to force a switch from the cortical and subcortical emotion-generative systems to the prefrontal and cingulate control systems. What?! Maria Konnikova explains it this way:

(1) Change the situation to force perspective – if you can’t hang up, stand up; if you can’t walk away, suggest a walk with the person who has upset you. Call for a comfort break just to give yourself time to regroup. Distance yourself physically and in time if possible (‘go home and sleep on it’), but otherwise use mental distancing by hovering above yourself and watching the action through a camera lens. Imagine how an onlooker would describe the scene and ask yourself what you’ll think about this in hindsight.

(2) Reframe what has happened – force yourself to look for an upside, because this will in effect remove captaincy from your amygdala and return it to your rational brain. This will in turn start calming you down, and give you access to a wider range of options in how best to respond.

You can practice these skills by applying them around you whenever you notice that powerful emotions are kidnapping your colleagues. Rescue them by creating distance, then by reframing the situation for them: if Pollyanna was coaching you, what silver lining would she see in this situation? But remember, you've done this before, and you can do it again: you have already proved your resilience, and this too will pass.

If you are interested in our Know Yourself, Be Yourself, Look After Yourself workshop run by Eve Poole on the 25 October, please email info@cloresocialleadership.org.uk or call 020 7812 3770.

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