Dominic Irvine

Imagining Resilience

Being resilient means being able to deal with an event that otherwise could have been traumatic. Coping is resilience over time. Resilience is also about our ability to learn from these experiences such that what was once threatening is no longer so. Just as the novice kayaker is intimidated by white water, over time they learn how to tackle rapids that once scared them.

Choosing to respond in a way that means the experience is not traumatic is a function of our imagination. We have to conceive new possibilities. The skier fearful of hitting the tree in the middle of the slope has to imagine a route to the bottom of the slope that means they miss the tree. Whereas if they continue to focus on the tree for fear of hitting it, then that’s probably what’s going to happen. Do not underestimate the power of imagination. Pascual-Leone and colleagues (1995) showed that ‘thinking is movement confined to the brain’. They had participants in a study think about doing five finger piano exercises, a second group do five finger piano exercises and a third group were the control who did nothing. There were almost identical changes in the brain between those who had imagined doing the piano exercises and those that did the piano exercises. The starting point for resilience then is thinking about how you would like things to be in order to begin to create the possibility. That means you need to think differently about the outcome.

Thinking differently is easier said than done. There are some things we can do that can make it a bit easier. My daughter tells me she knows if I am about to ‘lose the plot’ over something she has done because I remove my glasses and rub my eyes. Removing my glasses has become a simple cue that reminds me I need to respond in a different way to prevent this from becoming a traumatic event as I hate falling out with my daughter. The glasses are a trigger. They trigger the need for me to think differently about how I will respond. If you are struggling to work out what you do when you are about to lose your cool, ask your partner. They will have no difficulty telling you exactly what you do. We can apply the same process to our teams. Think about each person in your team. How do you know when they are struggling to cope? What sort of things do they do? Work out an observable behaviour for each person. It might be rubbing their head, hiding down low behind their monitor, using their mouse somewhat violently or muttering to themselves (all examples given to me over the years). Use the cues you identify to step in and help them get things under control such that they are better able to cope with what’s happening. This might be as simple as telling them to take five and stretch their legs or inviting them to talk through their frustrations with you.

We can use imagination and the notion of control to help us through bigger issues. When working with a company that had released information before they were ready that 500 people were to lose their jobs, there was an understandable degree of outrage by those affected. The threat of losing your livelihood is without doubt a potentially traumatic event! The solution we deployed was to get those affected in the first instance to imagine all their concerns and then one by one we worked through those working out how they might mitigate the risk. That helped deal with the fear, by giving them back a sense of control over their own lives, but it left the problem of motivation. Very few felt motivated to work hard after such an experience. We tackled the problem of motivation by asking people to imagine being at a job interview and being asked to give an example of how they had responded to a difficult situation. We then had them imagine being able to tell the story of how, despite the mismanagement of the threat of redundancy, they had held their head up high and delivered high quality work right up until the end. We had them imagine how it would feel to be able to tell that story. In short, through the power of imagination, we had helped people gain control of a potentially traumatic event and helped them cope. Somewhat surprisingly, in a staff satisfaction survey that followed, the group that was at risk of redundancy scored more favourably than those whose jobs were more secure. Whilst resilience tends to be spoken of in terms of stress management and managing pressure, a simple and useful way is to think of resilience as the ability to think differently. And for this, you need imagination.

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