Tuesday Morning Focal Point

Strategies for Building Resilience

September 1, 2020

Often when I facilitate workshops on resilience and building resilience, attendees offer a definition of resilience as the “ability to bounce back.”  I don’t think this is a perfect definition, but let’s go with it, simply because it is a common response from workshop participants. Therefore, it must matter. Miriam Webster’s dictionary defines it as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”, which is quite similar to my workshop participants’ responses. However, the dictionary gives a second definition of “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress“. Its this second meaning that has significance at this time.

(This article is follow up to Acute Stress & Workplace Relationships)

Leaders and executives are finding their resilience muscle or their ability to recover weakening right now. You see, they have been working this muscle / skill a lot lately. They are pivoting service lines, making hard staffing level choices, revamping sick policies, trying marketing efforts never considered before, supporting teams who are laden with anxiety and worry, and at the end of the day returning home to engage in equally challenging issues among loved ones. This compressive stress (or acute stress) over the past 6 months has us tired.

This had me reflecting on the training I have done with first responders across Canada.  Over the last 6 years, I’ve had the privilege of training first responders across the country in mental toughness. The common threads in our training is that we always cover a handful of the most important coping strategies that help with building resilience.  One of the modules we teach is on what the Navy Seals call the “Big Four” coping strategies.Blog graphic - the big four (1)

Building resilience has a lot to do with what we do to prepare ourselves to respond to challenges; the actual response to the challenge is not as significant. Given the frustration the Navy Seals have dealt with over many years, with their low pass rate, they turned to brain science.  Turns out, notwithstanding many of the training exercises are physical in nature, physical strength for the Seals has little to do with success.  Rather, the Seals and brain researchers have noticed that mental toughness is what matters.  They have developed The Big Four.

Let’s review these Big Four coping strategies.  Keep in mind all of us have a range of coping strategies.  We all have some positive and some negative or unhealthy strategies.  We need to intentionally choose the right strategies to be more fully resilient.

Goal Setting for Building Resilience

We know from brain science research that goal setting actually helps us organize our brains.  Of course goals need to be SMART goals.  Setting unrealistic goals is not helpful.  When we are faced with challenges, heightened stress and pressures, stopping and setting goals is critical.  This reminds me of a dinner meeting one time in Toronto with an Interim CEO of a client company.  The CEO had suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly.  Around the same time one of the VP’s left for another organization.  The CFO was appointed to step in as Interim CEO for this company of over 14,000 employees across Canada.  At dinner the client and I focused on the importance of setting goals, as he simply was not going to be able to do everything. Rather than a cacophony of many many needs, we honed in the key goals for this time for him at the helm of the organization.

Self Talk for Building Resilience

Most people have no idea the rate at which we talk to ourselves.  Whether you are aware of your self talk or not, we talk to ourselves at a rate of 300 – 1000 words per minute.  What is relevant related to resilience and coping is increasing our awareness of our self-talk.  We can tune in, we just need to learn to.  Once we become aware of our self-talk, we can work to modify it as needed.  Some of our self-talk may be negative in nature.  Brain science teaches us that we can actually tune in and change and reframe our self-talk.

Visualization for Building Resilience

This is one of my favourite for sure.  I find this one particularly helpful. Many clients have found this helpful as well.  Visualization or mental rehearsal as some call it is all about thinking and imagining in advance, something that we are going to do.  This works well for a lot of people.  There are some people who seem to be unable to visualize, but that is a small number.  Also, people who have experienced serious trauma in their lives may be uncomfortable with visualization.  For the majority of people however, visualization works.  When we visualize doing something successfully, we actually lay down new neuro pathways in our brains that make us think we have done something before.  Then when we do it for real, our brain recalls the visualization.

Deep Breathing for Building Resilience

We have a problem as adults in the western world in that we don’t breathe properly.  We tend to breathe fast and shallow, limiting the amount of oxygen to the brain.  Some of you know the importance of deep breathing, especially if you participate in activities like yoga or meditation.  Deep breathing is a game changer.  It is a highly effective strategy when dealing with stress and pressure.  Deep breathing is about using the diaphragm to breathe from the belly.  When we slow down, take a series of deep breaths, hold and blow out slowly, we get far more oxygen to our brains.  This allows us quicker and more full access to the prefrontal cortex, which is what we need to do rational thought.  So, when you are in a potential panic situation, stop and breathe.

Cameron’s Call to Action

  1. Evaluate how you do in using each of these Big Four.  Yes, a Navy Seal training environment may be very different from your work or day to day environment.  However, this difference may not be as much as you assume.  Incidentally, once the Navy Seals implemented training in mental toughness for their recruits, their pass rates increased significantly.
  2. Choose one of the above big four to practice this week.  Thing of some of the challenges you are facing and where you can apply it.  Maybe it’s related to budget planning, a critical negotiation with a stakeholder, an important sales meeting or having to deal with a difficult employee or business partner.  Find one or more situation where you can practice one of the Big Four and see what differences it does make.

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Cameron is an Executive Coach and Consultant specializing in business growth and creating psychologically healthy workplaces.