When was the last time you hit send on a curt email and then instantly regretted it? Or perhaps you retreated from a difficult conversation, spending hours fuming internally instead of proactively addressing the situation?
If you’ve had either one of these experiences, you’re scarcely alone. In the face of relentlessly rising demand and always-on connectivity, we hear similar stories from clients across all levels and industries.
At one recent session we did with the senior leaders of a Fortune 500 company, we began by asking, “What’s the biggest personal barrier you face in leading more effectively?” The first person to answer summed it up simply: “Being too reactive.”
Constantly connected, juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, and working across time zones with multiple stakeholders, each of us regularly experiences threats to our value. The consequence is that many of us spend our days moving in and out of what we call “Survival Mode” – battling reactive feelings of frustration, irritability, anxiety, and overwhelm that inhibit our performance and our sense of well-being. Left unaddressed, these feelings eventually land us in burnout – the worst place of all from which to perform.
What can you do to avoid reacting impulsively and angrily, or disappearing into your shell, when you feel triggered or overwhelmed? The answer is remarkably simple: take better, more deliberate care of yourself.
Building a resilience plan
Just as it pays to build a development plan, it’s important to create a clear way to combat both reactivity and burnout. In our work, we advise clients to do so by building a three-part “resilience plan.”
1. Refuel: Filling your reservoir
Purpose: Build physical, emotional and mental reserves that you can draw on under especially stressful circumstances.
More than ever, it is critical that we pay attention to the fuel in our tank. What most reliably makes you feel better? It could be quieting your mind through breathing or meditating. Perhaps it’s working out, walking in nature, or simply checking in with your spouse, or a trusted friend. Or maybe it’s listening to, or playing, music.
Ritualizing renewal behaviors is critical to sustaining them. That requires putting them in your calendar, at a regular time, with a back-up time in case something gets in your way
Practice: Make a list of ways to regularly refuel your tank and schedule them in your calendar.
2. Reset: Your emergency response toolkit
Purpose: Calm your body to avoid reacting in ways that you’ll regret.
Here’s the “Golden Rule of Triggers": Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.
If you are triggered and your first instinct is to lash out, hold your fire. If it’s to retreat and disappear, stay engaged. Either way, it’s critical to quiet your physiology, so you can think more clearly and spaciously, and make deliberate choices about how you want to respond.
Practice: Start by taking a deep breath – in to a count of three, out to a count of six. Then, feel your feet, to ground you in the present moment.
Next, check in with yourself. Are you still feeling activated and upset? If the answer is yes, look for the next opportunity to do one of the renewal activities you’ve already identified as a regular practice.
Which one will give you the most instant and reliable sense of calm? Do that.
3. Reframe: Seeing through a new lens
Purpose: Release the hold that difficult people and circumstances exert on you.
There are times when simply calming your body isn’t enough because the survival emotions keep rearising, often accompanied by a voice in your head.
Sometimes this voice is your “inner lawyer,” who defends and rationalizes your worst behaviors. Other times it may be your inner critic, which finds fault with whatever you’ve done. Under pressure, we often move back and forth between the two, blaming ourselves and blaming others, neither of which is healthy or constructive.
Practice: Compare the facts to the stories you tell about them
Find time to quietly reflect on and reframe what’s happened. Ask yourself “What are the facts in this situation? What’s undeniably true?”
Next, ask yourself “What’s the story I’ve told about those facts?”
Finally, “What is the most realistically hopeful story I can tell about this situation, without subverting the facts?”
Human beings are meaning-making creatures, and we often tell stories so quickly that we mistake them for facts. Catching ourselves before our stories take on a life of their own can save us and others unnecessary misery.
Practice builds resilience
Last week, we heard from the leader who cited reactivity as the biggest barrier to his effectiveness. He had implemented his resilience plan over the previous several weeks, and this was his experience:
I received a note today from a direct report that triggered me. Normally, I would have reacted immediately and then regretted it. Instead, I took a deep breath and waited until mid-morning to respond. By the time I did address the situation, I was able to calmly explain the reasons why I wanted to take a different direction. Just being conscious and deliberate was a game-changer.”
Take a few moments today to define the three components of your personal resilience plan and put it to action. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. As Will Durant put it, “We are what we repeatedly do.”