When all around you is going to sh*t – the key to building resilience

Having taken on the management of a (much larger than first intended) garden landscaping project last year (ruining the garden just in time for summer in the process!) I had several ‘opportunities’ to focus on the key learning from our own developing resilience workshop. We’ve been developing the workshop over the last couple of years and, whilst resilience takes a lot of time and effort to develop, there are some core lessons that will help develop your levels of resilience.

The learning in brief:

  1. manage negative emotions as they arise
  2. define the problem you need to solve and focus on the positive opportunities
  3. generate options and define a plan to begin tackling the problem


The power of emotions

You might work with someone where you can always tell when they’re under pressure/anxious/having a bad day – the ‘mood hoovers’. Think of the last time you were under pressure/anxious/having a bad day. It probably affected how you behaved towards other people. This is the impact of emotions on behaviour.

Brain research shows that a lot of our perception of events and interactions with others passes through the parts of the brain that control emotions (the limbic system). The bad news is that this processing is pretty automatic, which means the way we react is also pretty automatic. The good news is that we can interrupt, or at least manage, the response though. If we choose to….

1.    Label your emotional response

Whether you are experiencing a setback, conflict with someone or are under extreme time pressure, resilient people are able to understand how they are feeling in the moment. It’s OK to feel angry, stressed, frustrated and it’s OK to have a rant, but you can’t manage it unless you recognise it.

2.    Take steps to manage your emotional response

In extremes this can be fight or flight, or simply mild irritation. The solution is quite simple. Breathe. Take time out, close your eyes for a few seconds, go for a walk if necessary. If you’re highly emotional you can’t progress to the next step. Taking time out won’t overcome the cause of the pressure you’re feeling, but it will allow you to tackle the cause more effectively.

3.    Think through why you are responding in the way you are

Most of us wind ourselves up – we worry, get frustrated or ‘catastrophise’ – and it is this that clouds our thinking. The inner dialogue that goes on inside our head often makes our emotions intensify meaning we stay in primitive brain mode rather than rational brain mode.

Once you have managed your initial emotional response the next step is to begin working through why it is you are feeling the way you are. Is it because you believe it’s personal? Is it because you believe the other person is not competent? Is it because you believe they are being unfair? Is it because you believe this always happens to you? etc.

Notice that each of these statements is grounded in belief. Beliefs have a massive impact on the way we think, feel and act. If you can identify your underlying beliefs you can then ask yourself an important question – how helpful is that belief to you? Some beliefs are useful, but many aren’t. If you are holding an unhelpful belief (your boss is an idiot) it is probably making only one person feel worse about the situation – you! Once you have identified whether the belief is helpful or not you can progress to the next stage which is to challenge that belief with a view to substituting it for a more positive belief (your boss lacks your experience so you are important to the success of the team).

An example, your boss delegates something to you when you are already incredibly busy and he needs it now. Stress. Person A winds themselves up, starts muttering that this is just typical of their unreasonable boss (belief), feels angry, resentful (emotions) productivity goes down, concentration broken, CV refreshed (behaviour). Person B feels stressed (emotion), takes a few, empathises that their boss must be under pressure too to ask them to do this work for them (belief), re-prioritises their work and shifts focus to the new task (behaviour).

Rational problem solving

Lots of research shows that people who are more optimistic than pessimistic tend to be more resilient. Optimism is more than just looking on the bright side though, it isn’t a blind belief that ‘things will be ok’, rather it is a belief that things can be ok. Optimistic people tend to view the world differently to those of us who are more pessimistic. They perceive events as being temporary, not personal and only tied to specific events. If you find yourself saying “typical, nothing ever works out for me…” you’re probably not particularly optimistic.

It can be useful sometimes to adopt a stance of “oh well it could be worse” as a way to calm the emotions, but a more pragmatic view of optimism is to begin focussing on the positive opportunities presented by the problem and ways to solve the problem. Reframing the situation as a problem to be solved, a challenge to overcome, is a powerful way to shift focus from ‘the disaster’ to the future.

The trick is to manage emotions and then reflect on the problem with two key questions:

  • What problem do we need to solve?
  • What are the options?


For example, “the bricky hasn’t turned up – again! Now what? What are we going to do with the two labourers who were going to shift bricks and mix the mortar? Well we could use the time to start laying the patio? The labourers could still achieve something by mixing the mortar and laying the patio slabs…”.

The impact of control 

Feeling as though we are losing, or have lost, control is an important stress generator. A good example is when we experience a high workload with lots of competing demands – we can easily feel overwhelmed and it is this what triggers our stress response. Some of us crave control and certainty, we are pretty much hardwired to get stressed when things are uncertain, ambiguous and we start to worry about “yes, but what if…?”.

Stephen Covey proposed the concept of ‘Circles of Influence’. In simple terms there are some things we have direct control over, some we have an influence over and some we have no control over whatsoever. Clearly, if we can focus on the things we have control over, or at least a fair degree of influence, this will help form the basis of an action plan to solve the problem. If we focus on the stuff we can’t control it will undoubtedly cause anxiety, worry and stress leading us to keep going round the emotional hamster wheel of stress.

The most effective way to regain a sense of control and focus is to adopt the rational problem solving approach, but conclude it with a clear action plan that is in our control.

The power of achievement

One of the things that most people find motivating is a sense that we are making progress. Simply feeling that we are moving forward, no matter how small the steps, is enough to motivate us to keep going (search on ‘The Power of Small Wins’ and ‘The Progress Principle’ for more detail). It provides a sense of purpose and a sense of control. People with a high level of resilience not only define what those steps should look like (rational problem solving and action planning), they also spend time reflecting on what they have achieved. This becomes self-reinforcing – the more time we spend reflecting on success, the more easily we are able to put plans in place that will lead to success.

In summary

So, the next time something goes wrong, someone upsets you, or you simply just feel stressed:

  1. Take a moment. Breathe. Regain composure.
  2. Consider what would be the most useful response in the situation. Reframe things as positively as you can.
  3. Treat the issue as a problem to solve.
  4. Come up with some options that are in your control.
  5. Define specific next steps.
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