Resilience in the moment

“A good half of the art of living is resilience.” ~ Alain de Botton.

As companies embark on another tough year ahead in 2013, and a climate of ongoing uncertainty, they are increasingly placing ‘resilience’ as one of the most important qualities they are looking for in their people. But, how do you recognise resilience in people, and how do you help people develop it further?

GlaxoSmithKline have defined ‘resilience’ as: “the ability to succeed personally and professionally in the midst of a high pressured, fast moving and continuously changing environment”.  

Traditional views are reflected in the language often used to describe resilient behaviour:

  • “Bouncing back after being knocked down”
  • “Taking the blows and coming back for more”
  • “Living to fight another day”


These expressions are adversarial and have their roots in war-like and conflict-driven situations. It is arguable that a mind-set of resilience, steeped in this language, is likely to generate more friction than collaboration.

  • What would it feel like to be resilient ‘in the moment’?  Not walk away to ‘re-group’ and then come back re-charged and ready for the fight.  Not retreat in order to re-think your strategy and make sure you win the argument the next time.  
  • But instead, there and then, you were to demonstrate emotional resilience, to really hear what was being said?
  • What if you could ‘flip’ the situation, get behind what was being said, and assess the dynamics objectively and not react?
  • What if you could show genuine curiosity in what’s happening, to hang around long enough to ask questions, to listen deeply, and to hear people out?
  • What might happen once they have been heard?  What different level of engagement might then be possible?

All of this relies on us being able to quieten the emotional part of our brain so as not to react, but process the information in such a way that you are able to receive it, assess it and respond in a way that is constructive?  How is this possible?  Aren’t we built for flight or fight? Isn’t it natural to react to charged situations?  It is after all part of our defence and survival make up.

This is true, but with concentrated practice, it is possible to teach ourselves more productive behaviours. Our emotional centres of the brain don’t recognise the difference between a truly threatening situation (one on which our survival depends) and one that may merely be irritating or inconvenient, resulting in emotional reactions that are usually inappropriate to the severity of the situation.  We do not need to be slaves to our emotions, but rather we can use them to our advantage, alerting us to dangers, using our instincts well, but always ensuring that we are in control of them.



David Rock, in his seminal paper on the brain-based SCARF model explains that  “(Firstly) When feeling threatened by one’s boss, it is harder to find smart answers because of diminished cognitive resources. Secondly, when threatened, the increased overall activation in the brain inhibits people from perceiving the more subtle signals required for solving problems. Thirdly, with the amygdala activated, the tendency is to generalize more, which increases the likelihood of accidental connections. There is a tendency to err on the safe side, shrinking from opportunities, as they are perceived to be more dangerous. People become more likely to react defensively to stimuli, small stressors become more likely to be perceived as large stressors (Phelps, 2006). When the boss appears threatening (e.g. perhaps they just do not smile that day), suddenly a whole meeting can appear threatening and the tendency can be to avoid taking risks.”

There are a number of ways that greater self-awareness of emotional resilience can be surfaced, such as focusing on emotional intelligence, visualisation and mindfulness techniques.  These, and other methods, are often explored during a coaching engagement, allowing emotional resilience ‘in the moment’ to be developed and strengthened.

Adopting different language  Finding ways to flip statements during emotive engagements is a great way to turn people’s thinking from negative to positive. For example:

  • “What do we need more of right now”?  as opposed to “what have we not got”?
  • “What is possible from this situation”?  rather than focusing on where things are bogged down.
  • “Who’s perspective are we missing right now”?  has the effect of taking people out of their own mind and seeing things from other people’s perspectives.
  • “How can I help”? or “What can I do right now that would improve things”?   This type of offer is hard to resist, and it is extremely difficult for people to remain adversarial when offered help. What they ask may be impossible at that moment, but it can open up another line of discussion, that starts to move things forward. For example, follow on questions might be “And, in what way would that help?”, or “What would that give you if I was able to achieve that?”

Imagery or visualisation   Visualisation techniques are well-established methods for helping people to manage their emotions in stressful situations (e.g. to help overcome public speaking). They may also be effective in helping to see another person in a different guise. A colleague of mine revealed a ‘secret method’ they had adopted to deal with their ferocious boss. She conjured up a vivid (and slightly ridiculous) image of him in his pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers, sitting at home, drinking cocoa, watching a funny TV programme, laughing, and tickling his dog. This image (albeit imaginary) was sufficiently powerful to allow her to see the boss in a totally different light. It was an image that brought a smile to her face when she thought of it, and it helped her, in her own words, “not take the boss too seriously”.

Stay future focused   In the many documented cases of people who have endured and overcome serious hardship (e.g. concentration camp survivors, survivors at sea etc.), they have one thing in common. They all stayed focused on the future, and dreamt and planned about how things would be better one day. They created plans and details in their heads that allowed them to ‘live outside’ of the nightmare they found themselves in. This learning can be put to great use in everyday situations too, helping build the emotional and mental resilience required to thrive amidst the hurly-burly of modern life.  The success of this approach has a basis in neurobiology.  Peterson et al. (2008) have reported evidence of a neurobiological basis for resilient behaviour in leaders: “Resilient individuals are characterised by a staunch view of reality. They are very logical in their interpretations of setbacks—what is in their control, out of their control, and options for taking action. Finally, this brain activity leads to the development of “realistic” optimism as well as the motivational processes involved for pursing the courses of action related to confidence and the strategies devised for overcoming life’s obstacles.”

If you would like to explore the development of emotional resilience, whether individually or with your team leaders and teams, do please get in touch. Simply enter your details on to the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss options further with you. 

5 thoughts on “Resilience in the moment

  1. Some good thoughts Louis – Developing self awareness is key to so many areas of our life. Understanding that we have a fight flight response is valuable insight so that we can recognise it when it happens. I would add that self development work is both tough and rewarding – and well worth the effort. Thank you and wishing you a Happy New Year.

  2. Hi Louis ~ excellent final article of the year … and one on a subject close to my heart! Resilience is a crucial component in meeting an unrelenting level of uncertainty … and that is what we all still face as we move into 2013!

    I’ve really enjoyed the articles this year and thank you for them and the mentions!

    I wish you a very Happy, Healthy and Successful New Year!

    Kind regards


  3. Sometimes events occur that are beyond our reasonable control. For example, an act of God, war, fire, riot, terrorism, or an earthquake could force us to violate these Terms. A federal, state or local governmental could require us to violate our Terms. We might not comply with these Terms because of those events. This will not mean that we breached these Terms.

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