Playing Well when we don't know (2)

November 11, 2008

When the future is unclear…”Panic!” That’s often the frantic advice from the little voices in my head during turbulent times.  They like to add, “Get moving! Make lists! DO SOMETHING NOW!” My little internal worrywarts start looking for ways to exert control over my environment.  If that doesn’t work, they suggest running or zoning out. However, these quick reactions to uncertainty are not our usually our best responses. 

2. Watching our actions

I am not immune to the vagaries of the stock market or heightened global concerns. If you asked me how I was, I would say, “I’m fine,” but my actions remind me that I am bothered.  

A leading indicator of my discomfort with chaos is nagging my children to clean their rooms. Not the best solution to the current economic crisis I know, but a sign that I am yearning for stability.  A murky future places us in a state of alertness; what might come around the next corner? Fight/flight/freeze kicks in. My “fight” response is “I’ll create order if it kills me.” However, piles of clothes by the washer and frustrated family members are about all I get from that exercise.

 “Flight” in my case appears as sneaking in episodes of The Gilmore Girls with my daughter to escape into a gentler alternate reality. That she and I ripped through an entire season in the past week provides another clue to an offset in my internal equilibrium.  And, of course, there is the “freeze” response, which looks like periodic listless meandering around the house. Hmmm, is that why I haven’t gotten this blog entry completed?

To avoid current realities, friends and clients admit that one glass of wine at dinner has been morphing into two and that tracking election outcomes had become a constant obsession. Reading every major newspaper, predicting who will have to declare bankruptcy or organizing closets have been anted up as other favorite coping techniques. What are your tell-tale survival strategies?

We are adaptive creatures and thus find ways to keep going when times are tough. We often don’t realize how bad things have been until they let up.  My sister has been traveling in and out of the country over the past three years. When thousands across the US wept Tuesday night on into Wednesday after the election was complete, she noted, “Coming and going I noticed how downtrodden Americans have become over the past five years. I think everyone’s crying comes from fatigue and possible relief.”  The widespread tears are perhaps another indicator of our current national state.

 Tracking our reactions can help to determine the best next action.  Am I exhibiting signs of worry or stress? Am I readying for a fight or to flee? If the answer is “yes” I want to prioritize regaining equilibrium and inner calm before engaging in any important conversations or making new commitments.

When the future is murky we get nervous.  As a general rule, foggy times demand keen attention and less action. We need to slow down and watch. Watch the landscape (where I am and what is working), look for orienting landmarks and keep an eye on ourselves. Like driving in the mist, speeding up (doing more) can get us quickly lost or in danger.  Instead of frantic actions to create control, ask “what would support me, regardless where we end up?” These times call us to wait and gather information wherever possible before making a decision. 

 Next week…cross-cultural strategies for mitigating stress. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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