How To Unlock Resilience: If At First You Don’t Succeed … Do A 180!
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How To Unlock Resilience: If At First You Don’t Succeed … Do A 180!

In our last blog, we discussed the importance of resilience, specifically how crucial it is in demonstrating our ability to “perform” well when things aren’t going so great.

The true mark of a resilient person is in how they show up to every situation.

Resilient people …

  • Are positive
  • See challenges rather than problems
  • Commit to finding a solution
  • Focus on what they can control
  • Are empathetic

The importance of empathy in being resilient

“Empathy” is becoming a bit of a buzzword in the business world, which is no bad thing. But rather than focusing on the empathy we extend to others, what about the empathy we hold for ourselves?

Resilient people don’t blame themselves or others for problems because blame is not a productive use of energy. When it comes to resilience, showing ourselves empathy is hugely important.

When things go wrong, we can become overwhelmed by emotional and physical reactions – we might feel angry, offended, or nauseous, or we might have a headache. If we perceive these reactions negatively and “beat ourselves up”, they’re only going to get worse, undermining our ability to be resilient.

If you relate to these symptoms, you’re not alone. In fact, our fantastic guest presenter for our Unlocking Resilience webinar, the wonderful Lisa Quinn*, shared some of her reactions to stress, including an uncomfortable tight jaw, which is more common than not!

We cannot emphasise enough that emotional and physical reactions to stress are not gender specific. Some studies have shown that almost 95 per cent of our reactions as a species are based on emotion, which rids us of the outdated notion that one gender is more emotional than the other.

The amygdala hijack

In fact, emotional responses to stressors go way beyond the concept of gender and originate deep within the human psyche. In his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, psychologist Daniel Goleman** uses the term “amygdala hijacking” to explain an immediate and intense emotional reaction to a situation.

The amygdala is referred to as the “emotional brain”, an ancient structure in our brains that is designed to respond quickly to threats and keep us safe. The amygdala activates a release of hormones that prepare us to take “action”.

Whilst this is an important and evolutionarily advantageous part of our brains, the world is very different today than it was hundreds of thousands of years ago, and we aren’t faced with the same threats. In today’s society, responding instinctively without rational thought can do more harm than good.

The four responses to perceived threats

In our Unlocking Resilience session, we talk about four responses when we’re faced with a perceived threat.

-1- Fight

People who respond in this way when faced with a stressful situation fight back in some way. At one time in history, this would have meant a physical reaction, but we can hope that nowadays this isn’t the case – the office is not an appropriate place for a fistfight! Today, this could mean arguing, responding with anger, or pointing the finger.

-2- Flight

In some scenarios, a flight response can literally mean turning and running from the trigger. When we’re talking about a flight response in the context of professional environments, this is likely to look like changing the subject, trying to distract in some way, or going off topic.

-3- Freeze

Our ancestors out in the wild might have done well to freeze when a predator was walking by, but in an office it might not garner such a positive response if we were to physically stand stock-still when faced with a situation we found threatening.

In this context, having a freeze response might mean we unconsciously freeze our emotions and go into logical mode, which is very cool and focused on systems and procedures with no room for discussion or warmth. This sends a very clear signal: we want that person to go away.

-4- Appease

If we go into “appease mode” when we feel threatened, we want to avoid confrontation. We don’t want to face a negative reaction from the other person. By agreeing and saying yes – even when we don’t mean it – we can “buy some time”.

In our Unlocking Resilience session, we shared these four responses with over 700 attendees and asked which mode each person went into when faced with stressful situations. The results were astonishing to see: 51 per cent of respondents said they were likely to freeze when faced with a perceived threat, and 26 per cent said they would go into appease mode. Despite proving the most popular by far in our survey of over 700 women, these latter two responses are rarely discussed.

Do these six negative emotions control your life?

When things go wrong – as they often do in life! – there are six negative emotions that we commonly feel:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Hurt

Whilst these emotions are an important part of processing events that happen to us, they shouldn’t control us. If we’re finding that we feel at the mercy of these emotions, there’s a very simple technique we can apply, which we explored in our Unlocking Resilience session.

It’s called “doing a 180”. We take the uncomfortable emotion and examine it: we realise that emotion is just data. It is not a direction of action. One of our fabulous session attendees summed it up brilliantly:

“You are not the feeling. You have the feeling.”

This is an incredibly important distinction to make, and switching our perspective like this can make a drastic difference to the way we approach difficult situations and emotions. In other words, the emotion is not what you are, it’s what you have.

The very act of taking a negative emotion and having the courage and the resilience to turn it around and make it positive takes a lot of guts, and it’s this attitude that shows people you are trustworthy, reliable, and successful.

How can we frame these emotions positively?

Negative emotions hold a lot of power. Research*** shows that we use – and learn from – negative stimuli far more than positive stimuli. This is known as the negativity bias, and is rooted in our evolutionary development. In order to ensure survival, our ancestors needed to be acutely aware of all perceived threats in the environment and to be able to respond to them.

In the modern world, we still hold this negativity bias in our propensity to dedicate more thinking and processing time to negative information. This is a basic principle of psychology that is also seen in animals, and comes down to the fact that we process positive and negative information in different hemispheres of our brain.

Using the 180 approach and reframing negative emotions for positive gain is the best way to avoid spiralling into a lack of empathy and a lack of productivity. For example, getting something wrong can lead to greater accuracy in future – we learn from our mistakes and apply that learning to our advantage.

A beautiful example of resilience

In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Sifan Hassan was off to a good start in the last lap of the women’s 1500 metres. With less than a third of the way to go, disaster struck – Sifan tripped over another athlete who had fallen.

In categories like this, every second – every millisecond! – counts. Sifan knew at the moment she tripped, her chances of winning an Olympic treble had likely gone up in flames. In that instant, the odds were no longer in her favour.

Sifan could have given up. The likelihood of her crossing the finish line above third place was incredibly slim – so slim in fact that no one would have blamed her for not even bothering to try.

But Sifan, without hesitating, jumped up and switched it up a gear. She didn’t let the negative emotions she could have been feeling (anger, sadness, fear, shame, hurt) slow her down. Instead, she channelled her fall into something positive: she used it to spur her on and to fire her up.

Miraculously, Sifan managed to overtake all of her competitors and win the race!

This is a beautiful example of resilience and of someone picking themselves up in the face of looming defeat and taking positive energy from adversity.

Empathy is a resilient person’s super power

We can all take a lot of inspiration from Sifan and use this attitude not just on the track but in the office, too. If we are angry with a colleague, rather than snapping, passing the blame, or giving them the cold shoulder, it’s much more productive to find something positive we can focus on. Look for the bigger picture and get some action points: what can be done to improve this situation?

Applying this learning in our own lives doesn’t just improve the way we handle ourselves. It also means that we can help other people when we recognise a fight, flight, freeze or appease response.

If somebody reacts with unnecessary aggression to a conversation, we can begin to extend some empathy. Do they feel threatened in some way? Are they feeling one of the six negative emotions? How can we help them to process this in a more productive manner?

We might suggest that the conversation is put on pause, that all parties take a step back, and that we refocus our attention on the bigger picture. This helps to remove the pressure or stress the other person is feeling, and might just help them begin to turn their anger or fear into something more positive.

When we extend empathy to ourselves and to others, and we understand that our knee-jerk reactions come from the part of our brains designed to protect us, we prove our ability to handle things going wrong with positivity, productivity, and resilience. These are essential leadership skills and show that we are an asset to any business.

To find out more about how you can Elevate empathy, productivity, positivity and resilience in your team, join us over on LinkedIn and stay up to date with our exciting Unlocking webinars.


*Lisa Quinn

**Psychologist Daniel Goleman book

***Negative emotions research