THE STRENGTH INSIDE

In the latest of our articles on resilience, Susan Blum offers an opportunity to support clients to (re-)set an inner dial, developing resilience in times of crisis – and making it stick

Last year (2020) brought huge requirements across the globe for individual inner strength and resilience. Whether living alone or with others, in the developing world or first world, fleeing persecution or being settled, shielding from Covid-19 or ‘merely’ protecting against it, a greater dependency on our inner selves manifested itself at home, at work, at play, echoing other crises that face us.

This article offers a route to help ourselves, our clients and other individuals in our communities fill our individual ‘tanks’ of strength in times of crisis and to refuel in any circumstances. I will explore below the need for adaptive systems, then present the 5 ‘A’s and Re-‘A’s model and its underpinnings and conclude with an action checklist.

The need for adaptive systems

In the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (Darwin, 1869), Charles Darwin introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” to mean “better designed for an immediate local environment”.

To survive, we need to adapt to our surrounding eco-systems at a macro and micro level. If we can change we can accommodate the challenges facing us. This is as true in business and science as it is psychotherapeutically.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis that has brought us into an awareness of humankind as a global village of inhabitants all needing to adapt to the same challenge. This article is written with that in mind and seeks to bridge national cultural differences in behaviours and norms. Some differences across cultural manifestations of the approaches suggested in response to this article may emerge. But the basic premise behind what’s offered below is that we human beings have emerged from the animal kingdom, no matter in which continent, and that we have similar needs to survive.

My 5 ‘A’s model

To meet the challenge of crisis – individual, familial, global or organisational – we’re thrown into an uncomfortable place. We need to respond appropriately, thinking about short-term as well as the long-term requirements and implications. We often need to act fast. Our personality preferences may mean we require differing amounts of encouragement, engagement, reflection and planning time, degrees to which we research options available, inclusion, affection, control. Our own requirements may be diagonally opposed to those closest to us, causing friction, discomfort and even more need for inner strength.

My model of the 5 ‘A’s was designed as a framework to help us think about how to build inner strength through resilience. This does not imply that any individual coping mechanism used to date is wrong, nor any criticism of alternate responses to change. Rather, the 5 ‘A’s represent a focused approach through which to work out how best to respond to a crisis that has emerged, in a way that is practical and individually appropriate.

The 5 ‘As’ are most usefully addressed in a linear, iterative fashion. However, they can also help if followed in different orders.

  1. Acknowledge:
  • The reality of the situation facing you: It’s not a mirage; it’s reality
  • Your feelings: They’re real, too; they’re deep; they need to be listened to
  • Any echoes of past experiences: You may have felt out of control; this could impact how you might respond now if not acknowledged now
  1. Accept:
  • That change is needed: It may be uncomfortable; it may get in the way of plans and hopes; it may feel frightening
  • That the challenges facing you aren’t in your control; your response to them is
  1. Acclimatise:
  • To the impacts of the challenge(s) on your way of life: Your feelings; your interactions with others; your approach to what you need to address and ride out the challenge(s) facing you; the priorities you need to implement, from basic needs of food and shelter to emotional needs
  1. Align:
  • Your needs and thoughts with the reality of the situation: Can you do what you want to do or do you need to adjust your thoughts? Can you remove any blocks to new behaviours, activities or approaches which might get in the way?
  1. Act:
  • Put into action what’s in your gift to do: What you have control over; what you can influence; what gives you energy; what supports you
  • Create an environment at home or work or in society in which you can be productive

What lies behind the 5 ‘A’s?

Wikipedia defines psychological resilience as ‘the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis’ and states that it is seen to exist ‘when the person uses mental processes and behaviours (to protect the) self from the potential negative effects of stressors’.

Key to the usage of the 5 ‘A’s as a route to building resilience and inner strength in times of crisis is an awareness that previous ways of behaving and reacting in ‘normal’ times may need to be unlearnt and/or adapted. The sunlight emerging from this is a liberation or freedom from conditioning to the known. The cloud that could overshadow it is having the courage to change. The 5 ‘A’s are a scaffold on which to hang that courage, step by step, in order to address the particular challenge or challenges which have created a crisis and through which to create a new ‘normal’ for the duration of the crisis.

Beyond an individual crisis, however, are ongoing challenges in life that can prompt a need for adaptability. Like drawing or learning a musical instrument, the more practice there is in adapting, the less scary this becomes and the more skilled someone can become at developing resilience. So behind the steps of the 5 ‘A’s is an ongoing framework – another scaffold – against which to continually refresh and refine approaches to change, including when there’s a long-term crisis lasting more than a few months, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

I call these the 5 ‘Re-A’s’.

  1. Re-Acknowledge:
  • The challenges that are reality
  • Your reaction to the challenge: Your feelings, worries, past successes in resilience-building
  1. Re-Accept:
  • The shift in mindset needed to meet the challenge(s)
  • That the activities you will need to undertake are in your control: This includes overcoming any blocks to meeting past challenges that need addressing
  1. Re-Acclimatise:
  • To the reality and on-going changes you need to make to the way you live, including: your feelings; your interactions with others; your approach to what you need to address; the priorities you need to implement, from basic needs of food and shelter to emotional needs
  1. Re-Align:
  • How you’ve adapted to past challenges and what you’ve recognised you need to keep or change or adapt to the current challenge or on-going, long-term challenge
  1. Re-Act:
  • Put in place your action plan: New, amended or previous approaches

Moving forward with an action checklist

Table 1 offers ideas to consider when using the scaffold of the 5 ‘A’s and the 5 Re-‘A’s:

When using the 5 ‘A’s and Re-A’s scaffold as individuals it is important to bear in mind that we all have ‘hot buttons’, or issues that upset us, and which, if pressed, can cause us to be anxious, stressed, angry or sad.

In turn this can impact the effectiveness of collaborative actions or requirements in times of crisis and impact on our resilience and inner strength.

Additionally, when developing our own resilience and inner strength, others may be doing the same. As a result, it’s wise to factor in the need for psychological safety for ourselves and others when developing appropriate courses of action.

That may mean more time is needed as we recognise diverse approaches to life, individual cultural and sub-cultural norms, different personality needs, different perspectives on appropriate actions to take for the able-bodied and less able-bodied, those of different races and religious beliefs to our own. But it is time well spent and could save time overcoming inter-personal hurdles that need vaulting in the longer term.

Teams

It’s also worth remembering that giving to others is a known antidote to stress, so, in turn we’re therefore giving strength to ourselves. When planning how to build inner strength and resilience for ourselves, in family units and across teams, developing a capacity through which to forgive others who may not realise that they’ve caused stress along the way can be additionally helpful.

When a team needs to re-assess how it can function with greater adaptability in a crisis the 5 ‘A’s and ‘Re-‘A’s scaffold can also help identify which challenges need addressing whilst providing a common language for all team members.

Recognising – and acknowledging – individual team member differences and needs will be important. So, too, will be a refocused clarity of team purpose, roles, communication methods (both formal and informal, transactional (tasks) and relational (interpersonal support), structure (allowing space for work and adjusting deadlines where possible to accommodate new ways of working), as well as, for example, scenario planning for cashflows, funding options, sales flows and supply-chain requirements.

The approach to building inner strength and resilience in times of crisis posited in this article is reinforced by words – familiar to many – taken from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which seeks to be granted the serenity to ‘accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

To recap, understanding and knowing our individual needs and the needs of others is fundamental. Recognising the losses of familiar routines, physical connections and presence and the uncertainties that can be caused by a crisis highlight what is at stake without taking action.

Addressing uncertainties by taking control is not only practical – it’s enormously empowering, re-setting norms, expectations, predictability and a sense of safety, and can thereby lead to (re-) building inner strength and resilience.

 

  • Susan Blum has 35 years of working experience within the human rights field (UNHCR and The British Refugee Council), as a management consultant focusing on organisation behaviours, culture and change (Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM) and as an accredited executive and team coach, civil and workplace mediator as director of Susan M. Blum Ltd.

 

  • To discuss the subject of this paper or specific issues raised by it contact Susan at susan@smblumltd.com or on +44 07391 748182

Reference

  • C Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 5th Edn, London: John Murray, 1869

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