‘You’ve got to know when to panic.’ I smiled the first time I heard a colleague use this expression. He was talking about how every situation calls for its own particular response. If we only have one modus operandi, one approach to space and pace, we could well miss some important moments. Some of these moments could turn out to be work or business critical. Others could turn out to be, quite literally, life and death. I had one of these latter moments in a hospital last week.
I had a CT scan which involved being injected with a radioactive dye. Unfortunately, it triggered an anaphylactic reaction. The doctors responded quite casually at first, smiling and strolling around, chatting, until they realised I was quite literally about to lose my ability to breathe. My airways were swelling up rapidly and someone had removed critical drugs from the emergency crash kit. Only a nurse reacted in appropriate panic mode, ran to find drugs…and saved my life.
I have been in other situations where people, teams and organisations have acted in almost permanent crisis mode. It’s as if they have run on adrenaline, construing every situation as one that demands a dramatic reaction. Although some people love and work well with this type and level of stimulus, for others it can lead to high levels of stress and burnout. So it’s often something about finding a sustainable pace, reserving capacity for an emergency response if needed.
What does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? How far do we and/or our clients settle into a fixed pace that suits us personally or culturally, irrespective of what may be called for or bring benefit? If so, how would it be if we were to experiment with alternative patterns? For some, this could involve slowing down to reflect or recover. For others, it could mean speeding up to increase energy or impact. Do you create enough space? Do you know when to panic?
‘We need to talk.’ 4 short words that can send a chill running down the spine. Perhaps it taps into being caught out as a child. That look from a parent or teacher when we know we’re in trouble. My wife called me into a room. ‘I want a divorce.’ 4 short, sharp words that created that same cold shiver. The room starts to spin, pulse races, breathing feels difficult. Fight, flight, freeze. Shock.
I want to run but my feet feel glued to the ground. It’s like I can’t move. Words clutter my brain and I speak but it all comes out clumsily, awkwardly, wrong. I feel angry and sad and understanding and confused. My wife’s face is telling its own story but I can’t read it. She looks absolutely the same and yet completely different. This is the woman I’ve known for 25 years. Scared – intimate strangers.
Life change really can feel like this, especially unexpected, out-of-the-blue change. It can send us reeling, a psychological, emotional and physical jolt. Debilitating and disorientating, dizzying in its effects. It draws deep spiritual and existential questions into sharp focus. ‘Why is this happening to me?’, ‘How could we have got here?’ It feels like grasping at mist, straining to take hold of God.
Perhaps you’re a leader, leading people through organisational change. Perhaps you’re a coach, therapist or trainer, working with people through transition. Here are 4 words of advice in such situations: Empathy: give people cathartic space to feel; Listen: create opportunities for people to talk; Patience: allow time for people to process what they're going through; Speak: 4 words – ‘I am with you.’
‘Why are you talking with her? She’s a prostitute.’ The disdain in his voice was palpable. The young woman had approached me as I sat at the roadside. Walking in the Thai heat and humidity had left me sapped of energy so I was relieved to sip on a cool drink and rest for a while. She had smiled at first and started polite conversation. Was I here on holiday? Was I here alone? Then she moved closer and moved on: Would I like some company? Would I like to take her to my hotel room?
I responded kindly – and firmly. I was happy to talk, I was happy to buy her a cold drink too, but I would not take her to my hotel room. Period. She persisted for a while but then gave up. ‘OK, a cool drink would be nice.’ To my surprise, she stayed and talked for the next 3 hours. She told me about her life, her children, why she was doing this, how she handles what she does physically, mentally and emotionally, what her hopes and fears were for the future. I have rarely felt so humbled.
The thing that struck me most in this encounter was how it felt to meet this special person as a precious human being, a child of God, not as a prostitute. Even the word feels jarring, demeaning and dehumanising as if this label sums up everything someone is and is capable of. Before she left, this woman explained that she uses a pseudonym at work as a way of splitting off her true self from what she does. Then she told me...her real name. I felt honoured, clasped her hands and thanked her.
As professionals, how often do we and others apply labels (e.g. job titles, role stereotypes) – sometime values-laden, sometimes convenient – to ourselves and to others that simplify reality yet blind us to the broader richness and complexity of who we and who other people and teams are and could be? If we were to peel back the labels to reveal the astonishing human beings that lay hidden behind them, what potential could be released in us, other people, teams and organisations?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.