Mellow Yellow: Staying Calm During A Crisis

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Yellow Umbrella amidst a sea of black umbrellas

How to promote trust, empathy, and composure during difficult times

By Stephanie Weyrauch, PT, DPT

As a parent of a toddler, I now appreciate phrases like “pick your battles” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” When a crisis hits, our first instinct is to react, which can lead to poor decision making, employee dissatisfaction, and frustration. Devon Kuntzman1 is an International Coaching Federation Certified Coach and founder of Transforming Toddlerhood. Chris Voss2 is an author and former FBI hostage negotiator. While Kuntzman and Voss are in very different professions, they approach crisis management surprisingly similarly. These are the questions they recommend leaders ask when faced with a crisis1,2:

Question 1

WHAT CAN I DO TO CREATE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT?

Human brains are wired to ensure survival. During a moment of stress, people are more likely to think with the primitive parts of the brain, like the amygdala and limbic system. This leads to rash decision-making. When leading people through a crisis, it is essential to create a safe environment for everyone so parties can access higher functioning brain structures like the frontal cortex that help with sound decision-making. Listening and validating others’ emotions creates enough trust and safety for people to have an open and honest conversation. This can lead to a deeper understanding about causal and secondary factors influencing the crisis.

Question 2

WHAT IS EVERYONE FEELING?

Leaders should acknowledge their feelings and needs as well as those around them. They can do this by practicing tactical empathy, which is the practice of understanding the feelings and mindset of another and hearing what motivations are behind those feelings. Voss suggests validating people’s emotions through labeling — which is the practice of giving emotions a name. Kuntzman emphasizes that labeling an emotion helps others feel heard and understood. Leaders can utilize phrases such as “It seems like…”, “It looks like…”, or “It sounds like…”; that way, if the label is “wrong” the person can provide a more accurate designation for their emotion. Additionally, labeling negative emotions diffuses them while labeling positive emotions reinforces them.

Question 3

WHAT CAN I DO TO REGULATE EMOTIONS?

Once leaders understand what they are feeling, they can take practical steps in self-regulating their response to those emotions. Self-regulation helps recruit neurons in higher areas of the brain, improving introspective resolve. One of the most effective forms of self-regulation is diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing or deep breathing). Diaphragmatic breathing helps to downregulate the body’s “fight or flight” response and upregulate the “rest and digest” parasympathetic response.

Another self-regulation method suggested by Kuntzman is to focus on the senses. Focusing on something you can touch, smell, see, or hear can help distract the nervous system and lead to a more mellow emotional status.

Additionally, Voss suggests use of “mirroring” to encourage empathy and connection with others. He defines mirroring as the art of insinuating similarity by repeating back the last three words or the critical one to three words of what people say. This encourages the other person to elaborate on their thought process and emotions while sustaining connection. It can help leaders understand others’ sensory needs and provide an opportunity to help with self-regulation.

Question 4

WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR THIS SITUATION?

This is the final question leaders should ask when trying to remain calm during a crisis. By the time we get to this question, a leader has already established a safe environment, analyzed their emotions and the feelings of relevant stakeholders. Now, leadership must establish a priority list to manage the crisis.

Both Voss and Kuntzman stress that not every crisis is an emergency and not every situation requires an immediate response. Therefore, when making decisions about crisis response, it is essential for leadership to master saying “no” instead of giving into an immediate “yes.” “No” creates a path for all parties to clarify what each side really wants by eliminating options leadership may perceive as knee-jerk reactions. According to Voss, people have a desire to say no and getting other stakeholders to say it early allows all parties to work towards an amiable solution to the crisis.

To help reach a consensus, leaders should ask solution-based questions like:

  • “What about this doesn’t work for you?”
  • “What would you need to make it work?”
  • “It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”

Solution-based questions encourage honest conversation, protects others from making ineffective decisions, slows down the decision-making process, and promotes emotional safety for all stakeholders.

CONCLUSION

Since adapting these strategies into my personal and professional life, I have noticed that my thought process is clearer, my resolve is more confident, and my ability to understand others is enriched. People experience large and small crises every day; it is the job of leadership to help others navigate through those difficult times. Crisis management requires leaders to be proactive, alert, and calm. By asking these questions, leaders can promote trust, empathy, and composure in order to prioritize solutions to the crisis at hand.

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References:

1Kuntzman D. “How to Stop Yourself from Yelling at Your Child.” Transforming Toddlerhood. August 26, 2022. https://www.instagram.com/reel/ChuwJL1Aaio/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

2Voss C, Raz T. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depended on it. United States: HarperCollins Press. 2016.


Stephanie Weyrauch, PT, DPT

Stephanie Weyrauch, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers in Orange, CT. She is a member of the APTA Nominating Committee and can be reached at sweyrauchpt@gmail.com and on Twitter @thesteph21.

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