Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Brooding, Bonding and a Blessing in Disguise

No-one in my family wanted me to go. But the Melbourne town I flew out of on Thursday was not the world we woke up to on Monday. Maybe it's because I'm an eldest child but duty and dependability are strong personal values. I was co-MC'ing the Gala Awards night at the annual Convention for Professional Speakers Australia with the divine Michael McQueen CSP and frankly, it never occurred to me to cancel if PSA didn't. At what was probably my last conference for weeks, if not months, a tribe of professional speakers came together this past four days in beautiful Adelaide to connect, share, support, affirm and learn. I spent days in the company of doyens of the speaking business all of whom practise what they preach and commit to lifelong learning. But the shadow of COVID-19 hung over us all and it was hard to escape it. While phones were respectfully silent, at various moments in breaks, in the bar and in the corridors, speakers saw their plans, their income, their sense of purpose being squashed with every text message and email. Some said in tight voices that several months of work had disappeared in an hour. A normally kinaesthetic crowd, of hugging, touchy feely, humanistic people coming together for our annual March family reunion, developed a PSA toe tapping shuffle (complete with sassy shimmy at the end). We mostly elbow tapped our way through the Awards night and our ritualistic hand-holding guard of honour for newly anointed Certified Speaking Professionals was replaced with a more sedate version the hysterical and irrepressible Jonathan Holloway rebadged the next day as the "Tunnel of Love".
But this is what I noticed.
On Day One we spent a lot of time and energy coming to terms with the enormity and unprecedented nature of the coronavirus crisis unfolding. Whereas we may previously have been in Denial about what this might mean, for us, our businesses, our families, the planet, we quickly came to the Eminem moment - "Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity" and man, we hit the ground hard. The Resistance phase which seemed in this group of resilient, confident, purposeful people to be almost fleeting manifested in sadness, perhaps some (private) despair, definitely anxiety but good, respectful and considerate behaviour did NOT fall away. But when I think about it, professional speaking, especially given our topics (like "Vulture Cultures" for example!) is not all rainbows and fairy tales, pats on the back, glowing testimonials and standing Os. To quote my favourite rapper poet again (same song, "Lose Yourself"), on the hardest days, with the toughest audiences or nightmare tech fails, it can feel more like "I been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage”. It's a reasonable hypothesis to say that a cohort of this type routinely stepping up on stage to do that thing which for many people is meant to be worse than death or flying is pretty good at 'state' management. Able to push through. Exhibiting the courage Mandela defined as feeling the fear and doing it anyway. But what was beautiful about that was that magically, we hit the next phase in the transition curve, that of Exploration. We wrote furiously, we action planned, brainstormed and synthesised in arm chairs and foyers, with IPad Pros and Apple pencils, by cartooning or mind maps hand-drawn with funky textas; in conversations, over a drink and finally on planes coming home to a different world to the one we left last Thursday. Reflection, planning and conversations quickly turned to how we might serve, support clients, demonstrate the change we need to see, beef up random acts of kindness, show empathy to the staff at our Convention hotel whose jobs just may have become tenuous as the equivalent of 3000 nights of bookings were cancelled in 24 hours. Now all that's left to do is to follow through with meaningful action that demonstrates our personal and collective duty to a fitting response. Each of us, one by one and where it makes sense, through collaboration. Naturally, the fourth phase of transition is Commitment.

I have penned this piece not (only) to celebrate my tribe of speaker buddies and humanitarians but to illustrate the four phases of transition and to provide the following tips on how we will get through these difficult weeks and months. My ponderings on the plane home are these:
  1. Denial is unhelpful and prolongs paralysis. We must recognise the times are unprecedented and tough but doggedly tell ourselves and others that this too shall pass.
  2. We must connect deeply with our "Why" (or work hard to find it) because higher purpose takes us from being ‘flooded’ and living in our fear to being able to problem solve, make sound decisions and be creative (which is critical right now) so we can find lateral solutions to problems we never had around previous "givens" or things we took entirely for granted until now.
  3. Acknowledge if you are prone to anxiety under normal circumstances or have just reason to be anxious now due to circumstances (I have elderly parents I am truly worried for) and give yourself permission to look after you. Meditation, positive self- talk, deep breathing, relaxing in your own garden or courtyard, mindfully closing eyes and listening for sounds, fragrances and communing with nature even if you don’t do circuits of the local park is vital.
  4. Stay active even if social distancing. As silly as it may sound, I have always done circuits of my house in exercise gear on really inclement days; jogging around the kitchen and family room, up corridors, up and down the stairs with YouTube music videos on the telly or air pods in my ears. You don't need a lot of space to do star jumps or Pilates on the bedroom floor. Barring a serious case of the flu, I don't plan to curtail daily exercise for anything. I know how important it is for me.
  5. If you're leading a team working remotely, give extra time and forethought to the overall intent, tone and key messages for the team. You need to land well in all comms and ensure your intent matches your impact. Modelling calm and care even if you're not quite feeling it will rub off on you too with that delicious mind/body loop that keeps running. Plan a structure for welfare check-ins. If you have video conferencing you can still do the daily quiz or pair up with a buddy to Face Time with on an evening walk. Clients are starting to compile and to commit to such ideas beautifully.
  6. Perceptions of loss of control fuels most overwhelm. Get some back. Much of the community panic is because we feel as if we cannot control what is happening around us; particularly with so many policies, rules, forced closures, grim press releases and company directives. The more we can make decisions, even small ones, then plan and execute, the more control we restore over overwhelm.
  7. Sliding doors moments should not pass us by without notice. It was not lost on us that had our conference been even a week later, it would not have proceeded. I am grateful for serendipity. Indeed I try, and sometimes it's blooming hard to find something to be grateful for, in most things that happen. Finding reasons to be grateful when life is hunky dory is easy. Finding reasons to be grateful in difficult times by reframing situations believably is another form of resilience.
  8. All of us will have things we have been meaning to get to (the important, not urgent or the really not that important but nice/helpful) and did not have the time until now. And some business owners are rightly very concerned about cash flow and being able to keep staff on where their businesses are vulnerable. My best advice there is not to make knee jerk decisions and perhaps confer with others in a similar situation for constructive dialogue.
  9. Notwithstanding the above point, we know that emotional contagion is A ThingDo you need to be a little more self-protective? Are you spending (too much) time on social media; watching disturbing viral videos and counting the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in each state every day? If you've got colleagues, friends or family ruminating about the crisis, awfulising and catastrophising in ways that only heighten your anxiety, you can note that with them and ask them if they think it's helpful, tell them you are there for them but that you find such conversations make you feel worse. Can you gently coach them or coax them to think about how they can take back some control, use time productively and brainstorm healthy distractions.
  10. Don't beat yourself up if you falter on what's healthy or sensible. Don't get into full-blown self-loathing if you do resort to that Bridget Jones tub of ice cream on the couch in front of Netflix - assuming the streaming services will be able to cope with the network congestion of those working or recreating at home - and activate your REFRESH strategy. We all need one. Mine is music and exercise, at the same time.
Hope is the most critical element of resilience. The myth of resilience is that resilient people never let anything get to them. Indeed telling others they are overreacting and being "ridiculous" is not resilience. It's a form of violence against empathy; a negation of others' intrapersonal reality (as is refusing to self-isolate where appropriate or necessary). Resilience is deploying strategies (conscious or otherwise) to bounce back. Like deciding to write a LinkedIn article and experiencing a few intrusive and worrying thoughts while you do so. Probably five times while writing this, I had to say "Thank you, Mind" for still working (given I was capable of having such thoughts) and a light awareness of moths rather than butterflies in my tummy. So I told them: "Thank you and now you can fly off. I'm busy being productive, maybe even useful." Yes, we are all a work-in-progress.
Thank you to my beloved speaker tribe for the laughs, the tears, the virtual hugs and the masterclass in change leadership; moving deftly through those good old phases of transition to arrive at a place of resolve to serve, despite personal concerns and real-life worries. The platform, whether it be the conference stage, the training room or the television camera is a privilege and we must use it to do good at a time when it would be easy to be selfish.

Leanne Faraday-Brash is an organisational psychologist, speaker, coach and media commentator. She is Principal of Brash Consulting, a Melbourne-based practice specialising in organisational psychology, organisation development and "workplace justice" (Equal Opportunity, ethics and employee relations). Leanne is the author of “Vulture Cultures: How to stop them ravaging your performance, people, profit and public image” published by Australian Academic Press. Leanne can be reached at www.brashconsulting.com.au  


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