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How to Rise Above a Crisis

By: Mark Goulston

“Mark, I’m giddy with excitement,” Jim Mazzo, CEO and chairman of Advanced Medical Optics, told me over the phone.

Jim is one of the most ethical and effective leaders I know. But even from such a remarkable man, his comment was astonishing--because on that day in 2007, Jim’s company was in the midst of what most people would call a crisis.
Without waiting to ask his board for permission, Jim had just ordered a voluntary recall of an eye solution as soon as he learned that it could contribute to serious corneal infections. I’d called Jim to tell him how much I admired his action, which reminded me of James Burke’s quick pulling of Tylenol when several bottles were found to be contaminated with cyanide.

Jim replied, “We are a great company, with total transparency, a set of values, and a code of conduct that we all respect and follow. I am thrilled because I know that this is one of those rare opportunities that will make both our company and me even better and I am excited to find out just how it will do both.”

And then he said something that impressed me even more: “When bad things happen, if you resist the temptation to do anything that will make matters worse, you will discover valuable things about your company and yourself that you would never have learned had you not taken the hit.”

That’s sheer courage—and it paid off for AMO, which weathered the storm well and, in the process, enhanced its already sterling reputation as an ethical company deserving of the full trust of investors and consumers.

What’s the difference between Jim and the business leaders who panic, lie, frantically attempt to cover up problems, or simply melt down when problems occur? He has the ability to rise above a crisis and do the right thing. That’s because he’s smart and ethical—and it’s also because when trouble arises, he can quickly bring his initial fear response (a universal human reaction to crisis) under control. No doubt Jim starts out just as scared as anybody else when a crisis strikes, but he doesn’t stay that way. Instead, his deeply held core values prevent his emotions from boiling over and causing him to do something hasty. As a result, while other people are tempted to hide or blame or lose control, he can think fast and communicate effectively.


Get Through to Yourself First
Getting your emotions under control isn’t just a key to being a great leader like Jim. It’s also the most important key to reaching other people, especially in times of stress or uncertainty. It’s why a cool and controlled hostage negotiator can get through to someone who seems unreachable—and, conversely, why a person who’s crying, whining, or yelling will turn off even a calm and empathetic listener.

Of course, not all personal encounters are stressful. But many are—and these are the ones that can make or break a career or relationship. What’s more, stressful encounters are the ones that you’re usually least ready to handle. Making a cold call, handling an angry client, going on a tough job interview, facing a furious lover, dealing with an insolent teen: all of these can affect your emotions to the point that you can’t think clearly. And when that happens, you lose.

So the first and most important rule for taking control in a stressful situation is this: get yourself under control first. (That’s why flight attendants instruct you to put your own oxygen mask on first before placing one on your child.) The good news is that getting yourself under control is simpler than you think.

Speed Is Everything
In reality, you probably already know how to handle a tense situation intelligently. You know exactly how to go from attack mode to emotional mode to smart mode. Unfortunately, you probably don’t know how to do it fast.

Instead, here’s what usually happens. A few minutes after a stressful encounter, you calm down a little, your pulse slows, and you start breathing more slowly. A few minutes or hours after that, you probably gain enough self-control to start thinking your options through. And given still more time, you start thinking, “Hey . . . there’s a smart way to handle this.”

By then, however, it’s often too late. You’ve already lost a sale, alienated a boss or coworker, or convinced a lover that you’re bad news. Or, you’ve missed the moment to make a perfect comment or a great first impression.

So what’s the solution? In a stressful encounter, to keep from blowing a chance to reach another person, you need to get your thoughts and emotions under control in minutes—not hours. In short, you need to move almost instantly from your reptile to your mammal to your human brain. That sounds impossible, but it’s not. In fact, with practice, you can do it in about two minutes. And when you do, you’ll have the advantage over everyone else in the room, because you’ll be the only person who’s actually thinking straight.

To understand how stress interferes with your power to reach people, you need to know the mental steps you go through in a time of stress or crisis. What’s interesting is that even though every crisis seems different to you, your mind treats them all in pretty much the same way.

In a small crisis, you may start at a middle stage of this process. In a big one, you’ll start at the bottom. Here’s how it goes.
The Reaction Phase: This is a disaster, I’m screwed, What the hell just happened, I can’t fix this, It’s all over
The Release Phase: Oh my God, this is a huge mess and I’m going to get stuck with cleaning it up.
The Recenter Phase: All right, I can fix this. But it’s not going to be fun.
The Refocus Stage: I’m not going to let this ruin my life/my career/my day/this relationship, and here is what I need to do right now to make it bettter.

The Reengage Phase: Now, here’s where the fix occurs.

When you become consciously aware of these stages and can mentally identify each one as it happens, you can manipulate your emotional response at each stage. As a result, you can speed shift from start to end in minutes. Some people are probably born knowing how to do this—but if you weren’t, you can learn now.

Clearly, I’m not saying you can solve a crisis in two minutes. You can’t. What I’m saying is that you can think your way through to the possible solution that quickly. When you do that, you take yourself out of panic mode and into “solution” mode. As a result, you’ll be able to say all the right things and avoid saying the wrong ones.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anybody by Mark Goulston. Copyright 2009. Published by AMACOM. For more information, visit www.amacombooks.org

About the Author(s)

Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist, business consultant, executive coach, and FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. A bestselling author whose books include Get Out of Your Own Way and Get Out of Your Own Way at Work, he writes a column on leadership for Fast Company and Solve Anything with Dr. Mark for Tribune Media Services and is frequently called on to share his expertise by the media, including the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, Reuters, NPR, CNN, Fox News, and the Oprah and TODAY shows.