Exactly a year ago my husband got suddenly, and very seriously ill.
Within minutes, the life as I knew it was pulled from under my feet like an old and comfortable rug and I was thrown into a complete chaos.
As I was following the ambulance to the hospital, I recalled a quote by the Canadian survival expert Les Strout: “Throw away the thought that it can’t happen to you, because it can.”
I was in shock. I thought things like that happened to other people in some parallel universe. But there we were, from our dinner table to the intensive care unit. This was real.
The following six days were some of the most trying days of my life. I had to talk to the ICU doctors and understand as much as possible in German, which is not my best language, and take serious decisions based on that understanding. I had to make sure that communication was flowing to our children, family and friends. I had to self-manage and take care of myself because I was acutely aware that I was the only person in charge of everything. All of this was happening at the beginning of the pandemic, which added an extra layer of complications and stress. This was crisis management to the max.
Luckily for me, in 2017 I had the privilege of taking a training in conflict and crisis prevention and management at the Harvard University. It was co-run by my mentor, Major Neal Duckworth, at that time Senior Director with HarvardUniversity’s Kennedy School of Government. Neal is also the retired Director of Human Intelligence and Counterintelligence Branch of the US Marines. He has extensive knowledge of crisis management from his 23 years with the US Marines and he brough this experience into our training. What I learnt from him kept me sane, focused and functioning in that crisis a year ago.
Here are the skills and strategies that helped me manage, and which can help you, now as you are managing the impact of the pandemic, or when a new crisis hits close to home. Remember: ’Throw away the thought that it can’t happen to you, because it can.’
- MAKE YOURSELF A PRIORITY; COVER THE BASICS
The Marines follow this simple rule: Cover the Basics. Your physical and mental condition will decide how you performunder extreme stress, so make sure you take care of your essential needs first. For me it meant very basic things: drink enough water, eat nutritious food, make sure you sleep.
I made a food plan and I wrote it down. I made sure I had nutritious breakfast every day. I set the slow cooker when I was leaving so the food would be ready when I came back. I took healthy snacks with me to the hospital. I remembered to stay hydrated so that my brain would function properly. I used the SEALs tactical breathing technique to manage stress and to help me sleep. I meditated to calm down and get clarity. Basics.
- SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES
The Marines follow a process called “triage” to take very difficult decisions when on assignments. Originally a method to decide medical treatment on a battlefield, this tool can help determine how limited resources are distributed and applied.In my situation, it helped me to simplify and set clear boundaries. It guided me when I was deciding who was going to get my attention, time and information, and who would have to wait. I used triage when I was deciding whose phone or email to answer (yes, no, later), and how much time I spent talking to people. I used it to decide which of my own appointments and work obligations stayed on my calendar and which were cancelled (90% got cancelled). It was difficult, but the triage technique and mindset helped me to remember that my resources were extremely limited, and I had to set and keep clear boundaries if I was to function efficiently.
- COMMUNICATE CLEARLY AND SUCCINCTLY
The clearer your communication, the less time you will spend on it, and the more people will take you seriously.
The best communication in a crisis is the assertive communication. It is short, clear, based on facts, showing respect for your rights and needs and other people’s rights and needs. It is fair, honest and doesn’t tell stories or dramatize.
This was the mode of communication I used with the doctors and everybody else. I spoke in clear, short sentences. I came prepared and on time, I presented my questions clearly and listened to their answers with full attention so I could respond logically and without repeating myself. By acting with composure and calm I saved everybody’s time. In return, the intensive care doctors and nurses treated me with respect and welcomed me as a useful partner in my husband’s recovery.
- TAKE EXTREME OWNERSHIP
Commander Jocko Willink of the US Navy SEALs gets full credit for this philosophy. You can read about it in his bookwhich I highly recommend. Embracing Extreme Ownership will help you kick out your inner Drama Queen and the Victim for good. Because here is the thing: the Drama Queen and the Victim feed on your, and everybody else’s energy and they demand to be the center of attention all the time. And in a crisis situation you will need every tiny bit of energy you can find. Taking extreme ownership for the solutions to problems will create action (the only way to move forward) and simplify the internal dialogue. Actually, there will be little internal dialogue. If you take ownership and responsibility, there will be a lot of internal problem-solving, and much less time left for the internal negative self-talk.
These are the basic skills and strategies which helped me in one of the toughest challenges of my life and can help you manage emergencies and stressful life and work situations.
Good luck, and if you need crisis management coaching or simply want to learn more, just get in touch. I’d be happy to help.
More for you:
“Difficult Conversations” by Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton
Assertive Communication: talk to me to book your training or coaching https://newglobalelite.com/index.php/assertive-communication/
Tactical Breathing (also known as combat breathing or box breathing) https://time.com/4316151/breathing-technique-navy-seal-calm-focused/