This is the first in a three-part series on communicating effectively during crisis developed by The Holdsworth Center.
Mandy Land is standing in her kitchen in pajamas making lunch for her 5th grader when the text comes in.
There’s a tropical storm heading toward Houston. Officials are canceling school today.
As principal of Doerre Intermediate School in Klein ISD, Mandy knows coaches and students are already at the school practicing. Her husband has left for work so she’s flying solo. Her computer is at the school so she’s got to get to campus, but her 11th grader and 5th grader have to do their assignments from home.
With the litany of stressors brought on by the pandemic, everyone is getting triggered a little more often than normal.
Her phone starts blowing up. Teachers are wondering what’s going on. Texts are pinging, the phone is ringing. She tries to hurry up and finish making the turkey sandwich in her hand when her oldest daughter asks, “Mom, what are we supposed to do today?”
All of a sudden, Mandy chunks the sandwich into the trash can and says, “I don’t know!”
Everyone’s been in this moment before. Something’s gone wrong, you’re trying to focus, there’s too much coming at you and you just…boom!
With the litany of stressors brought on by the pandemic, everyone is getting triggered a little more often than normal. But for those on the front lines of the disruption caused by COVID – including teachers and ed leaders – the barrage of change and the pressure to get it right is downright overwhelming.
For many, their internal dialogue might be sounding a little something like this:
In the past, you always considered yourself a good leader. Sure, you made mistakes, but overall you felt like you knew how to do your job well and people respected you for it. Then the pandemic hit. Now, your job is unrecognizable in many ways, and it feels like no one can tell you if you are doing it right. Everything you say, every action you take, feels like a minefield. There are points of conflict everywhere with people taking sides on everything from racial justice & equity to wearing a mask. If you appear to move too far in one direction, some will cheer you. Others will chew you out. Your staff are exhausted, and you can’t figure out how to make their jobs safer or easier, or any more predictable or sustainable. You know you should be communicating with them more frequently, but you feel like you don’t have any helpful information to offer, so you wait. You know they aren’t happy, but you keep your door closed because you feel helpless to do anything about it. You try really hard not to be affected by the negativity, but it’s not working. You care! You want people to like you! Don’t they know you are trying your very best? When you do try to listen to people’s concerns, you find yourself getting sucked into the negativity and it makes you feel dejected and angry. Why can’t the leaders above you see how hard this is and help you out? You become more and more afraid to make the wrong move, to say the wrong thing. Without even thinking about it, you start asking for more guidance from those above you even for small decisions or getting their blessing before taking any action. You are paralyzed.
Going to the basement
In this state of mind, leaders are in what’s called “the basement.”
Leaning on the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Leonard J. Marcus and colleagues coined the term “basement” in their book “You’re It.” In it, they create a mental model of the brain as a house with three rooms.
When we are in the lowest room – the basement –we are in crisis mode, what we often call “being triggered” or “spiraling.” This is where the amygdala fires up and kicks your brain and your body into fight or flight mode. It’s a basic human survival instinct. But in modern society, bodies can’t tell the difference between running from a bear and being insulted, so they react in the same way. A fire ignites in your chest, your mercury goes up and your brain shuts down.
As you move up in the brain house, you get to the workroom – this is where fast, instinct-based, routine thinking and acting occurs. Kind of like driving a car. You aren’t thinking too hard about it, you’re just doing it.
Then there is the laboratory where your deliberate, creative thinking occurs. This is the room you need to be in for most leadership tasks, especially during a crisis when things that used to be predictable are no longer routine, and you can’t fall back on old plays.
It follows that the basement then is the worst part of your brain for most leadership tasks, including communication. The last thing you want to do from the basement is send that e-mail or have that high-stakes conversation.
Also, basement behavior is contagious. The longer you stay in the basement, the more likely you are to drag (and keep) people there with you.
As leaders, the challenge is to be able to quickly get yourself out of the basement and help your brain move to routine and then higher-order thinking.
From panic to control
In his book “Just Listen,” executive coach Mark Goulston introduces a technique to get from panic to control. Below is an adapted version of Goulston’s technique with four key steps.
#1 – Recognize
Once you start to feel yourself panicking or getting overwhelmed, the first thing is simply to recognize that it’s happening. There is research to back up the concept that “if you can name it, you can tame it.” Identify your feelings and acknowledge them. Say it out loud if you’re alone. “I’m not OK right now, I am so triggered, I am so hurt, I want to cry, I am in the basement.”
#2 – Recenter
Try not to linger in the “I can’t believe this is happening to me” phase. Force yourself to do something – or tell yourself something – that will help you downshift. It could mean stepping away from the situation before you melt down or removing anything crowding your brain that’s not urgent. Close the door, turn off your phone or radio, step out of the meeting. If you are stuck in the triggering situation, take deep, calming breaths and talk yourself down. Your body and mind will begin to calm and you can move on to the next step.
#3 – Prioritize
Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I need to be doing or saying right now?” Do it. What’s the second most important? Now do that. Take it step by step until you begin to feel calmer and more in control. This is the step that gets you from the basement to the workroom. Very often, you already know these steps, you were just too upset a moment ago to do it. Sometimes, your first priority might be to just keep yourself together and not cry when you can’t walk away, and that’s fine too.
#4 – Decompress
When the initial panic subsides, you may still be left with an emotional hangover, feeling raw and on edge. It will be difficult to get back up to the laboratory to do your best thinking without fully releasing the emotion. Think about a balloon that’s been inflated too quickly and is on the verge of popping. You have released enough pressure to get yourself into a state where you aren’t going to pop. But to release the rest of that pressure, you may need to do something that helps you decompress. Exercise. Listen to music. Call a friend who is a great listener. Purge your thoughts onto paper.
Get out of the basement quickly
Let’s get back to Mandy. Even skilled and talented leaders like Mandy get kicked into the basement on occasion. The key is that they learn to get up quickly and make their way back upstairs.
On the day of the storm, Mandy recognized as soon as the sandwich went into the trash can that she wasn’t OK.
She removed herself from the kitchen and went and sat on the edge of the bathtub. When her older daughter came in to ask if she was OK, Mandy told her she needed a minute to think.
What was the first thing she needed to do? Compose an email to her staff. To focus, she put her phone into airplane mode so the texts and calls would stop coming. Next, she texted her department chairs and asked them to call their teachers to make sure no one came into work that day. She got dressed and switched into Mom mode, putting her high schooler in charge of her 5th grader for the day.
But it wasn’t until midday, when she went for a run at lunch, that she was able to fully decompress and get back to normal.
“I was feeling totally overwhelmed and paralyzed,” Mandy said. “Just saying, ‘I am not OK’ helped me get myself back into control and go through the logical steps.”
The point is not to avoid the basement. If you’re human and you experience stress, it’s going to happen. The leadership habit to master is KNOWING you are in the basement and then practicing getting yourself out.
In reality, many of these steps will not look like new habits – they will look like leveraging habits that you’ve already built. The new habit is going through the four steps – Recognize, Recenter, Prioritize and Decompress – to get yourself from the basement back up to laboratory where you can lead and communicate effectively.
Take a few minutes and reflect on a time when you were in the basement and how you handled it. As you go about your day, pay attention to times when you get triggered – maybe journal about it or just jot it down on a post-it. At the end of the week, take out your journal and post-its and reflect on how you handled each instance. How quickly did you recognize that you were in the basement? What steps did you take to from panic to control? How quickly were you able to get there each time?
To read the second installment in this three-part series, click here.