Why a Practical Optimist’s Mindset Is The Secret to Persevering Through Difficult Times, Says Resilience Speaker from Toronto

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By Resilient Speaker and Leadership Development Trainer, Jamie Mason Cohen

How can you master the art of emotional and social connectedness in a time of physical distancing?  A few practical things you can do to build emotional connection with your team include creating the type of environment where people feel that they have a similar feeling as they do in a physical environment. You can do virtual drop-ins. You can do standalone sessions with both your employees and your customers via Zoom.

You can have one-on-one 30-minute sessions where you give them whatever they need. You ask them how you can help them. You can use Zoom; you can text people, you can write a handwritten note, scan it and then send it to each of your employees and your most valued customers. Now it’s vital to think about this interaction to build that emotional connection in terms of conversations, not lectures.

It’s the mindset of a mentor. When you’re talking to people, there are a few things I want you to keep in mind. When you’re speaking, show your face on camera. Show the background. Let them see you. Let your team see you in your workspace at home. Smile. Look up at the camera when you can, listen as much as you talk, if not more. And project a warm and open tone when you speak.

Try not to depend on PowerPoint. If there’s a technical detail at the beginning of a virtual presentation, it can lead to creating distance between you and your audience.  PowerPoint can also break the virtual social connection and remind people of physical distancing.  When you’re speaking with your remote teams, some sunlight facing you as you talk works well.

I have a microphone just off-camera. When I want to show something on-screen, I can move back and write it down in frame on a whiteboard or blackboard right.  I don’t have to go too far, and yet we still keep this interaction intact.

You, as the leader, can do a few things that help build those emotional connections. And it starts with really understanding what it means. Two, become self-aware so that you are walking into those meetings, those virtual meetings, and setting the tone, setting the emotional tone because your emotions drive your behaviours. And leaders who have high E.Q. or emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is managing your relationship with yourself and with others. The first part of E.Q. is self-awareness. So self-awareness to build that emotional connection. It starts with you even before you walk into that remote meeting or how you connect with your team amid these times.

To build social closeness in a virtual world, start from the inside out. It’s knowing what and why you feel the way you feel. It’s modelling and setting a moral compass for your team.

As a Virtual Event Speaker, I’ve experimented with a few rituals to build self-awareness that you can too, before you speak with your teams in a virtual setting include:

You can do something called morning pages.  The morning pages activity is getting out a pen and writing out on a piece of paper every day, whatever on your mind for 30 minutes first thing in the morning. Now, some of the leading creative people know this works. It was founded by Julia Cameron, who worked with creative visionaries over several decades and found that when you write out things by hand, it has almost a self-therapeutic ability to put out difficult emotions that you may be holding in. And so when you write that out, it doesn’t have to be negative.

It can be something positive. It could be goals that you have set, but it’s a stream of consciousness activity to freeze your distracting and repetitive thoughts on the page so that you can get on with your day.

To do this, you need 20 minutes a morning. No one’s going to see it.

Another thing you can do is a journal. There’s an excellent journal called Brendan Bouchard’s High-Performance Journal.  What journaling does is prime you in a mentor’s mindset. It helps focus on what you’re going to do to give your best during the day, what bold moves you’re going to take, what advice you’d give yourself, how are you going to structure that day and a place to manage and track emotions,

The next thing I’d suggest to you is to write down what you’re grateful for when you’re doing your morning pages or within your journal. Write down specific things that you’re thankful for, even within this crisis that we all find ourselves in.

For example, what’s one opportunity that you can forecast from your current situation of working with your team on a remote level that may not be obvious?

Another question is, who’s one mentor in your life who you’re grateful for? Write that person’s name down. Then each out to that person by phone, by text on social media. This would be a good use of making social media social to bring closeness in this particular case.  Write down one lesson that you’ve learned so far about yourself by being in quarantine at your home.

The mindset and tone you might want to adopt while you go into these meetings is of a practical optimist.

Optimism in a blind sense may take away trust because it feels inauthentic. A practical optimist might be best exemplified by the Stockdale Paradox coined in the book, Good to Great. Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American prisoner of war during the Vietnam war.  To paraphrase Stockdale, he said the U.S. P.O.W.’s, who were optimistic that they would get home by each successive Christmas to see their family would crumble emotionally when the date came and went.  They were strong until Christmas. When Christmas came around, and they still were locked up and being tortured in a prison camp, thousands of miles from their family in a dirt hut, they got down emotionally, and they had trouble recovering from that.

Admiral Stockdale took a slightly different mindset. He believed that he would eventually prevail through this situation but that he had to come to terms and accept the brutal facts and realize what was in his control and what wasn’t.

This is the belief that you can adopt with your team that we’re going to make it through, and we have the courage to continue on.

One leading car company in Canada is taking the time to celebrate their team members for the work they do by phone and publicly online. This is an example of doing what’s in your control as a business owner to show gratitude to your team while acknowledging the reality of the situation.

The words of the author of The Plague, Albert Camus could serve as a global intention in these strange and unique modern times: “In the midst of winter, I found in me an invincible summer.”

The practical optimist balances that paradox with the hard brutal facts of where the company is right now. So we want to know that we’re going to prevail like your team, know that you have confidence that this is going to happen, but you also want to balance that with letting them know that you are in full command of what the facts on the ground.

All right? And that paradox helped Admiral Stockdale get through as he noted and the Stockdale paradox. Now the second thing I want you to think about when it comes to your emotions is self-management. If self-awareness is knowing ourselves from the inside out, self-management is the ability to handle distressing emotions.

You can model this for your family, who are in the same home as you. So you moved from panic to an empowered state so that they see that.

When you’re leading remote conversations, ask your team what is in your control right now.  Also, ask them what is not in your control. Distinguish between the two and take action accordingly on what everyone has agreed that is in your collective power to change now.

Dr. Victor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, noted when he observed in the concentration camps, which formed one of the seminal psychiatric theories of the 20th century: that people who survived have the ability to control one thing, their attitude. Now, luck played a role in it.

Those who wanted to live still perished, but he said those who survived had not just luck on their side, but they had in their midst the control of one of life’s last freedoms. And that was their attitude. That in the middle of any difficult circumstance, you can find yourself in that we find ourselves all in right now. We have control over our attitude instead of asking what life is doing to us and our businesses. Frankel said, we need to take responsibility for life and in each moment, in each hour, in each day, and ask ourselves, what is life expecting of us?

You can take the responsibility to manage your emotions as they arise. How can you manage your emotions? Breathe.

You’re going to sit up straight, almost like a mountain, You’re going to breathe in through your nose if that’s comfortable for you for five seconds. Hold for two and breathe out and through the nose if possible for five [inaudible] again, [inaudible] no, you continue to breathe. To continue to breathe.

As you continue to breathe, I want you to ask yourself, what is the feeling you’re feeling right now? So name it. Think about it. Right now I am feeling excited and then once you name it, continue to breathe. You then ask yourself, where am I tense in my body right now? So for me, I usually feel some tension in the upper part of the neck here. Some people feel it in the hips or the lower back. I just want you to be aware of that. So we breathe in simply five-hole to breathe out. Yeah, we ask ourselves, how am I feeling right now? Name it. Try to go beyond, I’m happy or sad. Be really specific. And then name the place of your body where you feel the tension. Now, if you’re ramped up, or you feel a bit anxious, or you feel a little bit irritable, go away. If you can somewhere quietly within your house right now.

We can’t always control the way we feel, but we can control the way we respond to how we feel. Now, this is one exercise you can do with your team, and you can do it here. What I want you to do right now is you can get out a piece of paper and pen. Now I want you to write it down.  Write a line down the center of a page. And then I want you to write on one side with the title, emotional.

On the other side,  I want you to write down the word, reason. Write the answer to this question: What problem are you struggling with right now on your team? Write it right at the top.

Write out point form jot notes for each side. Follow-up prompting questions could be: How much of your response to your problem is coming from an emotional reaction?  How do you feel as you’re responding to the problem? Write down what logical solution you are coming up with to that problem? Where are your emotions clouding your judgment?  How might you be ignoring your emotions in this particular case?

You can facilitate regular virtual check-ins conducted in a compassionate, conversational tone.  You can count to 10 before answering.  Small distinctions of self-awareness and self-management might instantly help manage emotions that may come up that may be clouding your judgment about how you respond. Live in day-tight compartments where we sleep on our initial upset emotions. Don’t respond right away. Don’t respond to that email. It’s not avoiding it. You’re not distancing yourself. You’re just giving yourself a little bit of space to let the mud of the emotion settle in the clear waters of your mind. We sometimes make bad decisions and overreact when we’re tired, hungry or act on our first negative emotion.

Abraham Lincoln did this.  In his desk, after he was assassinated, a drawer full of letters that were never sent was found.

They were letters written to military personnel who had disobeyed his commands and to other government officials whom he was frustrated with.  Lincoln was known as being even-keeled and a model of composure in public life, so this discovery was a revelation.  He often had a public sense of humour, even in the direst situations. He seemed like he had his emotions under control. Lincoln would store those letters for two weeks.  If, after that period, he still thought it was necessary to send to those they were intended for, then he would.  In a majority of the cases of the letters, they were never sent.

The next thing you can do when it comes to dealing with your emotions is cultivating social awareness or empathy.

You want to give your team space, but you also want to make sure that you’re, that they know that you’re there for them. It could be regular check-ins. You could have a formal meeting where you start with a human question instead of jumping into updates. You can ask them something like, what’s one thing that would lessen the burden this week that I can help you with? You can then follow up the next day within 24 hours, and you act upon what you can to help them. This gesture might circulate within the culture of your team as quickly as if it was done in person.

Your employees will communicate to each other now or in the future about how you behave towards them during the pandemic. The repercusions will be either positive or negative for years to come depending on how you act with today.  In every circumstance, choose compassion.  It will bridge that gap that exists between the physical distance imposed on us and the social and emotional connection that you’re making an effort to bridge the gap on.

Winston Churchill found himself on the brink of the most critical decisions in England’s modern history on whether or not to follow Lord Halifax, one of the leading cabinet members who wanted appeasement with Hitler and Mussolini. Churchill went directly to the people of England to hear their opinions on this subject. He went to the underground, which he had never actually been on prior to that moment in time. Churchill walked and sat amongst the people. He asked them their names. He asked them with humility what they thought was the best next move should be for England? Should they appease or fight on?  They unanimously said we passionately want to and need to fight on. He saw the courage in their eyes whether it was a little girl or an elderly gentleman. After that meeting on the underground, his instincts were affirmed. He went left that underground. He was in tears and there’s a few things we can learn there when it comes to empathy and social awareness as a leader getting inside the heads of, of the people, what he taught us it was, do you know your team?

Do you know your team them beyond their names and the role they play for your organization? I know you know their names. Do you know their current struggles? Have you asked? Have you checked in today? Have you asked them how this virtual experience is going for you?  Have you acknowledged their pain?

Can you adopt the mentor mindset like Churchill by going to your people, and asking them how you can serve, how you can help?  The best thing for your brand now might be to pick up the phone and offer help to your customers and your employees. You could conduct a virtual town hall or a live daily random act of kindness Facebook Live where you serve as a connector in offering support to those who need help now.

You can also show empathy through observation. Get a sense of your team’s mood by observing them as they come online and listening to the tone in their voice. Look at their facial reactions. Do they look a little anxious? Listen to them.

The last part of mastering the art of emotional connection is relationship management. Relationship management is about deepening relationships. When we get out of our usual physical context, it might have a positive impact on strained office relationships. It might also benefit more inward-looking team members who are more comfortable meeting in a virtual space.
Make it conversational, make break-out sessions. Break-out sessions are a way for small groups of teams to talk about something that matters to them. You can coach also use the virtual meeting space to them to coach An effective coaching prompts from The Leadership Circle is to resist the urge to be brilliant. Don’t jump in and answer their questions. Act more like a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage, to quote a college handbook.

The virtual meeting can also change the power within a team in a progressive way.  A few people sometimes dominate meeting conversations. When this happens, you don’t gain the value of all the voices in the room.  Introverts might be more inspired to participate in ways that you’ve never seen them do before.

Lorne Michaels believed that in a productive meeting, everyone has a voice. You can set it up in a way where no one can dominate the meeting. Make sure the online meeting is structured so that people feel genuinely listened to. Virtual break-out sessions are excellent to facilitate an inclusive environment in which everyone is put into a position to speak if they have something to add to the conversation.

You can enhance emotional connection during physical distancing in how you listen. Lean in a little bit, to the screen though not too close. You want to respect people’s personal space, even online.  Demonstrate expressions of acknowledgement such as smiling, head nodding and high-fives.  Repeat back to them the key points that they just said in your words and ask if this is what they meant. When they make a point, don’t shoot it down. Say, ‘yes and’ to affirm, build, and collaborate on their ideas.  It feels like a partnership, even though you may be several miles away.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal, but we need to have the courage to continue that counts.” Now more than ever, taking on a practical optimist’s mindset and mastering the art of emotional connection in times of social distance can help us and others have the courage to carry on.

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