Resources Articles When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Learn Resilience

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Learn Resilience

North Carolina Lawyer
September/October 2002

“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

Diane L. Coutu, quoting Dean Becker,
CEO of Adaptive Learning Systems,
Harvard Business Review, May 2002, p.47

As attorneys, change is probably the one constant in your life these days. Changes in the economy, in the legal marketplace, in the profession, and in technology all require adaptations.

  • Perhaps your firm is “downsizing” because business is slow in your practice area.
  • You may be feeling insecure about your job.
  • Possibly you’re among those attorneys who thought that your position was secure only to have been told to look elsewhere.
  • If your firm has merged with another, you have to cope with new reporting relationships and adapt to a changing work culture.
  • If you’ve recently become a partner you’re faced with new demands for business development and greater leadership responsibilities.
  • Increasing numbers of women in the profession require adaptations from their workplaces. Work norms and longstanding assumptions are being strongly challenged.
  • If you’re a parent, you may be finding the adjustments you’re required to make to your workplace to be in conflict with the needs of your family.
  • You may be returning to work after family leave and be concerned about how your absence will effect your career.

Work changes, life changes and transitions are stressful. Change is disruptive. It creates uncertainty and requires you to make adaptations above and beyond your already excessive workload.

Whether you work in private practice, in the legal department of a corporation or in the government, the changes to which you have to adapt are probably coming at you so rapidly you barely have time to reflect upon them.

Fortunately, psychological research has identified the characteristics of people who cope will with adversity and change. Many of these attributes are skills you can learn - skills that a professional coach is trained to help you acquire.

Whether you call coping with difficult times “resilience,” “adaptability,” or “hardiness,” here are a list of 14 attitudes and behaviors that you can practice in order to become more resilient:

1. FACE REALITY Resilient people truly understand and face the reality of their situation, even if it’s emotionally difficult. Sugarcoating a difficult situation doesn’t help you cope. Instead, face reality in a way that allows you to prepare to manage it.

2. DEVELOP AN OPTIMISTIC OUTLOOK Optimism doesn’t mean looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It means facing problems with an eye on how to solve them. Rather than feeling like a victim of change, consider the opportunities that change presents.

Difficult situations often offer important learning experiences. The core of resilience is the ability to transform adversity into a challenge from which you can learn and grow. Resilience involves going beyond coping and adaptation to actually making “transformative” change.

When faced with change, try to tolerate ambiguity and remain open to new experiences. Look for the possibilities in uncertainty, rather than focusing on the dangers. Although most people prefer predictability, try to appreciate that you grow more from challenge than from routine and comfort.

3. MAKE A COMMITMENTPeople who are committed to what they do - who are strongly interested in their work - are resilient in the face of challenges. Resilient lawyers look forward to doing the work they’ve chosen to do. Resilience requires finding a way to turn the difficult situation you’re experiencing into something interesting and important to you.

If your work feels trivial or meaningless, it will be very difficult to persist in the face of hardship. This is one reason why it’s so important to do work you love.

4. BE PROACTIVEResilient people are the sculptors of their life and career situations - not the sculpture. Take the initiative to identify opportunities and act on them. Go beyond adapting to adversity and actively work to change your circumstances for the better.

Proactive lawyers select and influence the situations in which they work rather than merely reacting to situations created by others. Try to identify and pursue opportunities for self-improvement such as establishing relationships with mentors and acquiring needed skills.

Develop a career plan. Seek a work environment that matches your needs and values. Build a network of supportive colleagues, friends, mentors and a professional coach to help you anticipate change and prepare for it.

5. DEVELOP A SENSE OF HUMORThe culture of the legal profession is very serious, but the fact is that you need a sense of humor to be resilient in the face of change and adversity.

Humor provides you with perspective. While facing the reality of your situation, it’s also useful to see the absurdity in it. Try to remember the crises with which you successfully coped and how enormous they seemed at the time. Laughing at how seriously we can sometimes take ourselves can allow us the psychological space to see alternatives we hadn’t seen before.

The ability to reconstruct the stressful situation - to stretch your imagination, broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding - is crucial to resilience. If this is difficult for you, then consider this an opportunity to learn how to cognitively reframe adversity.

6. STAY FOCUSEDHave a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve and use your goals and priorities to stay on track during turbulent times. Don’t waste your energy on unimportant details; stay focused. If you do become temporarily sidetracked, refocus on your goals and what matters most to you.

7. BE RESOURCEFULResilience requires that you be inventive in using whatever resources you can find. This includes your internal resources as well as those you can access from others - including emotional support.

Improvise; be creative; be willing to try something and see if it works. You can always discard it if it isn’t effective.

8. BE FLEXIBLEConsider a wide variety of options in addressing challenges. Rather than getting stuck repeating ineffective strategies, pay attention to obstacles and use them as information that a shift to a new approach is required.

9. STRUCTURE AMBIGUITYThe uncertainty of change can be made less stressful by organizing the information you have. Categorize and prioritize information in a way that allows you to approach challenging situations with a plan.

Keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed - develop an organizational structure that enables you to systematically evaluate approaches according to their effectiveness. When you’re systematic, you hold onto important details and discard those that are irrelevant. You can avoid re-tracing your steps and continue to move forward.

10. BE SELF AWARETransforming change and difficulty into useful experience requires that you stay open not just to the reality of the situation, but also to the reality of your strengths and limitations. The only way you can develop a self-improvement plan is through an honest assessment of the kinds of assistance you need. Lawyers often feel that they have to be able to do everything themselves - this is not a path to resilience.

Resilience also requires insight into your own motives. If you have the willingness to acknowledge and express your feelings and a genuine desire for self-understanding, you’ll be better prepared to face adversity.

11. BE PERSISTENTPersistence in the face of adversity is one of the cornerstones of resilience. Take responsibility for your own fate. Stay resolute in your values and goals and remain determined and self-disciplined in your efforts to achieve them.

Persistence doesn’t mean you never feel discouraged. But it is important to maintain your focus on the goal in spite of your feelings of discouragement. Like a marathon runner, you keep going because you believe in what you’re doing. You simply will not give up.

12. DEVELOP YOUR EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCEResilient people see to the heart of the problem and are perceptive of interpersonal cues. Be assertive, willing to tell others about yourself, and socially skillful. When your emotional intelligence is well- developed, people experience you as warm, caring and compassionate. They like and accept you and want to be helpful.

13. BELIEVE YOU CANThe belief that you can influence the events and circumstances of your life is essential to resilience. This doesn’t mean you think you can control everything.

Instead, cultivate your ability to focus on what you can influence and control. It’s important to focus on what you CAN do when faced with things you can’t change.

14. HAVE A STRONG SENSE OF PURPOSEPeople who succeed in the face of great adversity have a strong sense that life is meaningful. Their sense of purpose allows them to build a cognitive bridge from the difficulties of the present to the better future they’re trying to construct.

This kind of vision is a hallmark of great leaders as well as survivors. The image of something meaningful provides you with an anchor to hold onto during turbulent times. It can transform an overwhelming situation into one that’s manageable.

Consider the lawyers you know who have succeeded in spite of the most difficult challenges. Odds are they’ve developed the attitudes and skills that constitute resilience.

Professional coaches are trained to help you develop your cognitive, emotional and behavioral ability to adapt to change and transform it into opportunity.

Remember - more than anything else, resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails.


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