An executive career coaching client in the Toronto area, who is making great progress toward quite a large goal, wisely realized it won’t always go so well. So, he asked how to prepare himself for a setback. Excellent question!
One of my favourite techniques to build resilience and continuing optimism is the ABCDE technique described by Martin Seligman in his book, ‘Learned Optimism’.
We follow the ABC process of evaluating and viewing our situation: Adversity, Belief, Consequences. Then we move from our ABC’s onward in the alphabet to D: Distance ourselves or Dispute our Beliefs. When we DIspute, we have more abc’s to help us remember the process – AEIU (Most of the vowels). This article gives you an overview of the method. For detail you can check out Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimisim.
Situation or event which triggers your negative feelings. Could be almost anything–a cancelled meeting, a frown from a boss, a co-worker gets your promotion, a rejection letter, no returned call, etc.
Your Beliefs are how you interpret the Adversity. This is about thoughts, not feelings. Feelings are part of Consequences.
‘I’ll never get that promotion.’
‘My boss doesn’t respect me.’
‘I’m going to be fired.’
Consequences are your feelings and things you did.
‘I was too stressed to work.’
‘I snapped at my co-worker.’
‘I didn’t sleep.’
D: Disputation |Distraction
There are two main ways suggested to deal with these consequences, distract yourself from such thoughts, or, for a longer-term solution, dispute with the beliefs, using one of the following techniques:
There are usually a number of alternative explanations for what has happened, but people often adopt the most negative one. As yourself whether you could explain what has happened in another way
When your boss frowned at you: ‘My boss must have had a bad morning.’ Rather than ‘My boss doesn’t respect me.’
Often negative beliefs are unrealistic. Show yourself that the negative belief is wrong, by asking whether there is any real evidence for what you’re thinking.
‘My boss is frowning at everyone today. It has nothing to do with me.’
‘I had an excellent meeting with my boss last week. And we’ve had no negative interactions since. So, it’s not me he’s frowning at.’
Even if a negative belief is correct, it’s not the end of the world. People can often make things seem a lot worse than they actually are, by expecting themselves to be perfect. Sometimes it’s just a matter of accepting that we might have a small flaw – without forgetting also have a lot of good points as well. You can think of Implications as What’s the worst that could happen?
‘My boss actually is frowning at me. Because I did a bad presentation yesterday. And it wasn’t my best. But we have a good relationship and one hiccup won’t destroy that. I’ll talk to her about it and make sure she knows it won’t happen again.’
And sometimes it’s possibly a bad situation. Everything doesn’t come up roses all the time.
‘I am going to be laid off. But what’s the worse that will happen? I will cut back on expenses and put serious effort into job hunting. My experience in this job will help me get another one. This sort of thing happens.’
Often, having a plan makes a negative situation bearable.
In some situations, it’s better to think pragmatically than being caught up by negative beliefs. Rather than thinking ‘there’s no way out of this situation’, it’s better to think ‘how can I attempt to get out of this situation?’
My personal mindset that helps comes from an exercise I did at Grail Springs Wellness Retreat. We were told to toss a rock into the lake, and think of throwing away a negative thought. I threw away, ‘What if I can’t?” I went one step further and replaced it with the thought, ‘How Will I?’ I’m amazed at how much and how often that helps.
And let’s remember the value of stress. If you’re worried about losing your job, you might be driven to fix what needs fixing or finally make a move to get a new job. Stress drives us and often it’s the only thing that gets us moving.
One is energized, and should indeed try to actively celebrate, the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment that come from successful disputation of negative beliefs. Disputation and Energization (celebration) are the keys to Seligman’s method.
This is where you take time to think about the positive feelings, behaviors, and actions that could or do follow from having a more optimistic outlook.
Practice this technique on slightly stressful situations. As you practice, the techniques will become second-nature for you. You’ll be able to pick which one of the elements you need to use in a particular situation. By building this resilience muscle, you’ll be prepared with a tool to help you remain optimistic and be resilient when you run into a significant setback.