How To Deal With An Open-Ended Crisis
Four approaches to keep mental resilience.
Image by Anisa Goshi
We spent most of 2020 trying to stop Covid-19 from spreading or dealing with its consequences and restrictions. And I have a message I know won’t be easy to digest: this crisis is not going anywhere soon, and not by itself. But though not always obvious, we can influence and contribute when it is over, and to some extent, we are all crisis managers of different scopes.
While last year was a rollercoaster for most, the past weeks seem to have left many people particularly frustrated and mentally drained. But why have we seemingly reached the end of our patience and what can we do to avoid this going forward? Four key approaches to consider:
1. Learning to deal with mixed messages
Governments around the world have adopted different techniques and chosen varying strategies for how to communicate with their respective populations. I avoid judging whether good or bad because in my experience the only thing that actually matters is how the audiences react to the messages. And, in recent weeks, general dissatisfaction and increased impatience have been very noticeable, often solely attributed to the length people have endured restrictions.
However, it is essential to not leave crisis communication out of this equation.
What to communicate in a crisis is an art and extremely difficult. In many ways, it is a trait that you can never really master despite there being numerous theories, models, and tips for how to communicate effectively in critical situations. From my own experience, I know that besides the uniqueness of every crisis, there are many other factors that need to be considered when communicating in and about a critical situation. One of them is the crisis’ timeframe.
All crises move in cycles of different forms and lengths. The current pandemic has highlighted this more brutally than other crises because the infection rates sink and rise, causing the need for high adaptability and regular reassessment. It also requires effective crisis communication that focuses on the strategy and clarity of the approach, which some governments managed more successfully than others.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks most governments fell into a very common trap; they did not manage to balance their information and avoid contradictory messages. While the first vaccines were approved and many countries kept people informed in detail about their highly anticipated arrival and administration of first doses, the very same countries simultaneously announced another lockdown and/or further tightening of restrictions. This in addition to the fear of a new and potentially more dangerous mutation (or several) in need of containment. So the messaging promoted hope whilst at once crushing it.
This deviation from a clear line of communication and focus on the long-term strategy also reignited the political discourse making crisis management a topic induced by political party lines, causing a rift in the population according to their loyalties and convictions, and contributing to additional challenges.
Intentions are only worth as much as the receiver gives them credit for.
Crisis communication is not a one size fits all approach, and the mixed messaging will continue. However, communication psychology has pointed out that messages are more often than not determined by the recipient, not the sender, and we can work on how we receive them. It is crucial to not get too focused on the lack of a clear line and the potential confusing communication.
Like every crisis manager, we have to filter information and put it in perspective and context. Similar to getting an email that we read as rude and insulting whilst managing to look at it differently and answer accordingly when the emotional response has faded later on. The same is true for a crisis, it just needs us to take a moment and allow for the emotional response to pass before identifying our assumptions and interpreting the message. This might make our expectations more realistic and prevent us from falling into the false hope trap.
2. Avoiding the false hope trap and keeping the balance
One of the arguably biggest mental assets humans have is the ability to motivate ourselves in challenging situations and find solutions for our problems. We are naturally driven to adapt to and endure difficult circumstances due to our primal survival instincts. This is a clear intrinsic motivation that we all have as a core of our existence.
Hope is also referred to be a part of this and I have often witnessed that people can endure incredibly challenging situations due to hoping for a different outcome. Likewise, the opposite is also true. I have equally encountered people who did not have any hope left, yet their journey and battle for survival continued. Hope is not always an essential element to getting through critical situations; however, if focused correctly, it can have a positive pivotal function on our crisis management.
What we see currently is the dark side of hope, when it is not focused correctly. The information about Covid-19 vaccines naturally led to the implicit hope that this situation is over soon and we can go back to a more “normal” life. This (whilst maybe not even conscious) conclusion led to some of the intense reactions we currently experience in the form of frustration, impatience and irritation with the simultaneous restrictions and new lockdowns.
It is essential to regularly reflect on our own expectations with regard to the development of a crisis. While hope can give energy at times, it also drains energy when the situation seemingly does not have a clear ending. This can be further induced through external communication, so it is essential to always reflect on what is being communicated and then refocus on own scope of influence.
It is all about keeping the balance between positive core values.
Many cultures believe in things being in balance, Yin/Yang being one of the most famous examples. I spent time with the Aborigines and other indigenous cultures, who believe the same. Many philosophers and psychologists have worked with similar theories and one of my favourite models to work with and illustrate this is the Value & Development Square (Werte- und Entwicklungsquadrat) by Schulz von Thun.
It explains how positive core values and characteristics need to be kept in balance because if you focus on only one of them, they turn into negative exaggerations. The image below outlines this for the hope/acceptance balance in a crisis.
Image by author: Value & Development Square Hope-Acceptance in Crises*
The aim is to keep a balance between hope and acceptance of the situation in order to ensure that both aid us when working through a crisis. Focusing on one of them leads to negative effects, which can be worked against by focusing on the positive opposite. If we feel that we have false hope and feel frustrated by mixed messaging, we need to focus and work on acceptance of the situation to move out of it.
It is important to remember that the responsibility for this balance lies exclusively with us despite it being constantly challenged by external factors that are outside our scope of influence. This requires constant work and reminders that this is going to go on for a while but that we have our own room for manoeuvre. These are key markers to remember because the hardest part is arguably yet to come.
3. Dropping the idea of (a new) normal
There is a lot of discussion around the “new normal” and what we can expect. Well, simple truth is we do not know because there will not be a new normal just as much as there was no such thing as “normal” before Covid-19. Normal means something different for everyone and in different parts of the world.
While it might be normal for us to have the freedom to leave the house whenever we want, this is not the case everywhere and just because a large majority in our context might feel the same way does not qualify it as normal. Moreover, even your neighbours and friends might not have the same definition of normal. It is a highly subjective term that is dependent on a number of variables, such as context, rules, laws, upbringing, values, experiences.
However and interestingly, what is constant and does qualify as “normal” is that we develop whether we want it or not. We permanently make new experiences and these shape our perspectives, realities and views. As a consequence, we, the context and system around us permanently change even though our actions might not mirror that. Therefore, waiting for what comes after the crisis as a “new normal” is a misleading perspective because things might or might not stabilise — but what is certain is that we will continue to change.
It is important to accept change as normal and thereby demystify it to a certain degree. Focusing on normal instead of change paradoxically also prevents us from becoming part of the change and in many cases this is the beginning of a process that, if not stopped, at one point leads to a crisis — the extreme and unavoidable change of a system.
A crisis manager’s job is not necessarily to make the crisis go away, it is to navigate through it.
In that sense, we are all crisis managers and we have our responsibilities. This starts with a mindset and ends with action and contribution. We all have decisions to make, some larger and some with less weight, and all of them feed into working through this crisis together.
The sooner we manage to accept that this situation will not lead back to normal or a new normal — but to a set of changes — and stop focusing on the end of it, whilst shifting our attention to the decisions that need to be made, we might manage to keep more patient, less irritated, and feel like we are all contributing to get through it all as best we can.
4.Preparing for a long aftermath
In modern literature, crises are frequently referred to as unexpected events accompanied by threats. I have a different perspective in that a crisis is in the origin of the meaning a turning point of a decisive moment. Much of this meaning from the vernacular is still valid today, only the world has become more complex. In recent years, I have worked increasingly with systems analysis and have come to the conclusion that crises are systems that have the function to cause a radical change to the systems from which they emerged. Events can accelerate that effect; however, they are not “the” crisis as it is often described.
Let’s take a look at the current situation:
Covid-19, the virus, is not “the” crisis. It was the trigger to a set of dynamics that increased the severity of the situation and required decision-making with regards to sectors such as global health, national health systems, economy, labour, mental health and social contract to name only a few. Each of which presents a system that is faced with serious challenges and the need for decisions to be taken to change certain elements, dynamics and ultimately reshape the systems themselves. This is currently an ongoing process and is of course mutually influenced by the development of the virus outbreak itself.
Hence, technically, a crisis does not come to a clear end, but is merely a process in which (a) systems have to undergo extreme and radical change to adapt and re-stabilise. This lack of a clear ending is also a phenomenon often visible in the fact that crises are easily declared by stakeholders if in their interest or cornered to do so, yet they hardly ever declare them as over.
Just like when a hurricane or tsunami hits, the work only begins when the tragic events have passed and the damages are visible. The same applies to Covid-19, so the expectations and hope for an end in sight are misplaced and will only trigger further frustrations. Restrictions might be lifted again, hopefully not too long in 2021, but it is crucial to regularly keep in mind that back to normal, whether new or old, will not be happening. And certainly not just because the virus might no longer pose a threat.
The impact this crisis has actually had on us on all levels and in all sectors will be even more apparent in the aftermath and will require as least as much energy as it did to get through it. But that’s when it is our responsibility to actually put our competency and unbreakable ability to survive and adapt to positive use and try through learning and cooperation to improve for the next crisis, which doubtlessly will come.
Thomas is an experienced international crisis leader, mediator, facilitator, and speaker. He is the Co-Creator and CEO of The Crisis Compass.
*Friedemann Schulz von Thun: Miteinander reden 2. Stile, Werte und Persönlichkeitsentwicklung. Reinbek bei Hamburg 1989