In the first blog, we discussed building resiliency in yourself. As we expand to strengthening the organization, the first step is improving one on one relationships. The glue that keeps any group together is interpersonal relationships. The ability to effectively communicate, navigate communal issues, and manage stress as a group is the foundation for teams of any size.
My first day on the job at the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) on Camp Pendleton, my counterpart, the active duty psychologist, gave me invaluable advice as he oriented me to the battalion: “Never worry alone.” At MARSOC, we were the only two psychological subject matter experts serving an organization whose staff both needed our help and had little idea of how to utilize us most of the time. This is characteristic of many organizations who bring in outside experts to consult, educate, and assist their staff. Thankfully, our two-person team at MARSOC functioned extremely well. This was not the case in every two-person team I have been a part of, nor for other teams for whom I have provided training and consultation. In my experience, there are at least three essential ingredients required for a two-person team to excel: a common, highly valued mission, individual self-regulation, and partner co-regulation. The common mission is the bridge over which both people enter the team with an easy willingness to work together. This is what they signed up for, essentially. However, during times of stress, if the other two skill sets are weak, the team cannot accomplish that mission. The mission is the bridge but self-regulation and co-regulation are the legs with which the teammates walk over that bridge.
Individual Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation
“Mindfulness is the key to regulating your attention so that you get the most out of beneficial experiences while limiting the impact of stressful, harmful ones….Mindfulness is a kind of mental muscle, and you can strengthen it by making it a regular part of daily life.”
– Rick Hanson, PhD
A foundational skill of self-regulation is mindfulness, the capacity to notice what you are experiencing as it is happening. Mindfulness is simple but not easy, especially during times of stress and/or uncertainty. This is due to the hijacking of the nervous system by the limbic system in the brain, which sends our body into fight, flight, freeze, or faint responses. Additionally, our minds add fuel to the fire by engaging in harsh blame and/or shame assessments during these times. Thus, to disengage from this hijack, a compassionate lens of awareness is essential to help us turn towards the solution.
My counterpart’s advice was quickly tested at MARSOC. He was out of the office preparing to deploy overseas. At this point, I was called to see the Commanding Officer of the Battalion. Eager to display my capability to cover-down for my counterpart, I went up to the meeting by myself. When I arrived, he demanded a full roster of my patients. As a clinician, this demand horrified me. But I remembered an order I read during orientation that explicitly prevented me from having to adhere to this demand. Proudly, and, helpfully (so I thought), I retrieved the order from my office and brought it to the commanding officer. He promptly refused to look at it, became infuriated, and repeated his demand. At which point, I basically ran back down to my office with my tail between my legs.
So, there I was, not only worrying but definitely worrying alone.
At this point, I paused and engaged mindfulness, naming my experience: fear of disappointing my counterpart, worry that I would have to comply and ruin my relationship with my patients, and flat-out shame about what had just occurred. In noticing this experience, I was no longer in the grip of it. A common phrase in the mindfulness therapy world is: you have to name it to tame it. Additionally, I remembered to be kind to myself as I realized that after two months on the job, maybe it was ok not to know how to handle every situation. In engaging mindfulness and compassion, I was able to remind my brain and body that I was safe and no longer needing to be in full stress response mode. Now, I was ready to stop worrying alone.
“As we grow in our ability to know ourselves, we become receptive to knowing each other. And as a “we” is woven into the neurons of our mirroring brains, even our sense of self is illuminated by the light of our connection. With internal awareness and empathy, self-empowerment and joining, differentiation and linkage, we create harmony within the resonating circuits of our social brains”
– Daniel Siegel, M.D.
Not surprisingly, mindfulness and compassion are also key skill sets for co-regulation. In his book, Mindsight, Daniel Siegel discusses mirror neurons in the brain that are thought to cause physiological sensations and emotional experiences in one person that reflect the experience of another person with whom they are in contact. This can be the basis for empathy, or sensing another person’s experience. In effective co-regulation, each person involved in the interaction needs to first deactivate their own fight, flight, flee, or freeze response so they have access to their own experience. Then, they need to contact true care, concern, and support for their teammate. When a person essentially feels that the other person is “safe” for them and they aren’t being blamed or shamed, this activates the care system in the brain, which engages the parasympathetic part of the nervous system.. Thus, instead of turning on each other, each member of the team calms and connects with a sense of being “in it together.”
In the example provided above, once I self-regulated, I approached my counterpart with trepidation. When I told him what happened, he started laughing. I quickly realized that he was laughing with me, not at me. He reassured me that this was not a big deal and, as if we were in on a secret together, he informed me what had gone awry; namely, that a military officer does not take kindly to being educated on military orders by anyone, much less a civilian, when making a request. While it was helpful to understand my misstep, what mattered most about this exchange was that I immediately felt supported in a genuine manner. My counterpart furthered my sense of safety by letting me accompany him to meet with this officer, where I watched his uncanny ability to defuse the situation by listening to the request, understanding the intent of it, and meeting that intent without meeting the actual demand. Not only was I able to calm my nervous system down, but my brain was then available for learning. I was able to grow through the process. Our partnership and mutual trust also grew through the process as my counterpart expressed relief that I had let him in on the situation and was willing to learn through it.
It is important to be aware of the zones of arousal and to learn what one’s own stress feels like. This will allow a sound assessment of one’s needs and capacities in the moment. The window of tolerance is one way to conceptualize the range of arousal in which learning and effective self and co-regulation can occur. We can also notice if we are outside of the window of tolerance and discover how we can help calm our nervous system so that we may return to the window. Window of tolerance meditation allows us to learn and practice our own zones.
The ability to co-regulate in pairs is a fundamental building block in guiding the development of more robust resiliency programs that are tailored to the unique cultural contours of an organization. Future posts will describe how to holistically integrate resiliency concepts into the organization’s daily activities. A resilient organization is always learning, adapting to change, and intentional about devoting time, resources, and bandwidth to employee welfare. This mindset and commitment builds up a sense of trust between each employee and the organization; this trust is the glue that will bind the organization together in the most trying of times.