Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 51;   December 22, 2004: When You Can't Even Think About It

When You Can't Even Think About It

by

Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?

Julie was now halfway through her coffee, and she suspected everyone else was, too. She looked over at James. He was just staring down into his cup. She looked across at Bugs, and their eyes met. They both realized that somebody had to say something, and she knew it would be best coming from Bugs. Apparently he did too.

A brainHe said to James, "It won't get better by itself, you know."

James looked up. "What won't?" he asked.

"You know…" said Bugs, "how Warren treats you. You have to say something to somebody."

"I know, I know." James sat up straight. "I have to get back." He stood. "See ya," he said, and left.

"I give up," said Julie. "I've tried everything. Four times."

Bugs understood. "Yeah," he said. "He'll do something when he does something. I'm just not sure I'd deal with it any differently."

Have you ever wanted to tell someone about a simmering problem, and dreaded it? Sometimes we get stuck. Time goes by, and we don't act. We don't seek advice; we reject what advice we get.

The stress of the task
can be so great that
we can't even think about it
It isn't always procrastination. The stress of the task can be so great that we can't even think. Our brains shut down.

That's a tough spot to be in, because when you have to address the really difficult problems, you're almost sure to need your brain. What can you do to get calm enough to engage your brain?

Begin by noticing the warning signs of shutdown. Here are some indicators of brain shutdown as you think about the problem you dread:

  • You suddenly feel very warm or cold
  • Your palms are suddenly dry or suddenly moist
  • Your muscles have tightened or maybe you've gone limp
  • Your heart rate is elevated
  • You feel either hungry or nauseous or both
  • You suddenly want to get up and walk around, or take a nap
  • You want to talk to almost anyone who'll listen, about anything but this; or you just want to be left alone

These indicators are scary in themselves, but with practice, they become familiar, and control returns. To practice:

  • Choose a safe and comfortable place
  • Breathe
  • Tell yourself that you can stop at any time
  • Imagine having the difficult conversation

Once you've practiced several times, it will begin to get easier. Then make it more realistic by talking (out loud) to a stick figure stand-in, then maybe a Gumby or a teddy bear. Finally ask a buddy to play your partner's role, first mute, and finally as a role-play.

It might take many practice runs, but you'll gradually notice that you feel more comfortable, and that your brain is engaged. When that happens, you can think about how to act. Your brain is back. Go to top Top  Next issue: Appreciations  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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