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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmHMryOWDdNzpMobLner@ChacyysSmFvQNlGJNEGyoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

A bumper stickerEmail Happens
Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
A spider plant, chlorophytum comosum.What Enough to Do Is Like
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
A wrecked automobileToxic Conflict at Work
Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be so difficult.
Henny Youngman in 1957Quips That Work at Work: I
Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?

See also Emotions at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrengzdekzhwjvelzVQnner@ChacMzNwiRciFXrrWHOboCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.