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Calming Global Fears One Person and One Story at a Time

What's your story?

Shortly after 9/11 I was asked to speak or rather calm down a group of service professionals and offer words of reassurance.  Something I had learned from >30 years as a psychotherapist turned Fortune 500 executive coach when helping people to calm down is that it is much less important what you tell others than what you enable them to tell you and in the process tell themselves that results in them calming themselves down.  When you do the latter, people vent, then exhale, then relax and are then more open to engaging with you to discuss their options.

Therefore when I met with this group of 30 tense individuals that included bankers, lawyers, insurance brokers, accountants, real estate agents and others, I asked each person to take two minutes to tell the story of a time in their life that they never thought they’d get through, but did and became the stronger and wiser for it.

One by one each attendee spoke about a very tough time for them.  One of the most memorable stories for me was when a very civil female CPA who because of her being so well mannered was seen as “lightweight” calmly told about how on the day she graduated college and was about to be able to start paying back her sizable loans, she was given total custody of her 12 year old brother.  She wasn’t impressed by it, but you could see the room collectively realize what a “heavyweight” solid person she was.

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An equally memorable story came from a very smart and very dry humored criminal defense attorney, not known for showing much emotion or vulnerability.  He told us how his last child had been born very premature and how each day he would visit the intensive care unit and sit by her and reach in to touch her hand.  He then started to choke up – as did the entire room – when he said that when his daughter would grab onto his baby finger with all the tenacity of a little living thing fighting for life, he told himself that if she could be that strong, so could he.

Interestingly, after everyone finished their stories, everyone in the room had a >90 % recall of what the others had said, whereas that group would be hard pressed to remember what each other did professionally despite meeting every month for years.

The most important outcome of that meeting was a collective emotional exhale, deep bonding and a true belief that all of us were strong and would make it through.

If you want to calm the fears of others around you and you, yourself, have everyone share such a story of making it through a difficult time that they didn’t think they would.  Build upon those stories by having people deconstruct what were the key components that they can now use to help them through their current fears.

What would also help the experience is for people to share the name of someone they’re grateful to that helped them through that time and what that person did.  There is something calming and emotionally restoring when you focus on gratitude for a known deed that helped you, instead of fear of the unknown.

Since this is a psychology site and in case you're interested in how and why the above works, it comes down to calming your amygdala just as it's about to hijack your brain and bifurcate your mind so that your upper, rational, human mind cannot stop your lower, fight or flight, reptile brain from taking over.

Telling and listening to stories that the teller and listener are emotionally attached to has that calming effect, which may be why we tell stories to our children at bedtime and even better elicit from stories from their day including what was the best and worst thing that happened today and what are they most excited and worried about happening tomorrow.

I and the Psychology Today community would greatly appreciate you sharing your story of getting through something you didn't think you could and how you made it through in the comments.

If you're curious, here is my story about my Road Back From Hell.

Mark Goulston, MD, is the author of the new bestselling book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.

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