The Most Critical Skill for Activating Resiliency

5 Steps for Increasing Possibilities in Your Life

Posted Jan 03, 2015

Resiliency is often defined as the ability to adapt when faced with a challenge or disaster. In her latest book, Your Resiliency GPS: A Guide for Growing THROUGH Life and Work, author Eileen McDargh challenges this notion. She believes the ability to be resilient is developed long before the crisis appears.

McDargh coined the word “presilience”to emphasize preventive resilience or preemptive resilience. “Why wait until you feel your back is against a wall or disaster strikes,” she asserts. “Being proactive and practicing resiliency skills regularly strengthens your capabilities.” She thinks presiliency is a life skill that can and should be developed for optimum personal development as well as organizational survival. People and organizations need to develop presiliency to continually renew and adapt well to the constant changes of life. The foundation of presiliency is to shift to and maintain a positive mood as often as possible.

In support of McDargh’s claims, a recent study led by Julia S. Haager of the University of Munich found evidence that a positive mood strengthens our ability to see options and then to initiate alternative ways of behaving. When faced with difficult situations, your mood might be the biggest predictor of how resilient you might be.

Shifting your mood in an emergency is difficult; if you practice intelligent optimism regularly, you are more likely to solve difficulties creatively.

In biological terms, reslience relates to the capacity for requisite variety. Requisite variety means that the organism with the greatest number of responses to any given situation is the one that will survive. Unfortunately, negativity can stop humans from finding multiple options in our complex, uncertain lives.

According to McDargh, intelligent optimism is not the fake, pie-in-the-sky-whistle-a-happy-tune optimism but rather the abiltiy to carry out a thoughtful process that clearly explores many angles. Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of the positive psychology movement, asserts that optimism can be learned by deconstructing internal conversations. To help you do this, McDargh helps the reader explore Growth Potential Strategies (GPS) by asking recalculating questions intended to reframe perceived reality.

Here are five ways from Your Resiliency GPS to develop intelligent optimism that you should practice daily to strengthen your presiliency:

1. Look for viewing points rather than a viewpoint. A view point is a singular way of taking in data and interpreting it in one way. When faced with a problem, here are some recalculating questions to offer some viewing points:

  • Whom do I know who has been through this before and can offer some insights?
  • When I think of someone (alive or dead) whom I most admired, what advice would he/she offer?
  • When I think of the “worst” that could happen, how possible will this occur? Where is my imagination creating a fiction story?

2. Consider a restatement of positive possibilities. Ask two other people to join you in this word-smithing process. For example:

  • a “bad hair day” becomes a great HAT day! 
  • a three-hour airline delay becomes  “a great way to get caught up on work, read a book, or eat a better dinner than I would get on the plane.”

3. Take one bite at a time. Remember the adage about how one eats an elephant? The same thing applies when negative self-talk and behavior looms. What is one small step you might take toward an outcome you prefer? Take it! Then, take another.

4. Celebrate small wins. When you have taken the small step, reward that effort. Rewards can be as simple as letting yourself have a piece of dark chocolate to putting a gold star on the calendar. Your brain needs evidence of success before it will decrease your fear. The more obvious you are with your celebration, the more courage and resilience you develop.

5. Control the controllable. When faced with a decision you either have to make or live with (a decision someone made for you), ask yourself, “What about this situation is in my control?” What can you change, avoid, alter or accept in order to move on? What is in your control to focus on so you can let go of what is not? Also, Seligman suggests that intelligent optimists ask these questions about the situation: “Will the outcome be permanent? How pervasive will this be in my life? Is it personal (did this occur to hurt me)?” Chances are, the answers to these questions will soften your fear, frustration, or anger.

Become an intelligent optimist to keep problems from throwing you off center. Listen to your negative thoughts, shift your emotions to hope, cultivate a sense of humor, and then look for ways to see what is true and possible for you now. The more you do this, the better you will handle the big stuff when it shows up. As McDargh says, presilience makes your life full of possibilities.


For more questions to ask and ways to help people expand the way they see situations, check out The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.