Updated: Mar 23
Let's talk about the 'big' resilience and
'little' resilience we need to do our jobs, shall we?
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Some global events that have happened over the past few months have me thinking. I marvel again at how most events in the news include a diplomatic response. By 'diplomatic response', I don't just mean a well-worded statement, but a response - indeed, actions - taken by diplomats.
Let's think about it for a moment: there are the natural disasters; the tragic accidents; terror attacks; the political crises. All of them have required the work of diplomats - often on the ground in the immediate aftermath - to respond on behalf of their governments.
Many of these events can be planned for and there are crisis response plans that would anticipate what could happen as a possible response. These provide some comfort and are good for preparations. However, each situation is different and diplomats and other officials are then required to think nimbly to respond. Indeed, crises have a tendency to catch us where we are.
I've already written exclusively on the topic of resilience and how the concept has been dangerously maladapted by the prevailing culture in our employing agencies in a previous post. This post explores the topic some more and looks at the type of resilience diplomats need to do their jobs.
What's the problem?
We know that we need to be resilient to do this job. For many of us, we know that we must be found psychologically resilient by a professional before we can even start a posting.
For some of us, we think that this relates solely to 'big' resilience. We are curiously able to put aside our emotions and get the job done when something major and/or catastrophic occurs. Many of us can swing into action to do what needs to be done to help our citizens and to feed information back to our governments for it to coordinate our country's response. Many of us know how intense it is to organise and execute a visit by our head of state to the country in which we're posted. The madness is intense, but finite.
This is, without doubt, physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Somehow, we can dig deep within ourselves and pull off the impossible within impossible deadlines. It takes a special kind of person who can respond in a crisis to a host of different audiences and their different needs and different deadlines.
Indeed, while we are digging deep within our own reserves to keep ourselves going, we find capacity to give support and encouragement to others. Training, experience and teamwork all mix with significant and heady doses of adrenaline to get us through these times.
In response to a tragedy, our colleagues and those with us can stun us with their ability to support and encourage. It can be a beautiful thing to witness and experience.
Once the crisis has passed, and life begins to return to normal, we can find that we may be having difficulty returning back to our pre-crisis psychological state. Perversely, it's nice to know that the collegiality can continue during this stage, as there could be a number of people within the mission having trouble.
In cases that test our 'big' resilience, our employing agencies make their counselling services known. Indeed, many will send counsellors to help us mentally and emotionally process what's happened.
Indeed, sometimes these services can be made available to our families. This service needs to be supported where it happens, and required to happen if the counselling service isn't available to families, as all-too-often the mental and emotional damage caused by responding to a crisis - or a career full of crises - falls to the diplomat's loved ones to accommodate and repair.
However, the 'big' resilience required to respond to a crisis is almost easier than responding to the ordinary, latent stresses that diplomats encounter and then accept as their normal. What kind of 'little' resilience is needed?
For example, many diplomats work in small offices with a small number of people. Anyone who's ever worked in a small workplace will appreciate that, if there are personality clashes, the workplace can feel very small and combative. What about if you don't get along with one of your coworkers AND you live with them in a residential compound attached to your workplace? What if this happens for anything from one to five years?
The psychological strain from having tense relationships with someone at work can be horrible, but if that person is your boss and you need to have their good opinion of you for your performance appraisals, end-of-posting report or referees reports, the internal conflict can be really damaging, even if all parties work very hard to maintain the appearance of civility and bonhomie on the surface. This applies even if the person with whom you do not get along isn't your boss. We all work hard to make it work, or make it look like it's working (which is often harder to do than making it work).
Additionally, we can all understand how that poor camel felt as it strained under the weight of so many straws upon its back. For all the amazing opportunities diplomacy affords us, diplomacy is still done within a bureaucracy.
Of course it is right that whenever we spend public money we have a record of it and that it is done according to the laws and societal expectations of our country. In saying that, I'm sure that we all have stories of when we've responded to issues of major political, economic and/or social importance to our country to find out that we haven't filled in a form correctly or as completely as needed, or responded to an email or cable on an unrelated topic within the deadline.
When that happened, on to which issue did you put all your emotions? Was it the immovable, major incident that you were spending hours and hours responding, or the aggravating task that you didn't get time to do?
And, being a people-pleasing high achiever, I'm going to take a guess and say that you berated yourself for missing the comparatively minor piece of administrative work about the same amount as if you'd made a complete mess of your part of the response to the major crisis playing out in the international media and debated by our political bosses.
For diplomats or those living the diplomatic life
Without doubt, it takes a special type of person to do this work. Responding to consular crises - no matter their scale - can be confronting. Working on a issue that is being debated by many in the media, in politics and in the general public is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
But we know that this is the job. We plan for it and we can swing into action when needed.
Many of our employing agencies provide counsellors to help us process what we've witnessed and done in an effort to bring us back to our normal psychological state and to learn something about ourselves for the next time this happens.
By their mid-careers, some diplomats would not have experienced any such major emergency, and others would have lost count of how many in which they've been involved.
The 'big' resilience has been unevenly tested, but all know that it can be tested at any time.
It is a different matter when the focus narrows to 'little' resilience. We have all had this tested - sometimes daily. It is, quite often, the things that require 'little' resilience that catch us most by surprise by how they challenge and frustrate us.
This is a concept I explored in recent discussions with Alison Earl, author of 'Tripowerment: The Why, The Will and The Way of Breakthrough Change'. Alison is a Positive Psychology Practitioner and more recently has directed her attention to legal professionals, which has been dubbed the 'burnout profession'.
Alison said, “I love the idea of ‘big’ resilience vs. ‘little’ resilience. In reality, big resilience is easier to cultivate as it’s intense, urgent and has an end in sight. Perhaps most important is that often there is an intense sense of meaning or purpose. It matters. In a crisis situation like this, people are capable of achieving, and enduring, exceptional things.
By contrast, ‘little’ resilience is far more mundane and constant and for that reason, there isn’t the same level of energy behind action or achieving a desirable outcome. In fact, action can feel futile. The sense of purpose isn’t there, so not only is it not recognised in contrast to more “important problems”, we are left questioning why any of it matters ourselves. We start to disengage and, over a much slower burn, we eventually burnout.”
I want to come back and explore the concept of disengagement and burnout some more in another blog post in the future. Her words would have neatly summarised my thoughts and feelings during my last posting as I'm sure they do with many of you now. So, let's let Alison's words sink in: How do they apply to you?
There is certainly a rush in being involved in the response to a crisis. There's the camaraderie. There's the common goal. There's the sense of being needed and of being seen. We don't get that feeling filling in the dozens of forms or working through a bureaucracy, but there's much more of that in our work than there is in responding to crises. Anything that's not a crisis can make us feel hollow and bereft of purpose.
Here's a final thought about the 'little' things that can severely test our resilience: we're not likely to seek help for them.
These are the things that we feel we 'should' [there's my least favourite modal verb again] be able to handle within ourselves or that we knew about even before starting the posting but didn't appreciate how frustrating a cultural norm is until experienced.
An example of this, for context, comes from my frustrations when we first moved to Venezuela and I began to experience the special relationship with time most Venezuelans seem to have. What was charming initially quickly turned aggravating.
Critically, we feel that if we admitted that we were not able to manage these 'little' things and needed help - like the poor relationship between colleagues in the office and on a compound - that we would not be found resilient enough for a posting again. We fear that our diplomatic careers would be over.
We know that it's important to spring back to form after a major crisis. But somehow we dismiss or we can allow the little, minor crises and annoyances to pile up and up until we snap inside.
What are we to do?
Sooner or later, the issues and events that test our 'little' resilience and that have been simmering away under the surface, boil over. When this happens, there's a long list of what not to do, including:
- deflect and create another crisis;
- deny the problem and pretend that it's all OK. This is sorely tempting, and we can do it for years, but it never ends well;
- gossip. This is toxic, gutless and cowardly but oh-so good when we're not the subject of the gossip that time;
- build alliances. See 'gossip' above; or
- any other harmful behaviours that we thought we'd left behind in secondary school that indulge the secret and scandal-loving teenager within us all.
What I suggest we do instead:
- acknowledge that there are issues in our work and lives that test both our 'big' resilience and our 'little' resilience and look for signs that we may be engaging in numbing behaviours to avoid the problem testing our usual ability to be resilient;
- acknowledge that it can be draining to live and work as a diplomat. Being a diplomat is allowed to suck sometimes. It's tough to always be on, isn't it? It's tough to work in a small office with the same people for years at a time and having to make it work. It's tough to live on a compound with people you'd prefer to not see whenever you stepped outside your house;
- seek help. Talk with someone with whom you know you'll be met with kindness, honesty and empathy. I love hearing of groups that are being formed by diplomats all over the world as a result of reading my words. These groups engage in important self-care discussions and started support groups; and
- start talking openly about resilience - for the 'big' and 'little' things - for yourself and your teams. Why is it that we talk about the importance of resilience and self-care AFTER a traumatic event that's tested our 'big' resilience?
Finally, I want you to think about this analogy for a moment: What do you do when you're walking and a pebble gets into your shoe? Do you ignore it, keep walking and wish it wasn't there? Do you convince yourself that the pebble in your shoe isn't that bad? Do you will the discomfort away and say something like 'It's not that bad. At least I have shoes'?
What happens when you do that? That small pebble makes it hard for us to walk comfortably. Soon we can begin limping and that pebble can rub the skin raw and make a blister.
Or, we can acknowledge the presence of the pebble in our shoe. We can stop walking for a moment, remove the pebble and then put our shoe back on. Walking then returns to be a great thing to be doing.
The message here? You've gotta acknowledge when there's a pebble in your shoe and deal with it, before it's no longer about the pebble, rather it's about the massive, festering blister your decision to ignore the pebble made.
The challenge after reading this post is simple: It's time to acknowledge the presence of any pebbles in your shoes. These pebbles are things that test your 'little' resilience.
If you detect anything pebble-like in your shoes, stop walking, take off the shoes, seek help to remove the pebbles, treat any blisters and then put on your shoes and be on your way again.
To be clear, shoes are a metaphor for our lives here. But sure, go and check out your shoes too.
This exercise may have you confronting some difficult issues in your workplaces, homes and possibly even within yourself that you may have ignored for sometime. Some kind and honest conversations may be needed with yourself and those around you as you work to shake free those pebbles that test your 'little' resilience.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.