For many people, the word resilience suggests an ability to stay upright in the face of whatever life throws at them, or to bounce back when knocked down. This viewpoint proposes that resilience is something which you either have or don’t, and therefore the obvious solution is for organisations to use psychometrics to identify those people most likely to stay standing when others fall.

But research suggests that resilience is something you learn through dealing with adversity instead of being a quality you either have or don’t have. There are times when all of us lose resilience and times when we cope with demands which may unsettle others.

Resilience is made up of a bundle of qualities, and we each have a template of what we need to remain resilient. When it’s available to us we are willows flexing when strong winds blow. When we lose access to it, we become rigid oaks, in the hope it will protect us.

The key components of resilience

Studies conducted on people who have survived the most challenging of life circumstances consistently show four key attitudes and behaviours which mark the most resilient.

1. Creation of purpose

Those that do best when faced by adversity have the ability to accept the reality of the situation they’re in. They combine their realism with creating purpose and meaning. They’re more likely to think about what they can do and what can be learned, rather than focus on what isn’t possible or feel angry about what is no longer available.

How to recognise it when it’s lost

The individual denies reality. They may do this verbally by railing against what’s happening, or non-verbally by just carrying on doing the same things regardless of its value or relevance.

2. Emotional support   

Those that do best are those that stay connected. They’re able to seek out the support they need and offer it to others.

How to recognise when it’s lost

The person who would willingly engage in social interaction closes their door, avoids social events and finds ways of keeping distance from any conversation that could expose their sense of vulnerability.

3. Confidence

Bad things happen to good people, but those who fare better are those who can separate out what’s happening to them from who they are. They retain a sense of self-belief in their abilities so they can use them to move beyond the difficulty.

How to recognise when it’s lost

New challenges are avoided. The decisive person becomes indecisive. Where once they would have trusted their own judgement, now they procrastinate.

4. Flexibility

We all flex constantly in order to deal with the unpredictability of daily living, but under stress, plasticity can harden to concrete.

How to recognise when it’s lost

When a situation is discussed they can only see one interpretation (inevitably negative), can only view the boss or organisation through one lens (overwhelmingly negative) and see themselves in a situation with few choices (invariably negative).

How to coach the individual who has lost resilience

  • The resilience qualities will be impacted to varying degrees. Focus on understanding the degree to which each of the four key qualities is available to them. Find what is still there, as much as what is missing.
  • The core resilience loss will be linked to a part of their identity which is central to them. Helping them to identify what is not available to them right now, is a central part of beginning the work of recovery.
  • Help them to identify what they have learned from dealing with any previous life adversity. What strengths did they discover? What sources of help did they draw on? What learning did it give them? What did they do that worked for them? By helping them to recognise their recovery template, they can begin to take back control.

About Carole Pemberton

Carole Pemberton is director of Coaching to Solutions, visiting professor at Ulster University Business School and a member of the Association for Coaching.

She coaches on resilience issues, develops the resilience coaching skills of coaches and HR professionals , and has undertaken research on regaining resilience after career setback.

Written by Association for Coaching

Established in 2002, The Association for Coaching ® (AC) is an independent, not-for-profit body with the goal to advance the profession of coaching worldwide. This includes promoting best practice and raising the awareness, standards and ethics of coaching, with members made up of professional coaches, trainers/providers of coaching, and organisations building coaching cultures.

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