Why some situations look like crises — and how to turn them into opportunities

The story of the Taoist farmer shows that we can never know whether a situation is going to turn out to be a crisis or an opportunity. Opportunities and threats do not exist in themselves — they are created by the way we choose to respond to a situation.

How we choose to respond to a situation is, in turn, shaped by the way we look at it.

So, if we learned to look at it in the right way, any situation could become an opportunity.

Before we learn how to do this, let’s first understand how it works. After all, the better we understand how something works, the more able we become to create the outcomes we want. Let’s take a very quick look at the deep psychological reasons why some situations seem to be ‘crises’ and others seem to be ‘opportunities’.

Let’s start by imagining a worst-case scenario: a situation where someone is facing an extreme crisis that is making them experience inner emotional churning.

Now let’s centre and ground ourselves. Then let’s use our tools for making clearer sense of the situation to take away the judgement word ‘crisis’ and replace it with the longer but more accurately descriptive words:

“situation that is taking the person outside their ability to handle it as routine, and is affecting them emotionally.”

As we now know, the reason the situation is upsetting the person’s emotional balance is because it is resonating with their inner world: either with who they think they are or with who they want to become.

More specifically, the situation will create an emotional response in the person when they imagine it means something about how Competent (skilful, talented), Significant (important, powerful, special), or Likeable (popular, loved) they are:

  • People who interpret a situation as meaning that they or their team will be seen as less capable, less important, or less popular will call it a ‘problem’ or a ‘crisis’. Situations where businesses fail, make less profit, or lose market share are often called crises.
  • Situations that show a leader or their team as being more competent, important, or popular we call ‘opportunities’. Scenarios where we can increase profits, grow market share, or show our service is better than competitors’ are seen as opportunities.
  • Situations that don’t imply anything about our competence, popularity, or importance are non-events, business as usual: neither a crisis nor an opportunity.

We now understand the root cause of why we see some situations as crises or threats and others as opportunities. It’s when we interpret them to mean that we will be seen as more (or less) important, competent, or popular.

But these are just our interpretations or assumptions. The story of the Taoist farmer shows that we can never know how a situation is going to turn out. Every nation has its stories of disasters that became opportunities because of the way people chose to respond: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk.

Now that we understand this we can help the person facing the ‘extreme crisis’ to do two things. First, reduce the amount of emotional churning they are experiencing. The situation is just the situation, and it may well be a disaster, but it is they who are creating their own emotional reactions from the way they are interpreting what has happened. Second, lead them to reinterpret the situation in a new way that finds the opportunities in the crisis.

Having this deep understanding of why some situations look like crises and others look like opportunities, enables us to transform both the experience we have of a crisis and the outcomes we then seek to create.

When did you last face a crisis? Did you imagine the situation would make you or your team appear less competent, less important, or less liked? Would you have liked to have found the opportunities to make yourself or your team more competent, popular, or important?

Chapters 1-4 of Inner Leadership give us the tools to make this happen. Chapter 1 enables us to remain centred and grounded. Chapter 2 helps us make clearer sense of the situation. Chapter 3 enables us to look for the ten types of opportunity that exist in any situation. And Chapter 4 lets us choose the best way forward for us.

Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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