‘No, I’m telling you I’ve looked everywhere…the whole train is packed. I’m telling you, soon as winter comes, everything turns to shit…’
I could not help but overhear the woman’s forlorn conversation into her mobile as I got off my train in Stafford last October.
It’s true that the train was busy and quite a few people had just got on the train I had left. It was also interesting to note that as I walked to the end of the platform, there was still some space in the last couple of carriages which the commuter had not seen.
So, assuming she genuinely did want to get to work that morning, why didn’t she walk further along the platform?
Why is it that sometimes we keep trying and other times we give up? And what can anyone who works for a charity do to improve their ability to keep going?
Professor Angela Duckworth has spent more time carrying out research to better understand the nature of resilience than any other psychologist. She has not only found some keys to increasing your resilience, she has also shown how extraordinarily important the ability to persevere is to any sustained success.
When she studied officer cadets at the elite military academy at Westpoint, she found that more than measures of intelligence, leadership potential, fitness etc, the most powerful predictor of later success was their resilience. And in interviewing dozens of high achieving fundraisers over the last decade, I have found that the one characteristic they all share is the ability to keep going.
Beware language which is permanent and pervasive
Everyone experiences setbacks. One often overlooked element, suggests Duckworth, is the words you habitually use to describe these setbacks.
I believe that saying ‘as soon as winter comes, everything turns to shit’ reduced the unhappy commuter’s ability to look for, or even notice the space on the train.
Duckworth’s book Grit shows that you will be less resilient if you frequently use words which are permanent (‘everything’, ‘why does this always happen?’, ‘they never help’) and pervasive (if you tell your subconscious that everything is literally human waste, it makes sense not to plough on through it down the platform).
Here are two of the most common, seemingly harmless verbal habits used to describe things that go wrong: ‘a disaster’, ‘a total nightmare’.
Do you ever hear yourself saying these, or something similar? If you use these words again and again, do you think they could make it harder for you to persist and find solutions?
Choose words which are temporary and specific
Prof Duckworth suggests you will experience more resilience, and all the benefits that come with this, if you find a way to choose words which are temporary (‘it’s annoying that its happened this time (ie you imply it doesn’t mean it will happen tomorrow), and specific, less emotional (‘this is ‘irritating’ or even ‘inconvenient’ rather than ‘infuriating’).
Four steps to resilient language patterns
Step 1. Become aware You may not believe that as soon as winter comes, everything ‘turns to shit’, but most of us have certain favourite words we use when stressed. What are yours? When there is a problem with your computer, a conversation with a donor or a difficult colleague, what are your habitual ways of describing the situation?
Step 2. Choose an empowering alternative. What could you say instead which is more specific and accurate? Of course these initially can seem strange or a bit silly, but if you can see the funny side in this, they can help ‘break the pattern’ of your negative reaction.
Part of the reason we can be reluctant to let go of the knee-jerk, dramatic phrases is that they can feel satisfying – the buzz of anger, or a good moan can be seductive, not least because the more we do it the more certain we become that we’re blameless and others have messed up – but the price for this feeling is you feel dis-empowered.
Step 3. Work out your most common triggers. When is this most likely to happen? Decide in advance to break the pattern, even if only by laughing at how ridiculous you feel to call something ‘inconvenient’ rather than something more colourful. Rehearse in advance what you will say instead of the resilience-sapping phrase.
Step. 4. Notice and feel pleased! Notice what happens when you manage to follow through. Was it worth the effort? This is much more likely to happen if you keep a notebook to record your progress in this and other fundraising goals. Noticing that your energy stays more positive will help you persist with the new phrase until it becomes a habit.