From Fighter Pilots to CEOs: An Executive Coach’s Secret Formula for Resilience

Renita Kalhorn

What is resilience? Psychologically, resilience is your ability to adapt effectively to stress, difficulties, and life’s inevitable challenges. Renita Kalhorn, an Executive Coach, offered advice for developing this kind of toughness in response to workplace challenges in her recent webinar, “Build Resilience to Achieve Excellence.” 

How does resilience relate to control? 

“It’s actually about feeling a sense of control, because there’s no way you can actually be in control. So, fighter pilots often have lower levels of stress because they feel a sense of control, even in these very dangerous, threatening situations. What they do is they learn how to focus very closely on what they control and let go of everything else,” said Renita.

In response to challenges in her life, Renita has developed her own set of resilience skills in the face of adversity. Now, she trains everyone from Fortune 500 Executives to Navy Seals in her science-based, resilience-building tactics. 

FASTT Response for Managing Fight or Flight

As we evolved, our brains developed in a way that made us consistently make three mistakes. The first one is over-estimating threats, while the second and third involve under-estimating opportunities and resources. 

Renita developed a tactic that helps her clients understand why they might be unnerved by certain situations. Specifically, if we still have fight or flight responses to daily life or workplace stress, we can predict what might trigger us. 

Her FASTT model stands for the following:

Future. Uncertainty in the future is unsettling. 

“There’s the macro level that we talked about earlier: things like pandemics, economic uncertainty, climate change, social unrest, terrorist attacks. Then, there’s the personal level in terms of growing your business, developing your career, relationships with colleagues, your boss, your family, friends, strangers, and your health,” said Renita. 

Autonomy. Do I have the freedom to do what I think is best? Renita mentions that this trigger is often activated when individuals feel their work is being micromanaged. They may not even have the independence to complete tasks using their preferred methods. 

Status. What is my position in the group? 

Whether we want to be or not, we are constantly trying to pick up clues about others’ social positions. Renita suggests that this awareness is why it’s so stressful to make mistakes. 

Think back to when we lived in tribes. If we told the tribe, Hey, guys, I think there’s food over there, and instead, it was an enemy tribe, then what happened? So, my theory is that we just had to internalize that fear of being wrong to such a level, we still feel it now,” Renita suggested. 

Other threats to our status include not knowing the answer to questions. That’s why so many people pretend to know the answer when they don’t. 

Tribe. Do I have a sense of belonging with others? This trigger focuses on feeling that someone is part of the group. 

“Lots of triggers came out of the pandemic, as you can imagine. But just feeling outside of the group. Being excluded, misunderstood, abandoned even,” Renita said.

Time. Do I have the time I need? Many of us have time pressures that prevent us from fully developing ourselves. 

When we’re in survival mode, we’re not in a place of growth. If there’s no time, it’s not a time to be creative, that’s not a time to be curious. Certainly, it’s not a time to be vulnerable and admit that you are wrong, or don’t know the answer,” said Renita.

Tips for Responding More Usefully to Stressors

When most people are triggered, they have an innate impulse to either fight or flee. Instead, Renita suggests three steps that can diminish that reactionary attitude: first, neutralize the fight or flight response; next, zoom out; and finally, create a micro-shift. 

Try one of these tactics to diminish your stress: 

Breathe deeply.You’re basically signaling your brain two to shift out of fight or flight,” adds Renita. 

Wiggle your toes. The concentration required to wiggle your toes helps snap you out of fight or flight mode. 

Tap into the power of your heart. “Basically, science says that we are emitting electromagnetic signals all the time…what I would do, I would literally put my hand on my heart, tap into that feeling, and remind myself how powerful the heart is. Then, I would see if I could shift even a little bit into a place of feeling compassion, feeling, and understanding. Or at least I could remind myself I didn’t know what their situation was,” Renita told us. 

Create a micro-shift. “What’s one tiny thing that you can do differently at this moment?” Renita asked.

Some tactics may include: 

  • Pausing.
  • Changing your physical position by sitting up or standing up. 
  • Meditating. 
  • Washing your face with cold water. 
  • Looking out the window.

Small Steps Build Resilience

Perhaps the most satisfying element of Renita’s method is that building resilience isn’t about making major life changes. Rather, it focuses on taking small steps to disrupt fight or flight response. If we can add these tactics to our lives in times of stress, we can feel in control of ourselves even if we can’t control the triggering situations around us.

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