Oaks and Reeds

One of our colleagues had planned an afternoon mountain biking with his wife and teenage family. He had studied and planned the afternoon with his son but when they got to the trail they found it closed. Our colleague suggested they bike up the road to the top of the hill and see what was there, to which the teenage son replied: “we don’t know where it’s going. What’s the point? The whole day is ruined now. We may as well go home.”

One of the scales on the Challenge of Change Resilience questionnaire is called Flexibility, and it measures how well people cope with changes to plans and their capacity to go with the flow. The idea has a long history, exemplified by the parable of the proud oak disdainful of the wimpish reed until a gale blows: the oak is felled, the reed flexes in the wind and remains standing. The scale, however, developed out of the observation of a paradox: that people say how much they like change and new things, but when there is change they say it stresses them out! Although the teenager in our example loves getting out, the change to the plan had made him most unhappy.

People who score low on the Flexibility scale like to know what is happening. They like plans and they like routine. They don’t like having their plans disrupted. Sometimes, they can be so organised and so planned that they find it difficult to incorporate other ideas. For example, they have worked out how the off-site meeting will run and have it organised down to the last detail. When a colleague suggests an alternative way of running a session it annoys them, and the thought of having to re-organise the day makes them feel stressed.

The key here is control, and we can modify the usual comment people make: they love change and new things, provided they’re in control! In fact, many will say the one thing that makes them feel really stressed is not having control, and it isn’t surprising that flexibility correlates with the Perfect Control scale in the Profile (see Blog 27, Controlling the Universe) – the correlation is modest, so the scales are not measuring exactly the same thing, but as you might expect, perfectionists are likely to be pretty inflexible.

Change is letting go, in this case letting go of what you have always done and how you have always done it. Letting go of your routines, your need for structure, your need to be perfect, for things to be right, and letting go of your cherished ideas about how the world ought to be.

If you find changes to plans or to routines hard to accommodate, or if you find not knowing what is going to happen stressful, here are some ideas you could try to develop your flexibility and to not find these situations so challenging.

  1. Next time when you feel that plans aren’t locked down and that everything is “up in the air,” become an observer of your thinking. It’s probably racing away into the future worrying about what will happen if…. When you catch yourself like this, Wake Up and come back to the present. Paying attention to your breathing can help you be in the present. You may well need to offer your planning skills, but if you bring along all your negative emotion (frustration at others, worry about it not being perfect, etc) you are only going to make yourself miserable and annoy others. 
  2. When no one knows what is happening and it feels like nothing is certain, break the problem down into incremental steps. What can you plan now? What little bit can you control and organise and let the rest go? Then in a few days, what more can you organise and plan now? It’s like selling, buying and moving house: just deal with the data you have.
  3. Practise handing over planning and organising the weekend, or one day of the weekend to someone else in your family. Or when you go on holiday, have someone else organise the day. You may think that they couldn’t be trusted but it could be that your need to be organised, and your pattern of doing all the planning, has meant that they have learned to step back and haven’t learned the planning skills. Sure, it might be a bit rusty the first few times but others can learn to plan and indeed, it’s a skill they need to learn.
  4. When people suggest a change to your plans or a new idea to your thinking, notice your tendency to first reject the idea. Try to catch and stop yourself when you do this. At the least, buy yourself some time: ask if you can think about it and come back to them later. And do try to think about what they suggest. What thinking is stopping you from including their idea? Can you look at your thinking and their idea with detachment from your upset? If you did, what might you conclude?
  5. Try building more novelty into your life in simple ways. Change the commute to work. Go to a different café for weekend brunch. Eat different food. Watch a different genre of movie. Try a different type of holiday. Read a different newspaper.