Resilience is a weasel word; by which I mean it sounds really good and really useful as an idea until you move closer to it when, like approaching the end of a rainbow, it evaporates. Some people try to explain it as ‘bounce-back’, hence this blog’s title. Some say that we don’t just want to get back to where we are, but to move on, so they talk about ‘bounce-forward’. Resilient, or bouncy? Either are quite hard to pin down because they bounce around so much.
The problem with metaphors is that they are seductive. Because we notice that something is like something else we start to think it can be explained in the same way. A term originating in engineering has been applied to biological ecosystems and more recently to human society and human individuals, but it is just that, a metaphor, it doesn’t of itself ‘explain’ though people often fall into that fatal trap.
Metaphors aren’t the answer but they are a great way of starting a conversation. Whilst, working in the field of international development, I’ve been fascinated by the relevance and limitations of the idea of resilience in community development (see for example our work on Frontline) What I’m interested in at the moment is the idea of personal resilience, which is much discussed in the worlds of coaching and self-management (for example of humanitarian field workers facing stressful situations).
How does personal resilience work, or in other words how do people get bouncy? One way of thinking about this is to use different states of resilience. A widely used trio, described well by Pelling, distinguishes between resistance (or ‘coping’) adaptation, and transformation. Let’s take those three states:
Resistance. I remember listening to war reporter Martin Bell in Anthony Clare’s Psychiatrist’s chair (A BBC radio series) twenty years ago. Anthony tried to tease out the impact of Bell’s harrowing experiences in the course of his work and his response was entirely old-school stiff upper lip, emotionless, ‘ramming it down inside’. He clearly had a coping mechanism, and Anthony tried and largely failed to uncover the emotional effects of Bell’s experiences. More recent work to support those exposed to such traumas has recognised that more than coping is needed . . .
Adaptation. There’s now a wide body of work on wellness and resilience for people exposed to trauma as humanitarian workers, soldiers, reporters and others. Terms such as PTSD are much more widely understood than twenty years ago. Such work aims to prepare people for what they will face. It encourages them to be self-aware, it shows how to maintain some personal space for reflection. It uses tools like ‘mindfulness’ to help in this. It places an emphasis on maintaining social and personal relationships to build a support structure, and of course on careful management of personnel. It acknowledges the need to debrief and adjust, rather than just ‘ramming it all down inside’. This is clearly a more thoughtful approach than just encouraging people to ‘cope’. However just as in Pelling’s discussion of the idea of resilience in international development the question is whether just want to make the status quo more sustainable, or whether we really want to ‘bounce forward’ . . .
Transformation. Let me say that this is where my heart lies. In my own work I have travelled about a million miles visiting development projects in villages, towns, cities and slums across the world and the sense of a huge investment of effort and yet a persistent sense that nothing much changes has led me to start work on a book ‘Watching the World Standing Still’. the idea of transformation, again discussed in Pelling’s book and in our collaborative paper, is that we set out to change the things that shape our lives – the system, or the underlying factors. Now this seems to me important at a personal level, and also in organisations. In particular I’ve seen this in development and humanitarian organisations . At worst adaptation can be a psycho-social elastoplast; keeping us on an even keel so we carry on. I have a colleague who’s thinking about this and about how particular people have transformed their lives, realising that they needed to do more than just cope or adapt. Often their transformation results, bluntly, from dramatic personal loss or trauma. This is not inevitable but neither is it surprising as we all, individually and organisationally, resist change – a preoccupation of mine as you’ll find here. Often it’s an external force that pushes an individual or organisation beyond their ability to resist, creating sufficient disruption for change. But is waiting for the collision really the best we can do? Or should we, as we think about wellness and resilience, be helping people to consider the need for transformation in their lives, asking whether their current values and behaviours really reflect where they might want to bounce forward to? This seems important to me both for the individuals, and for the organisations and enterprises they are part of. If individuals deal with their challenges through resistance and adaptation, in other words ‘business as usual’ then those organisations of which they are a part will also tend towards ‘business as usual’; and as my reflection mentioned earlier argues, business as usual can result in huge amounts of effort being expended without achieving the intended change. Should we be looking for ways to help people achieve transformation, individually and organisationally?
The nebulous term resilience gets harder to define the closer you get to it. But it’s a great discussion starter. What do you think?