Regaining Control

In Control the Controllables, we saw that the environment, people, and unknown factors are a few of the things that usually are out of our control. When we are in unfamiliar places or find ourselves in new and unknown situations, we tend to try to regain some level of control, mostly because we feel uncomfortable in the unknown.

This feeling of discomfort comes from not having enough information we can process in order to make sense of the world around us, and can turn into anxiety if we don’t manage it.

In Locate Yourself, we learn that the simple question “Where am I?” shows that you can orient yourself at any given time, and have multiple ways of reacting to the environment. Some reactions cause the threats and discomfort to become something you learn from, while some other reactions cause anxiety and dread to grow. We need to remain above the black line, which is not always easy. However there are a few things you can do to help the process.

The first thing to do when we find ourselves in a new environment is to separate what we already know and understand, from what’s new - the unknowns. You need to be ready to work with limited information, and be comfortable with that fact. Once we know the unknowns we are left with, we can work then to make them known, or at least begin to collect information. They may remain unknown, but at least we know, at a higher level, what those issues and factors are. Some of the pressure is always lifted after doing this. Knowing what you don’t understand well is the first step.

Once you understand what’s causing the stress and the unknowns, you can begin developing a collection of rules or standard ways of behaving (standard operating procedures or SOPs). These will help remove some of the guessing work and enable a smoother reaction to anything that may happen that is out of your control. For example, if you set a rule that whenever you meet a stranger asking for money on the street, you politely smile, say sorry, and continue walking, slightly increasing the pace, then when this happens you know what to do. These SOPs build muscle memory and help in those moments when a quick reaction is needed. A quick tip is to visualize each situation and the SOP for it, see how you’d react, and whether it’s useful or not, and then adjust the rule as needed. Keep them simple, repeatable, and easy to remember. Practice them.

The last step is to always have a plan B, a contingency. We have no control over the environment, the people, or the chaos those two variables create. But, because we know the unknowns, and we have some SOPs in place, we can think about the things that can go wrong. Risk assessment is your friend here. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll be able to adapt to any unfolding situation. Understanding the risks and the things that can go wrong will enable us to create not only a good plan, but also think where those may fail and an alternative action is needed. Always plan for contingencies and things going wrong. You will not always need those plans, but when you do, you’ll know what to do.

When things become chaotic, the three steps above will help you remain in control of yourself, which is the only thing you can control. However, if you’ve never been under this kind of stress, the environment and what’s happening can quickly overwhelm your senses, so it is important to slow it down and develop the situation before acting. A long time ago, one of the sergeants in my old unit taught me something that became a sort of mantra: “stop, take a breath, make a decision”. Use that to take one second to develop and understand the situation, search your collection of SOPs and plans, and select what’s best. Don’t rush, it may end up bad. Read about the OODA Loop and how this can help in these situations.

At the end it’s about learning. When you are back home, in a safer place, make it a point to debrief what you learned, the things that work and didn’t, and adjust your plans and SOPs accordingly. Things are fluid and constantly change, so we must learn and change with them.

Remember, the only thing we can truly control is just ourselves and how well prepared we are.