Crisis is such a unique idea. It can be fleeting, as what some people dub a ‘mini-crisis’, or it can shake the very foundation of an economy. It transforms people every day, sometimes turning their life around, while other times exposing their innermost identities. To put you in the right frame of mind, I’m going to tell you two stories. They are about two of the worst points in my life, both of which involved a personal crisis. I will also tell you upfront that, while I spare some of the details, one has a happy ending, the other does not.
In not knowing your personal situation or the effect of my writing on any one person, I would recommend reading this when you have the time, energy, and space to responsibly absorb it.
It was a Wednesday morning during my sophomore year in college. I was sitting in my Computer Science class. I received a phone call from a high school friend, which was odd considering it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. When I got out of class, I returned the call. I was then told that one of our friends had been hit by a car the night before and that this morning, had succumb to his injuries and passed away. It’s my understanding he was trying to get to a gas station and didn’t see the car coming. I don’t remember saying anything or hearing the rest of the phone call, but suddenly I found myself sitting on a bench by myself. Before that moment, only my grandparents and distant relatives had died, but I had been too young to really get it. At this moment, I just didn’t want to be alone, so I texted everyone I could to surround me with conversation and drown out my own thoughts.
I spent the next day, similarly, among friends. That evening, in an effort to continue drowning my thoughts, I planned to go out with friends to the local bar scene; not the best decision, but I can’t change it now. Before even beginning the night, walking out of the building, I tripped down the stairs. Thinking I was fine, but still in pain, I skipped out on the whole night, including a warranted trip to the hospital. On Friday morning, I woke up and couldn’t stand on my foot, so a friend drove me to the ER where I was given crutches for my obviously sprained ankle. It was now Friday afternoon, and the week was going downhill even faster. My physical body now matched my immobilized mind.
I spent Friday night at my fraternity house because it only had a few steps to climb and there were usually a bunch of people around. I knew my second-floor dorm room would have been much less accommodating on both counts. Around 6am, I woke up to my friend talking on the phone in the living room where I was sleeping on a sofa. He hung up and in a monotone, unflinching voice, told me that one of our fraternity brothers had just fallen off a roof and died. He had been watching the sunrise on top of a building and slipped.
For the only brief time in my life, I had no feeling whatsoever. No happiness, no sadness. No pain, no emotion. To be sure, I got up and walked across the room to the front door, completely forgetting about my crutches. I didn’t feel anything in my ankle. Without the pain, using my crutches would have seemed absurd if I had even been thinking at that point. I didn’t use the crutches for the rest of that day or the next one. In hindsight, this proved to be a terrible mistake because my body was still injured, despite my mind blocking out the pain. The rest of that day – and weekend – was a complete blur. I remember glimpses of people and places, but nothing solid. Much of what I will recount later on is from what people told me.
About three weeks ago, I woke up at 5:30am on a Friday to my wife yelling my name. In the first yell, I didn’t know what was wrong, but by the time she yelled my name again, I knew instantly. I could hear the shuffling of feet on the carpet and the banging of my side table up against the wall. Our dog, Rascal, was having a seizure on the floor. Almost a year earlier, he had his first seizure, so we were more prepared this time. We moved him away from objects and prepared everything to go to the vet. The doctor gave him a sedative to help calm him down, but this time around, he still seemed extremely scared of everything, including us.
When we got back from the vet, I took Rascal for a short walk to let him go to the bathroom. Still in his fight-or-flight state, he jumped at the sound of me pulling a bag from the disposal station. At 55 lbs, he easily jerked the leash out of my hand. Suddenly, he was off running. I was wearing boat shoes at this point, having gotten dressed in a hurry on the way to vet. I didn’t think I’d be walking much, let alone running, let alone sprinting. Rascal took off around our building, taking a turn towards what I knew to be a very busy street. The space between us was growing with every step I took.
It was 7:30am at this point and I was literally screaming his name at the top of my lungs. Despite my efforts, he ran right into a busy street. I was so far behind that my view was blocked, but I heard the screech of brakes. With a simultaneous sense of relief and fear, I saw Rascal continue running across the street and into the park. Having no cell phone on me, I asked a man in his car at the stoplight to use his so I could call my wife and tell her I’m chasing our now-injured dog into the park. I hung up, briefly looked both ways, and sprinted across the street. The entrance to the park has a big hill, which means I had to run to the top of it to see into the park. By the time I got there, Rascal was gone, and my lungs were on fire.
My father-in-law and two of our neighbors came out to help us look everywhere. We searched the entire park and asked everyone who would stop and listen if they had seen a dog with a bright blue leash still attached. Our worst fear was that he had stopped running and was curled up somewhere, waiting for the inevitable. After 8 hours of confusion, hanging missing posters, talking to strangers, and intermittent bursts of crying, we got a phone call. Animal control had picked him up at a local bank, scanned his microchip, and brought him back to our apartment complex. He had definitely been hit in the leg by a car and needed a fair amount of stitches, but he was no longer a frightened dog. He recognized us and immediately began wagging his tail and licking our faces.
As it pertains to the professional world, I do recognize the overlap in my personal crises. There are underpinnings that make a situation’s unfolding occur more smoothly, without which, life can move more slowly and negatively. I outlined these in three distinct parts that could potentially make a crisis a little more manageable.
When you are the one in crisis, your emotions, for better or worse, will blind you at times. Some people are a bit more ‘sociopathic’ than others and can disconnect from them, but trust that the emotions will arise whenever they want. You need people who can do some of your thinking for you and offer a rational point of view.
In Crisis 1, friends were able to make sure that I took care of myself. For me personally, there was a limited group of friends I could talk to for an escape, as most of my high school and college friends were dealing with the exact same thing with different people. As the common denominator, I needed objectivity to make sure I ate, bathed, and didn’t drink away my feelings. Third parties shouldn’t make all the decisions, but they can help with the simple processes that need to continue.
In Crisis 2, family and friends helped map out the logistics of finding our dog. I think of myself as a problem solver, but not that day. I kept repeating myself and giving extraneous unnecessary information about the dog, like what mix of breeds he is, as though everyone knows what that looks like. Non-affected third parties, though they may be saddened by the situation, can think clearly and form a plan that makes sense. They can provide the good judgment when all judgment leaves those in crisis.
Objectivity is great, but in crisis, whether your own or someone else’s, you want to be understood. People will be affected at different levels and each individual needs their own unique space to deal with the crisis. This can come in multiple forms and change rapidly over the course of the crisis, so it’s important to be flexible to what’s needed. Empathy is difficult for some, but it is the necessary balance to the objectivity listed above.
In Crisis 1, the school sent over professional counselors for everyone. My friends, those who didn’t know either of the departed, put their days and weekends on hold to do whatever was needed. For me, this often just included sitting on the front porch in silence while everyone carried on conversation like it was any other day. When any of us affected by the situation wanted to talk, the conversation swiftly changed. In this crisis, there was no definitive conclusion, rather a slow passing of time from its point of origin. Remember, the needed empathy might dissolve slowly, but it can still have spikes in the future.
In Crisis 2, my wife and I were surprisingly the ones who provided the greatest empathy for each other. In my moments of clarity, I was able to do what was needed for her, so she could express her pain. When I had breakdowns, she could lucidly take care of me. We talked with each other about what might happen and made jokes about Rascal probably out meeting people and eating food with friends. It was our awkward way to process, but it worked. Always provide the space for those affected to do what needs to be done to see the crisis through.
In chess, people often open with the same two or three moves and then adapt their strategy depending on their opponent’s moves. This is how I believe a crisis should be viewed. Objectivity can help with this, but a standard operating procedure will help those objective third parties make their decisions even faster. In some cases, the procedure will simply lead to a unique direction for the crisis management; in other cases, the procedure itself will need critical adjustment.
In Crisis 1, our friends didn’t really have any standard operating procedure, as most hadn’t dealt with this type of situation. The school, however, had seen this before. They sent over food and counselors that would help ease the burdens we would so quickly be dealing with. An email was sent out on behalf of the staff and faculty stating that any person affected would be given ample time to make up any missed class and work, further settling questions and concerns that might arise throughout the weekend.
In Crisis 2, the situation was a little different. This was the first time we had lost a pet, injured no less. We were being told stories by others that had both positive and negative outcomes (Side note: don’t tell a lost pet story to people going through this unless the pet lives at the end). We have since bought GPS for our pet to prevent such a crisis in the future. However, in the event that the GPS doesn’t work, we know that putting up flyers and talking to every person as quickly as possible helps narrow the places the dog can go without being seen.
Last year, I attended a weekend-long seminar on crisis management as part of my MBA program. Putting people into a fake crisis is difficult, but by shortening the required response time, providing a lot of decisions to deal with, and creating a mock press conference got us started. The most important lesson I learned that weekend was not how to handle a crisis. It was that, although there are many wrong ways to handle a crisis, there is no right way. Every crisis is different, given its timing, the people involved, and the circumstances of the emergency itself. There is no one all-encompassing handbook on crisis management, despite the numerous books that promote themselves as such at the bookstore. There is only thinking ahead as much as possible before crisis strikes, and then doing what you think is right afterwards.
Originally published at Linkedin.