My favorite quote to use when teaching incident management classes is by the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden:
Be quick, but don't hurry.
I like it because it encapsulates everything about incident management and responding to crises.
If you are quick, it means you know your job and you are comfortable doing it. You see the big picture, you figure things out. If you are quick, time slows down allowing you to act, anticipate, and communicate. You reduce stress for yourself, the team, and stakeholders.
If you hurry, you feel rushed. You get tunnel vision. Time speeds up, doubts set in. If you hurry, you become overwhelmed, events pass you by, and you are lucky if you can just react. You add to the stress of those around you.
Quickness is an acquired skill. Through most of my training years, I was definitely more hurried than quick. At times, I still am. Only after a few failures, lots of experience, and many hours thinking about it all did I feel like I could regularly reach a decent level of comfortable quickness.
More importantly, I learned to anticipate when I would be hurried, to identify that moment when I'm right on the edge of stress overwhelming me and things closing in. Everyone who has ever worked a tough incident walks up to the edge. The trick is not to go over. Once you figure out where that edge is for you and once you can name it or describe it or feel it, it is much easier to foresee and counter. You can even manage for the possibility with a good work/rest ratio, decent food, and giving yourself permission to take a break when you need it. Just a quick walk will do wonders. Now, when I start to feel hurried, I can usually slow things down, acknowledge the uncertainty, accept the magnitude of the problem, and focus on a task or two until I feel quick again.
When you reach that point of self-knowledge, it also becomes easier to see when others are hurried or approaching a hurried state. This happens often during crises when stakeholders are experiencing stresses never encountered before. In stressful situations, the ability for people to comprehend new information can drop by 80%. To help them slow down time, get back to a functioning level, and make it easier for them to understand, you must do two things.
The first is to be good at what you do and project that and the team's capabilities through your nonverbal actions. Some call it leadership presence, but I think that term implies something a bit different. How about instead we say exuding professional competence and personal control? Here's someone who has the experience to help and can manage the stress of this incident. Needless to say, your actions must confirm this impression and before that can occur, you need the experience and training to inform your actions. It's a tough circle to close.
The second tool you can use is to speak slightly slower and softer than normal. This works well in one-on-one discussions as it requires the other person to devote more energy to listening than worrying. It can also work in a group, but you may have to speak softly louder in that case. The pace of speech is the most important aspect though, because through slowing things down a bit, you slow everything down for the listener. They instantly recognize that you are not exhibiting signs of being hurried and overwhelmed like others around them. That instills confidence and it becomes a positive feedback loop. After all, hurried people tend to talk faster than normal, so the inverse holds, right?
In many ways, the Wildland and Structure Fire culture already encourages this approach on some fronts, with radio communications being the most obvious. The way we talk and teach people to talk on radios emphasizes calmness and clarity even when relaying tough information. We do such a good job of this that it is rare and remarkable when we hear a hurried voice over the radio. When we do hear that voice, the stress level for everyone ramps up considerably, and probably for good reason. It's also a sign that everyone else needs to be quick and make sure time slows enough for good decisions to be made.
Now, in personal conversations... I'm. Not...talking. About go-ing. This. Slow. It's just a slight change. An extra fraction of a second added to pauses between phrases, a gentle emphasis on certain syllables. It should come across as natural and all incident personnel should cultivate it until it becomes legitimately natural for them. You should not have to consciously think about it. If you can speak slightly slower naturally, it also becomes self-fulfilling in that it allows you to better manage your own stress which becomes part of that positive feedback loop that applies to your own confidence. For me, it's a switch I make myself turn on when the first signs of stress appear: I'm different on an incident, but it feels natural. It also helps you recognize when you're talking too fast which may be a sign you're about to reach a hurried state. Of course, it all absolutely must be backed by competence (and eye contact--don't forget the nonverbal). Otherwise, folks may think you are just... slow.
So, get experience, practice, read, think. Become comfortable in tough situations and push the envelope further, then go beyond. Always pay attention to the influence you have on teammates and stakeholders during stressful times. Be mindful of the energy you bring to a conversation or to a room, and try to slow things down a bit.
Be quick, but don't hurry.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.