Sara Ross: Your Brain During a Crisis

Author: Barbara Palmer       


Recognizing that everyone responds differently to a crisis will help people show more empathy and support one another, Sara Ross believes. (Courtesy of Sara Ross)

Takeaways from Sara Ross:

  • It is completely normal to experience ups and downs in our emotional responses.
  • It is 100-percent normal to cycle through these phases with varying degrees of intensity and for varying amounts of time. It will benefit us to expect a bumpy road ahead.
  • We can tap into our empathy more skillfully when we realize there is also some predictability to people’s emotional response.
  • It is important to realize that people are experiencing loss and there is an emotional response that comes with that. The hardest part is recognizing that we don’t all respond to this the same way or at the same time. When we acknowledge this and replace judgment with curiosity, we can use our empathy skills to lift one another up, exactly the way each person needs.
  • We will be more prone to feel loss, frustration, and sadness in the coming days. This may be even more pronounced with social distancing, as every significant historical event (wars, depressions, recessions, natural disasters, and traumatic events) involves stories of people getting through by coming together. Technology is allowing people to come together, but the need for physical contact is the human equalizer.

Sara Ross is a leadership strategist whose clients have including Fortune 500 companies, elite academic institutions, and the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The founder of the BrainAMPED research group, Ross frequently speaks about impact of neuroscience and emotional intelligence on business performance.

So we reached out to Ross — who delivered keynotes at the 2019 PCMA Education Conference in Los Angeles and at Destinations International’s Destination Showcase in Washington, D.C., in January — at her home office, where she was fielding calls from clients, to ask for her expert opinion on the link between our emotions and behavior in such a profoundly unsettled and uncertain time. What can we expect?

First of all, “this is one of those things that is impacting the whole world. There has just been so much disruption,” Ross said. “What is surprising to many people is that in a lot of instances, people are really beautifully coming together,” she added. “It’s not that that this isn’t hard. But we are looking for ways to support one another, because this is so, so significant and everyone’s lost their grounding. It’s very natural for human beings to grab it from one another.”

In fact, according to one study, “when people are falling and they have the option to either grab onto someone’s hand or grab onto a railing, their natural instinct is to reach out for a hand, even though actually it would make more sense to grab a railing,” Ross said. As long as people have brains, “our primary requirement is for human connection,” she said. “It’s never going to go away. It is our core human emotion.”

More from Sara Ross: Practice Emotional Intelligence

Initially, there was “a lot of extreme emotions and novelty in the situation,” Ross said. “Every time you looked at the news, there was something significant happening and changing. Our brain was on dopamine overload.”

But what will come next — and depending on how long this lasts — is that the novelty will wear off and the honeymoon phase will end, she said. As the pandemic continues, “I think we’ll actually really feel the hardest stuff in the next few weeks,” Ross said.

“You should be prepared for high levels of stress to start to accumulate,” she added. “I can predict that some people will then go into that scarcity mindset, where people start trying to protect themselves as they worry about the security of their roles and future. Right now, we’re reaching out for one another, but there will be a little bit that [self-protective] reaction if it’s not managed.”

An ‘Identity Quake’

“There’s an entire identity quake going on for people whose self-identity has been their work and their success,” she said. “That’s been shaken, and they can’t do anything to control it.” People are having to do things that they haven’t done before and may feel incompetent, she said. “We expect people to react rationally and logically in a way that’s best for them,” she said, but that is typically not what we immediately do.” When emotions are highly triggered, “our brains go to emotion first and logic second.”

“People start getting skeptical of one another, where the reaction should be to reach out and talk,” she said. It helps, she said, to know that our brains are constantly looking for the answers to three basic questions: How do I look to everyone else — will I be seen as competent? How will I fit in this new situation — will I have a place and be accepted? How will I fare — will I be successful and secure? “The questions stem, respectively, from a fear of judgment, of rejection, and uncertainty,” Ross said.

“Our brain is always responding to the fear of the unknown,” Ross said. And right now, “I don’t think there is anyone in the world who is not feeling it to some degree.” But not everyone prioritizes things in the same way — which is where empathy comes in, Ross said. “Empathy is a critically important skill — especially in a crisis. Communication and empathy are going to be the most essential skills to draw on over the next few weeks.”

What Is Empathy, Really?

People often think that empathy means putting ourselves in another person’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling, Ross said. “The problem is we too often put ourselves in their shoes, and then we then look at the situation through our own experiences, values, and beliefs.” If people respond differently than we would in the same situation, then we “inadvertently end up judging them, by responding with comments like, ‘I wouldn’t get upset about this,’ or ‘I’d want someone to tell me that,’ etc.”

The adjustment, when it comes to practicing empathy, is to withhold judgment, and instead get curious about the other person’s perspective, she said. “You don’t need to agree with others to demonstrate empathy, but it helps to remember that, when people experience things differently than you, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.”

Having empathy for others in a crisis “actually allows us to work less hard, because we’re not trying to assume that we know what people need,” Ross said. Empathy leads to curiosity, “and we can ask the questions that allow us to be more adaptable and compromise on the important things in difficult moments.”

Where to Lean In

We can and should expect the road ahead to be bumpy, but “we also have an opportunity to remind one another that with all of the disruption over the last two decades, we’ve acquired a lot of learning,” she said. “We need to draw on this now. As natural as it is for people to experience hard emotions through this pandemic, it is just as natural to adapt. Our brains are wired for resilience.”

The final stage, Ross said, “will be people creating a new normal, experimenting with different approaches and in many instances, becoming stronger, more connected, and with more awareness and confidence in the end.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

What Events Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19

PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.

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