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Mark Goulston, M.D. Headshot

Calming Global Fears, One Person and One Conversation at a Time

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We have nothing to fear but fear itself.*
-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Shortly after 9/11 I was asked to speak to -- or rather, calm down -- a group of service professionals and offer words of reassurance. Something I had learned from more than 30 years as a psychotherapist turned Fortune 500 executive coach is that when helping people calm down, it is much less important what you tell others than what you enable them to tell you, and in the process tell themselves, that results in them calming themselves down. When you do the latter, people vent, then exhale, then relax and are more open to engaging with you to discuss their options.

Therefore, when I met with this group of 30 tense individuals that included bankers, lawyers, insurance brokers, accountants, real estate agents and others, I asked each person to take two minutes to tell the story of a time in their life they never thought they'd get through but did and became stronger and wiser for it.

One by one, each attendee spoke about a very tough time for them. One of the most memorable stories for me was when a very civil female CPA, who because of her being so well mannered was seen as "lightweight," calmly told how on the day she graduated college and was about to be able to start paying back her sizable loans, she was given total custody of her 12-year-old brother. She wasn't impressed by it, but you could see the room collectively realize what a "heavyweight," solid person she was.

An equally memorable story came from a very smart and very dry-humored criminal defense attorney, not known for showing much emotion or vulnerability. He told us how his last child had been born very premature, and how each day he would visit the intensive care unit, sit by her and reach in to touch her hand. He then started to choke up -- as did the entire room -- when he said that when his daughter would grab on to his baby finger with all the tenacity of a little living thing fighting for life, he told himself that if she could be that strong, so could he.

Interestingly, after everyone finished their stories, everyone in the room had more than 90 percent recall of what the others had said, whereas that group would be hard pressed to remember what each other did professionally despite meeting every month for years.

The most important outcome of that meeting was a collective emotional exhale, deep bonding and a true belief that all of us were strong and would make it through. Furthermore, in that collective exhale, people felt bonded by both their vulnerabilities and strengths. Being alone with negative emotions nearly always makes them worse. Being alone with fear can rapidly turn into panic, being alone with frustration can rapidly turn into anger and being alone with disappointment can rapidly turn into discouragement -- and even worse, despair. Being open with others by sharing stories of what I refer to as the "road back from hell" can prevent a bad situation becoming worse.

If you want to calm the fears of others around you -- and yours, yourself -- then have everyone share such a story of making it through a difficult time that they didn't think they would. Build upon those stories by having people deconstruct the key components that they can now use to help them through their current fears.

What would also help the experience is for people to share the name of someone they're grateful for that helped them through that time, and also what that person did. There is something calming and emotionally restoring when you focus on gratitude for a known deed that helped you, instead of fear of the unknown.

Doing this exercise can help restore a sense of calm and re-center you and the people around you.

*During FDR's funeral procession, one man was overcome with emotion. The man next to him said, "You're so upset, did you know President Roosevelt?" The first man replied, "No, but he knew me." Isn't that something we could all use from our elected officials?

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