11/30/2010 05:18 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Resilient People Can Teach Us About Being Effective

Much of my professional focus for the last three decades has been on striving to better understand how people do things well. I have mostly focused on depression, the most common mood disorder psychotherapists are asked to treat. Specifically, as a clinician, I have been deeply interested in the experiences of people who suffer terrible adversities, people who probably should be depressed, but who are not. I want to know, why not? What is it about the way these people cope that serves to insulate them against depression?

The most important questions for me as a psychotherapist then become these: Are there skills that some people possess on an intuitive or unconscious level that serve to protect them from depression? Can I identify these skills? Can I sequence their components and teach what seems to come naturally to them to others who are either already depressed or are at an elevated risk for depression? Will learning these skills make a difference in the frequency and quality of peoples' depressive episodes? So, to try to answer these critically important questions, I ask a lot of questions of people who are effective and strive to understand how they do the things they do.

As a clinician with more than a casual interest in people, I have been deeply interested in identifying the perceptual and behavioral sequences of people who are good at something, whatever it might be, even beyond the realm of depression. For example, I am likely to notice the parent in the grocery store who is good at maintaining the stated limit of "no candy," even when his or her child is throwing an embarrassing tantrum. I almost feel compelled to ask that person about his or her ability to hold the line under intense pressure from the child to give in. So, I ask questions like, "How do you decide which limit you want to set? How do you maintain it under pressure? How do you keep from caving in to the yelling and screaming and whining when all you really want at that moment is for your child to be quiet? How do you endure the harsh looks from other shoppers who apparently think you're the Devil? How do you... ?" The better the quality of the questions I ask, and the more insightful someone can be in answering them (which, of course, not everyone is), the more I learn about the patterns of where someone focuses and what he or she does internally that produces effective results. Striving to learn about what works, what is effective in producing the desired result is at the heart of a positive psychology. It amplifies and builds strengths rather than only focusing on explaining weaknesses.

Unfortunately, though, what takes up far too much of our collective attention is who's loudest, not who's best informed or most successful. Too many people are so dedicated to pushing their agenda, whether political or social, that they're willing to do so with little regard for the facts or the negative consequences they create. They polarize people and thereby create a noisy stalemate, more intent on being right than being effective.

Whether it's a depressed person who needs to stop doing what isn't working even if he or she thinks it "should," or a Congress that similarly must put obtaining good results ahead of stubbornly maintaining a personal bias, the goal is the same: Get out of yourself, and notice then do what works.