Coping Skills: Three Techniques

  • As an adjunct to Robin Cunningham's Coping Skills series, I'd like to present a blog entry, or perhaps a duo or trio of entries, talking about things I've done that prove out his techniques. In this first edition, I'll offer three techniques and show you the positive results.


    Skill #1: You have the freedom to decide what's actually happening, that is, to change your perceptions of what's going on. The end result of this could be luck or hard work. Either way, I'll show you how I did it.


    I attend a lot of meetings. More than I'd like to. At some of these affairs, we're seated movie theater style to listen to a guest speaker. At others, we mill around talking. If you're socially savvy, you "work the room." Here are some suggestions: Keep an eye out for groups of three people, and skirt the edge. If two people are chatting alone, let them be, or wait for a graceful opening when one person departs. I find it's easier to rotate, rather than glom on to one person for the night. (That could have him or her question you.)

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    Here's what happened last week at a meeting. We were seated around tables in a U-shape. Always there's the dreaded break time when you can chat or grab coffee or grab coffee AND chat. At the moment the instructor announced the break, I rose to pour a glass of juice. The guy I had mistaken for someone else two weeks ago was standing near the food table. I started talking with him again. That is, I drew him out with questions and let him talk. It's the Dale Carnegie method in action: if you get someone talking about himself, he'll think you're the sparkling wit even though you haven't said a word.


    Now, a woman intercepted my new acquaintance on business, so I returned to my seat-the perfect segue to disconnect. Before the guy took his seat, he came over, shook my hand, and asked my name, saying it was nice to talk to me.


    OK. How does this fit in with skill #1? "Writing the ending of the story" before it's finished is a faulty cognitive tactic. I could've worried that because I mistook him for someone else two weeks ago, he would've wanted nothing to do with me. Yet, indeed, after I had committed that faux pas, he was comfortable with himself and didn't seem the least bit offended.


    It all comes down to Choice. We have the choice as to how we respond to a situation. At the second meeting, I decided to interpret things differently. I told myself, "Maybe he's as nervous as you are at meetings, and welcomed the chance to chat with someone who appeared friendly and interested." Truly, 95 percent of the time, what I fear is all in my head and I haven't been able to read the situation correctly because I've already worked overtime jumping to conclusions.


    So how do we reality test if a good friend or therapist isn't nearby to set us straight or calm our jitters? We "act as if" the outcome is going to be favorable. Chances are, it will be. If we elevate our view of a person-even a stranger-he will act according to the high regard we give him.


    Skill #2: We have the freedom to change our expectations of an event.


    A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) sometimes fails to show up at our meeting times and loses papers I've sent him. Faced with these scenarios, I could get upset or examine the magnitude of what's happening. Rarely is something a life or death situation. So I've decided to cut him some slack, as I know his quirks aren't intentional.


    Though it's hard to practice, we can choose not to be upset, and it gets easier over time. The key is to expect more of yourself, and only expect others to be who they are. This is the frustrating part of advocacy of any stripe: to get people to come around to doing what you ask them. It's particularly hard to get them to change their belief systems to fit your beliefs. This isn't what our intention should be. The solution is to actually consider their viewpoint and understand why it's ingrained. The win-win is to adopt realistic expectations, not have pie-in-the-sky ones.

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    However, when it comes to addressing stigma in a skillful way, I will always look for the opening that someone is receptive.


    One time I changed my expectation of an event the hard way, as documented in Winning Against Fear: How to Do It. To blow your feelings out of proportion and have them skyrocket is a form of catastrophic thinking and causes more worry than you can comfortably carry. The meeting with Adrian, the guy I knew from a board we served on, did indeed go nowhere in terms of our becoming fast buddies, yet I accepted this outcome. Read that blog entry if you'd like the full story.


    Skill #3: Examine both sides of the story.


    Accept that every person you meet is a composite self, with contradictory traits and habits. He or she can be at once a mystery and an open book. As Robin Cunningham wrote, it's often hard for people with schizophrenia to read faces. Indeed, the best active listeners don't necessarily make eye contact 100 percent of the time. Research proves this. Rather, to understand a person, we can draw him out by asking questions in a Socratic way-always subtle, not nosy.


    Remember that each person's perception of reality is valid, even if it differs from our own. This is the beginning of understanding why people act the way they do. This could sound like a tangent; however, it does relate. I learned something that I take to heart as a peer advocate. In the December 2007 Reader's Digest, David Hochman interviewed Denzel Washington. Reader's Digest asked the award-winning actor: "Have you ever experienced prejudice?" He responded: "Sure, absolutely. But I'm a positive person, so I don't get bogged down with it. If you're expecting that, if you wallow in that, if you practice that, then you'll attract what you fear."


    That's how it is with stigma, and with any kind of interaction with people where we set ourselves up to believe only one imagined outcome is possible. Again, it all comes down to choice: we have the right to choose our perception of the world-of the people in our lives and the events that happen to us.


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    My goal is to speak up at meetings. The longer I keep quiet, the more anxious I'll remain. So as hard as it is, I'm going to act counter to my emotions. As I experiment with the techniques I've written about here, I'll give you an update. Try these on for size yourself. You just might like what you find out.


Published On: April 10, 2008