Staying Relational in Stressful Moments, Part 2

By Jessica Duisberg

December 8, 2020

De Pree Journal

A couple of days ago, a colleague gave me unsolicited advice. He had the best of intentions, but I experienced his advice as if it were criticism. I felt self-conscious and defensive. Aware of my internal reactions, I tried to respond with grace, but I couldn’t find the right words. I couldn’t find any words at all. The communication channel from my mind to my mouth seemed to have disappeared, and I felt myself shifting out of relational mode into discouragement and anger. Non-relational mode brings out the worst in people, and I am no exception. So, attempting to keep the situation from getting worse, I asked if we could come back to the subject later when I’d had a chance to reflect on what he said.

As I described in “Staying Relational in Stressful Moments, Part 1,” Jesus models perfect relational mode. His relational responses to sin, betrayal, anger, and even torture show that being in relational mode doesn’t mean avoiding problems or big emotions. Quite the opposite. Staying relational in the middle of stress, chaos, and conflict can help us access significant resources for working through problems and stress. The resources we gain from staying relational include creativity, morality, flexibility, and the ability to give and receive emotional support from others.

But problems and big emotions can rapidly plunge us into non-relational mode. Depending on the circumstances, it can be relatively easy or incredibly hard to get back into relational mode once we’ve shifted out of it. When I’m in non-relational mode, I find that there is a specific pattern that helps me recognize what’s happening and get back into relational mode: recognize, breather, empathy, gratitude. I don’t always do this very well, but when I’m at my best, this is how the process usually works.

Recognize Non-Relational Mode

Dr. Karl Lehman created the term “relational circuits” to describe the way our brains shift into and out of relational mode. When I want to test whether I’m in relational mode or not, I pull out Lehman’s relational circuits checklist. If I can check one or more of these boxes, it’s likely that I’m not in relational mode:

  • I just want to make a problem, person or feeling go away.
  • I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
  • My mind is “locked onto” something upsetting.
  • I don’t want to be connected to (someone I usually like) .
  • I just want to get away, fight, or freeze.
  • I more aggressively interrogate, judge and fix others.

I kept this checklist in my pocket for a few months, checking it whenever I felt frustrated or stuck. Over time I began to notice that the “escape” and “freeze” items were the main signals for me. I can often recognize non-relational mode in seconds now by checking whether I want to listen to the other person or just get away (escape), and whether I’m stumbling over my words and having trouble thinking flexibly because my mental function is stuck (freeze).

Take a Breather

When I realize I’m in non-relational mode, taking a breather or break is usually the best way for me to start to get back in relational mode. It’s the tool I used with my advice-giving colleague. I’ve occasionally taken a few days’ break just to let my emotions about the situation calm down and gain some perspective. But often I need to respond to work or family situations more quickly than that. So, I may excuse myself to take a short walk, do a physical or mental task, listen to calming music, or anything else that helps calm or release the emotions and the physical sensations that go with them, such as adrenaline, tension, or feeling deflated. If I can’t excuse myself, I use deep breathing to stabilize my physical reactions such as adrenaline rushes, muscle tension, or feeling deflated.

Receive Empathy

Once I’m in a more stable state physically, I can attend to my emotions. If I have time, I can find someone who will listen with care as I process out loud. But in a hurry, I simply take a few moments to remember a time when someone really listened to me or cared for me in some way. I try to remember enough details about it that I can feel again in the present moment the sense of being heard, understood, known, cared for. Sometimes in prayer I sense God’s empathy toward me. As most parents of children with skinned knees have seen firsthand, receiving a little empathy seems to accelerate the shift back toward relational mode. With practice, I now have certain favorite memories that are easily accessible when I need to call them up. And I intentionally track new experiences of receiving empathy by naming them or storing photos of them on my phone. This helps me remember them more easily later.

Express Gratitude

When I begin to feel gratitude for the empathy and care, I know I’m back in relational territory and my creative, flexible, ethical “human brain” is online. It helps to express my gratitude in words to God and to other people. Using words helps re-synchronize the feeling and thinking parts of the brain, reinforcing relational mode. Once I feel gratitude, I can let myself begin to re-engage the situation, perhaps first in my own thinking and then with the other person or people involved.

The more I have practiced this process of recognize-breather-empathy-gratitude, the more quickly I’m able to re-engage a difficult situation. In fact, I was surprised by how quickly this happened in a recent exchange with my husband. He had suggested a change of plans, and my brain froze up. I couldn’t get myself to think flexibly. Recognizing this red flag from the relational mode checklist, I was able to stop the shift in its early stages. Then I was able – in the moment – to share gratitude directly with him. “I really appreciate your thinking ahead about options for the afternoon,” I said. “You’re really good at maximizing our fun. My brain is freezing up a bit, but if you can give me about twenty minutes to let my brain unfreeze, I’ll give my input on those options.” I was used to needing twenty minutes of breather, so I asked for that much. But unexpectedly, it only took me about five.

This is a historical moment of stress and big emotions. In these times, it is easy to see others as means to an end—or worse, as enemies to defeat. Whether you are a leader or manager, parent, spouse, sibling, friend, or coworker, I encourage you to practice ways of staying relational with the people around you. In the midst of anger, fear, and loss, may you find and share the kind of tender relationality that marked Immanuel, God Among Us.

P.S. Jessica could use your help gathering data for her dissertation! We would love for you to fill out her survey (password: adaptive). The survey will take about 30 minutes and contribute to cutting edge research on adaptive leadership and emotional resilience. It is designed for those who have held professional or volunteer positions with oversight of at least five adults for at least one year in the last ten years.


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Jessica Duisberg

Writer & Author

Jessica Duisberg is the Assistant Director of Fuller’s Innovation for Vocation Project. An Anglican priest and former nonprofit ministry director, she is writing her doctoral dissertation on cultivating the emotional resilience for adaptive leadership.

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