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When You’re Lost in the Forest, Sit Down

One of the wisest sayings I ever learned is, “When you’re lost in the forest, sit down.” While this has proven useful to me time and time again, it goes against the very core of response time expectations in today’s digital world, and it’s that expectation of instant response that can get an employee or company in trouble.

Sure, I fall victim to the “ping” of my iPhone when I’m doing something and have to constantly fight the urge to stop to answer it. Is it an appointment reminder I’ve forgotten? Does my spouse need something else from the store? Am I up next for solving world peace?

We’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to respond and respond FAST! And mistakes will happen — texting the wrong person, hitting “reply all,” not seeing the whole chessboard before you make a move.

This rapid response training permeates the workplace and it often gets people into trouble. All too often we sacrifice wisdom for speed in trying to make a problem go away as quickly as possible when it surfaces. We forget that timing is seldom as imperative as we may think and we lunge ahead with a quick fix.

When this happens to me, I’ve learned to “sit down” — to step back and take the time to see the big picture before making a decision. And while this all sounds nice, I understand that some things need a quick answer. But I would venture that instant response isn’t always as necessary as we’ve trained ourselves to think it is.

In sitting down, I’ve learned to assess my surroundings and get my bearings. I’ve learned to ask questions of my colleagues and team — many of whom prove to be pretty darn smart. (Imagine what I’d miss if I always took the whole load myself.) And the biggest thing is I’ve learned to say, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.”

So here’s what I do know: When something or someone “pings” into your day and you’re feeling the need for rapid response, here are four steps to take.

  1. Pause. When a friend turned 40 a few years ago, I gave her an empty wooden box with a piece of paper inside that simply said “pause.” She’s a successful executive who keeps this on her desk — and when the day gets a little too frenetic, she opens it and pauses. You can do this.
  2. Quiet. Clear your mind and take an honest look at the issue and the timing needed to respond. Is it right now — or do you have time? Can you move all the emotions you’re feeling — fear, anger, concern — and let the true issue bubble up?
  3. Question. Ask both the obvious and the questions from the periphery that may actually get you to the real solution faster.
  4. Listen. You will be surprised what you will hear when you’re not trying to form your next answer. Silence in the room is OK, too.

I often have to slow my expectations for response to and from any issue in the quest for operational and communication efficiency. But it’s always that pause that can take us even further into the luxury of contemplation to not only solve — but to dream. Hamlet really had it right…

 What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet