You’ve just finished a presentation, and you’re feeling relieved. You’ve just had a difficult conversation with a colleague, and you’re feeling drained. You’ve just finished a networking event, and you’re feeling exhausted.
First of all, congratulations! You’ve just completed a stressful situation, and you are surely poised to grow from the experience. Now, it’s time to reflect on the experience, in order to plant seeds for the personal growth.
In order to learn the most out of stressful experiences and perform better over time, I’ve developed a routine for handling stressful situations. I’ve already discussed the preparation stage of the routine, as well as the techniques that I use during the stressful situation to perform well. Finally, this week I am wrapping up the series by discussing the retrospective, which happens after the stressful situation.
Of course, what I’m about to share applies to me, but might not necessarily apply to others - still, I hope that it will inspire you to design your own routine for handling stressful situations!
The goal of the retrospective is to learn from the stressful situation, and to grow from the experience. In the following chapters, I’m providing a few techniques that I use during the retrospective.
Stressful experiences are kind of like dreams - they’re hard to remember, and they fade away quickly. Apart from this, the joy and the relief of the stressful experience being over may distort our thoughts about how well we performed; specifically we might forget that we made a mistake or there was an opportunity to improve. In addition, we are often biased to forget bad things and only remember the good.
That’s why I try to write down my thoughts and feelings as soon as possible after the stressful situation. I try to put myself back into the scene I was in, and think about what I did well and what I didn’t do well. For example, I might think about the emotions I’ve experienced, what was my body language like, how was my speech like, etc.
Once the experience has been journaled, I take my time and reflect on it.
Having the picture of the stressful situation as it played out from our perspecitve is great, but it’s also useful to obtain the external picture. This could take on many forms, for instance:
- A video of our speech, where we can see our body language and hear our speech.
- A recording of a meeting, where we can hear our voice and the voices of others. When I was working on a project where we frequently met with the client, I asked for a permission to record the meeting - not only to not miss something, but also to rewatch my performance.
I try not to look at the external journal until I’ve written down my own thoughts and feelings, so that I don’t get biased by it.
Using the internal and possibly external journal of the experience, I try to answer the following questions:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What can I do better next time?
I’d like to specifically point out the “What went well” part. I think that it’s important to celebrate the things that went well, and to be proud of them. This is especially important if the stressful situation didn’t go well overall, because it allows us to learn from the experience and grow, while still feeling good about ourselves.
If possible, it’s good to ask for feedback from people who were involved in the situation. However, I find that good feedback can be hard to get, if we don’t set it up properly:
- I give a heads up that I will be asking for feedback. This allows people to prepare their thoughts, and to be more honest.
- If possible, I try to ask for feedback as soon as possible, while the situation is still fresh in the minds of everyone.
- When asking for feedback, I ask open ended questions, such as “What did you like about the presentation?”, and “What didn’t you like about the presentation?“. I try to avoid priming the feedback givers by asking yes/no questions, such as “Did I speak too fast?“.
- I don’t take the feedback personally. I try to remember that feedback is subjective, and that it’s not a reflection of my character.
- If possible, I allow the feedback to be anonymous - for example, by using a Google Form.
By asking for feedback, we can get a different perspective on the situation. Often, we will discover something that we haven’t thought about, and that will help us grow even more.
Reflecting on the feedback
By now we have obtained the journal and the feedback; at least internal, but hopefully also external. Now, it’s time to reflect on it, and to think about what we can learn from it.
What went well? What can we be proud of? What can we celebrate?
It is important not to focus purely on the negative, even if the negative feedback can be more useful for growth. Knowing what we are already doing well is important so that we know we are on the right path and that we can indeed do this.
What didn’t go well? What can we improve? What can we do better next time?
This is the most important part of the retrospective, because it allows us to grow from the experience.
I break down every negative point, try to find it’s cause, and then make a battle plan for how to improve it. The end result of the battle plan is either an action that I need to take to improve (such as learning or research), or a check-item for the preparation routine (such as: “the next time I am preparing a talk, I need to time myself to ensure I’m within the time constraints”).
For example, if I was speaking too fast, and the cause of it was that I was nervous, then the battle plan would be:
- Action: research online about techniques for speaking slower while under stress, practice speaking slower in front of a mirror.
- Preparation check-item: Before the presentation, take a deep breath and remember that you are not being rushed. Calm down and speak slowly.
The cause can greatly affect the battle plan. For example, if the reason for speaking fast was because I was running out of the alloted time for my talk, then the battle plan would be:
- Preparation check-item: when practicing the talk, I should time myself, and find the way to shorten the presentation if it’s too long.
Using the negative feedback, we can take the right actions, as well as enhance our preparation routine, to make sure that we are better prepared for the next stressful situation.
A mental bookmark
In the first blog post of the series, I’ve mentioned the technique “Searching the Past”:
This technique is very similar to the visualization technique, but instead of imagining the future, we think about the past. We think about the times when we were in a similar situation and how we handled it. This can help us realize that we’ve done this before and that we’ve handled it well, which boosts our confidence.
The stressful experience that we’ve just went through will serve as a mental bookmark for the “Searching the Past” technique.
The next time we are in a similar situation, we will be able to think back to this experience, and remember that we’ve done this before and that we’ve handled it well.
For this reason, it is important to store our journal entries, emotions, and thoughts of this stressful experience, in a form of a message for our future selves - the future self will use it to prepare for the similar stressful situation at hand. There’s something mystical and enjoyable in connecting with the future in that way.
Assessment of improvements
After the next similar stressful situation, I try to assess if I’ve improved in the areas that I’ve identified during the retrospective.
For example, if I’ve retrospected that I was speaking too fast in my talk, then the next time I’m giving a talk, I try to assess if I’ve improved in speaking slower. If I haven’t, I try to think about why that is, and what I can do to improve, perhaps changing the battle plan or escalating it by involving other people (such as mentors) to help me work through repeated issues.
Finding joy in success
Something very nice happens when we overcome a stressful challenge. It’s a state of relief, but also a state of joy, happiness, and pride. It’s a state of growth, and it’s a state of accomplishment.
I like to cherish these moments. They don’t last long, but they are sweet.
I think life is about solving problems and challenges, but it’s also about cherishing the moments when the problems get solved and challenges get overcome. I take this time to enjoy while sighting a new challenge on the horizon…
The retrospective is the last, but definitely not the least part of the routine for handling stressful situations. Using the retrospective, we can learn from the stressful experience, and grow from it. We can also use the retrospective to prepare for the next stressful situation, by storing our thoughts and emotions in a form of a message for our future selves.
I hope that this series has inspired you to design your own routine for handling stressful situations. I’d love to hear about your routine, so feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.
This blog post is a part of the series “Handling stressful situations”: