Turn Pain into Empowerment by Reframing Your Story

Turn Pain into Empowerment by Reframing Your Story
May 14, 2021 Susan Diepen

Turn Pain into Empowerment by Reframing Your Story

Laurie Haynes

Laurie Haynes

Director of Training, Apple American Group, a division of Flynn Restaurant Group

An Exercise to Help Your Hospitality Team

“It’s ok that we were scared, we cried in the shower, and that it was tough. We survived, and we are stronger people because of it.”

We all went through some degree of trauma during the Covid-19 pandemic. Though everyone’s experience was unique, we shared a lot of the same stressors. We were all scared—for ourselves and/or others, we all experienced some degree of isolation, uncertainty, and changes to our jobs and daily lives. How we handled it at the time and how mentally healthy we feel coming out of the pandemic is highly individual, but the point is that everyone experienced, and is likely still experiencing, some degree of distress. But there is a strategy by which reframing those traumatic experiences can help to transform some of our lived pain into empowerment.

In September of 2020, the Harvard Business Review published an article called An Exercise to Help Your Team Overcome the Trauma of the Pandemic. I was immediately intrigued by the article and the exercise. It is designed to help your employees reflect on the pandemic, acknowledge the distress they felt, and reframe their experiences in a way that is confidence-building. What matters, the authors suggest, is how you think about and tell the story of your own struggle.

The article provides a blueprint for helping individuals activate post-traumatic growth through storytelling and story-listening. By creating personal narratives that derive meaning from the traumatic experience, participants can reframe it in a way that increases their sense of control and accomplishment, which can, in turn, positively impact their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Here are the questions:

  1. What is the greatest loss you experienced during Covid-19?

  2. What is the greatest gain you experienced during Covid-19?

  3. What are you learning about yourself during Covid-19?

  4. What would it look like if you applied your learnings going forward?

  5. What two words or short phrases will remind you of how to apply what you’re learning?

I asked my team, Apple American Group’s Regional Training Managers, to participate in this exercise, and I worked through it alongside them. I can honestly say that it has transformed the way that I look at my own experiences with the pandemic, and after going through this exercise together, my team is even closer and more cohesive than ever.

“…we trust each other more. Reach out more. Listen more. Help each other more. Listening to what everyone went through made it important to appreciate the little things that are now huge for this team.”

Here are five tips for using this exercise with your team:

1. Provide the questions ahead of time, and ask participants to come prepared with answers to the first four questions.

  • These are deep questions, and deserve some honest reflection. Give your team the time they need to really consider their experience before working through this exercise as a group. I recommend giving the questions to your team one week before your meeting whether it is virtual or in person.

2. Make it safe for your group members to be vulnerable.

  • Vulnerability requires trust, so be sure to establish and enforce an expectation of respect, confidentiality, and zero judgment for all participants.
  • Assure participants that they are not required to share anything. They can share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with.
  • Go first. It’s hard to be vulnerable, and the best thing you can do is to lead the way by sharing your own experiences openly.
  • Even if some participants choose not to share their story with the group, they can still reap the benefits of this exercise. Just recognizing that they are not alone in their doubts and struggles can be validating and empowering.

3. Allow adequate time.

  • You will need a minimum of two hours to complete the exercise with 4 to 6 people. While two hours away from work activities that are more directly related to revenue may seem like a lot to ask, engaged teams are more productive and have less turnover, resulting in a healthier bottom line. Hopefully, that assurance will be justification enough to get your leadership on board if they are hesitant to allocate the time needed.
  • By investing this time in your team’s mental wellness, you demonstrate a commitment to the whole employee, inspiring employee loyalty and positive regard for the company.
  • The bottom line is that two hours is time well spent if it leads to increased wellbeing for the individuals on your team.

4. Dedicate time to work through question number 5 at the end of your session.

  • Participants may gain insight and clarity from talking through their own story and listening to their peers’ experiences throughout the exercise.
  • The 2-word phrase from question number 5 is referred to in the article as a “narrative compass,” which can be used as an empowering personal mantra and an intention for how the individual will respond to future stress.
  • For instance, my team’s narrative compasses included, “Be Kind,” “Recognize and Adjust,” and “Engaged Mindfulness.”
  • After the exercise, encourage the group to integrate their narrative compass into their daily routine. For example, taking 5 minutes to set their intention at the beginning of the day, or using it to help reframe a difficult day. It can also be integrated in a team meeting kick-off, where each person is encouraged to share “I used my narrative compass this week by…”

5. Keep the lines of communication open after the exercise, and check in to see how things are going.

  • Neither recovery nor growth follow straight lines. The pandemic may be largely behind us, but we will be feeling the effects for a long time to come.
  • Let your team members know you care about them as individuals, that you value their sacrifices and their dedication, and that their mental wellbeing is important.
  • Gently remind them of their demonstrated strength and perseverance if you see them struggling, or they need a boost down the road.

My team completed this exercise in September of 2020, and today, more than seven months later, I can confirm that it was worth every minute of time we spent. The team is more connected to each other, and we have built trust and a renewed sense of purpose. Each person gained a better understanding of their own strengths, and felt empowered after this exercise. They also felt empathy and compassion for each other, and reported a profound sense of relief at realizing that they were not alone in their struggles.

Here are a few of the things they said, in their own words:

“The questions that were asked, really made you think of the positives. It’s ok that we were scared, we cried in the shower, and that it was tough. We survived, and we are stronger people because of it.”

“Talking through things we could not control made it easier to deal with things you can’t control. It is now what we do. Regroup and make it work.”

“[We were] asked specific things I had not thought about, and by having to put it on paper, it helped put some feelings and experiences into perspective.”

“We are still professionals. We are still an awesome team. We just made it okay to be human, and that feels pretty good.”

“[Now] we trust each other more. Reach out more. Listen more. Help each other more. Listening to what everyone went through made it important to appreciate the little things that are now huge for this team.”

By giving your team the tools to develop positive stories about their own strength, determination, and perseverance, you can help them feel empowered, connected, with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. This exercise can go a long way to help them recover from, and even grow, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For more information on the fascinating topic of post-traumatic growth, and further discussion and examples pertaining to this exercise, see the original article, An Exercise to Help Your Team Overcome the Trauma of the Pandemic, from the Harvard Business Review, September, 2020.