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What next? Preparing for Challenge — Aviation Frame – Introduction

Have you ever had one of ‘those’ days where a seemingly endless succession of small things went wrong? How did your reactions change over the course of the day?

We all have them… We can often deal with or manage around most of the problems without too much effort. We may find them frustrating, or maybe we are able to eventually ‘surrender’ to our ‘fate’ for the day and laugh the events off, or at least let them wash over us.

Most of the time things don’t go wrong – they go smoothly, or smoothly enough. But sometimes they don’t. They can go wrong all of a sudden, or there may be signs that things are starting to go wrong. Dealing with problems develops or refines mental structures (called frames) in our long-term memory that help us explain and make sense of situations and information.

However, because we’re not accustomed to things going wrong, we’re likely to experience surprise. As posited in this 2017 aviation psychology paper, surprise generates a mismatch with our current mental frame, requiring us to change frames to deal with the new situation. If the surprise is sudden, our physiological response is to ‘startle’, as explained in this paper. The initial startle can develop into a full surprise reaction if we perceive the surprise to be threatening and/or overwhelming, activating our ‘fight or flight’ response. Cognitive processing required to select, blend or modify mental frames isn’t possible in this ‘fight or flight’ state.

Both papers reported that pilot responses were significantly impaired – even in some cases acting contrary to their considerable training – in the face of surprise. Yet because of the multi-layered systems in aviation that have increased reliability and minimized the impact of human errors, pilots can become inadvertently conditioned to expect ‘normalcy’, increasing the intensity of the surprise response.

Translating the findings of the 2017 paper to our daily lives, because things mostly go well:

  • We are likely to experience surprise when they don’t,

  • We have a limited number of frames to draw on, and

  • We may be less confident in our ability to deal with things going wrong, through lack of practice.

So how can we respond better when things go wrong?

I’ve found a frame I was first introduced to through aviation to be helpful. Essentially it’s to understand and accept that there are things within our control (or influence) and things beyond our control. From there, do our best on the things within our control (or influence) and be prepared to respond to the things that are not, with the underlying premise that sometimes things go wrong.

Breaking it into practical steps based on the research papers above, we can:

  • Foster a healthy expectation that things sometimes go wrong. (Remember that most of the time things go well!)

  • Consciously develop more and richer mental frames. (My explanation of this aviation frame has been updated by the research papers – a refinement of my own frame!)

  • Increase our confidence by our enriched frames and practice dealing with challenges.

  • Learn techniques that help us recover after surprise and re-orientate ourselves.

  • Ask for help, where possible. Whether preparing for challenge or in the face of challenge, we can benefit from others’ observations and frames.

The second and third points will be the subject of the next newsletter, with the fourth point the subject of the newsletter after that. The final newsletter in this sub-series will look at discerning between what’s within and what’s beyond our control.

Accepting and understanding that some can go wrong and consciously preparing can help us respond faster, with greater mental capacity and less stress.

Over the next week: reflect on what expectations you have about things going wrong or not going wrong. Which expectations have changed for you over the last year? How can those changed expectations help you prepare for challenge now you understand the processes explained above?

Stretch activity: What if we reframe it to being surprised by opportunity? What could you apply from this frame to help you in that situation?

If you’re interested in psychology or specifically how we deal with startle and surprise, I’d highly recommend reading the full 2017 paper!

View out an aeroplane window towards the sun
Photo by Jacky Lo on Unsplash

Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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