What We’re Preparing For (and When)

Seed sachet

Seeking inspiration, I found it in a likely place: a recent New Student Orientation event, which opened my eyes to how we prepare, and why preparation is both vital and on-going for all of us.

At my institution (the University of Nevada, Las Vegas), New Student Orientation is spread out over the long academic summer, with groups of incoming students and their families visiting on a Friday or Saturday to be welcomed to campus, getting their Rebel Cards and imbibing information about financial aid, student life, and many other things that will be real when the semester starts in August.

Wrapping up each NSO (what, you think an academic function wouldn’t have an acronym?) day is a resource fair in which students and families browse tables hosted by campus units that work with students. Among them is the Ombuds Office, which offers students informal interpersonal and institutional conflict resolution services—and a place to be heard.

A digression: I started tabling at NSO after shadowing the orientation team and seeing how much fun they were having—and how being present at students’ first official experience on campus would help spread the word about the office. Which again demonstrates why I like shadowing with campus units so much: I always learn something while people learn about the office.

“Tabling” is one of those words that I learned by shadowing—I had only thought of “table” as a verb in the parliamentary sense, as in tabling a motion, but since working more energetically to promote the Ombuds Office at NSO and other student-focused events, I have embraced the concept of tabling, working a table filled with information and sometimes swag in an effort to raise awareness and connect with potential constituents. I like the table that the office’s Program Manager, Tifara Rachal, and I have put together. There isn’t much in the way of plastic swag, but we do have a quick online quiz that identifies one’s conflict style, and cute stickers that represent each of the conflict styles.

So tabling for me is a mix of encouraging passers-by to take the quiz, explaining their conflict style to them, giving them stickers, and briefly introducing the office.

Anyway, I mention NSO just to share the incredible energy of the incoming students, for whom the future is a blank page. Just being around them for 90 minutes gave me a real recharge, which isn’t something you can always say when you’re working on Saturday after a long week. If the students who stopped by our table are any indication, UNLV is in good hands.

While watching those students prepare for college life, I started thinking seriously about preparation when I wasn’t interacting with students and families, reflecting on one of the lessons from the Surviving an Active Threat: Run. Hide. Fight. training that I took recently. It is a great training that I recommend to everyone, not only because it can help you respond better in a threatening situation, but because it explores deeply coded human responses to stress and uncertainty, which we all face just about every day.

Seeing students prepare for college by getting their IDs and learning about dining plans and study abroad opportunities helped me appreciate the part of our training that outlined the preparedness cycle.

Sometimes an idea appears innocuous, but actually disrupts what you thought you knew. And just the name “preparedness cycle,” did that for me, because it hammered something home that experts have probably known for a long time but just clicked for me: that we’re never really done preparing.

Sure, when we prepare for discreet events, like cooking a meal, at some point we stop prepping and start doing. But when thinking about larger themes, like conflict at any level, there’s always a chance that something unexpected will happen, so it makes sense to continually prepare and improve our responses.

The FEMA preparedness cycle has five steps: planning, organizing and equipping, training, exercising, and evaluating and improving. Planning lets us think creatively about what might happen and how we might respond. When I talk with people who are about to have a difficult conversation with someone, I stress the importance of planning by anticipating a range of potential responses to each question they ask the other person, thus reducing the need to think when stressed (more on that in a minute). Before we can hope to act, though, we need the right tools, which is where the second stage, organizing and equipping comes in. Sometimes, it could mean physical tools like supplies or equipping oneself with mental techniques and understanding.

Did I talk about thinking less? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we thought more? Maybe. But there is a time to ponder the mysteries of creation, to craft symphonies and plot drama, and a time when immediate, decisive action is needed. In a stressful situation, which can be everything from an unpleasant discussion about one’s work performance to a major emergency, we rarely do our best thinking. Thinking slows us down, which is why training, the third stage of the FEMA preparedness cycle, is crucial. Training narrows the range of potential responses, clearing the way for quick action when needed.

The fourth stage, exercising, includes actual simulations of crisis situations as well as “tabletop” discussions of them. For lower-level conflicts that abound in workplaces, we can also include “live” exercises in which people try different techniques that they have equipped, keeping their usefulness in mind as they move into the fifth stage, evaluating and improving. That is how the preparedness cycle arcs into infinity, as we see what worked and what didn’t, making the necessary adjustments to improve our plan for the future.

For example, imagine that someone isn’t happy because their co-worker is sending them passive-aggressive emails after working hours. They could start by planning for what to the next time it happens: send a response during working hours that addresses the email’s content while ignoring its tone. They might then equip by crafting a response ahead of time, to copy and past or just to use as a reference. Training could involve talking with a third party (like an ombuds) about different approaches before settling on the optimal one. Exercising happens when the next passive-aggressive email lands, and the response to the response will factor into future planning: should we be more or less conciliatory? Should we respond on the phone or in person instead of by email? Or did the right email do the trick?

Considering how FEMA’s preparedness cycle could intersect with low-level interpersonal conflict helps us frame our everyday slings and arrows within the context of how professionals respond to major threats, which makes sense since even though someone sending a snarky email isn’t going to make the news, it can make your life miserable, which is a major threat to your personal well-being.

And, if you’re getting discouraged at the moment, give yourself the luxury I did at NSO: see the world through young, eager eyes, and realize that there are things worth working for.

So until next time, expect the unexpected, stay informed, and I’ll stay informal.


Informed Informality: People, Organizations, Conflict, and Culture

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