What do whitewater rafting, the beach, and conflict have in common?

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Nothing, right?¬†One takes place on a river, one at the ocean, and the other could be anywhere, but not while we’re having fun.

I was at the ocean with my children and my daughter was showing me her “techniques” for managing the rather sizable waves. She crossed her arm behind her head, grabbed her nose with her other hand, and yelled “whitewater!”

This was a new one. “That’s what you do if you fall out of the boat,” she explained. She’d been whitewater rafting a couple of weeks earlier and made a logical leap from protecting your head from rocks to protecting your head from the breaking waves. It worked, too.

In a stressful situation, we can easily rely on our learned behaviors instead of reaching out into other experiences to refresh and replenish our tool box.

Moments of conflict, with their intense emotion, can shut us down. This isn’t just something you’re imagining, either. Research shows all sorts of negative effects on our bodies and our ability to make decisions when we’re under stress. A quick online search turns up scholarly articles about our tendency to consider fewer options to solve problems when we’re under stress. And the media is flooded with the ill effects of stress on our health and our interpersonal relationships.

Insight can come in a flash, but the mind has to be able to adapt and see it.

How can we cultivate these types of moments?

We can boil a lot of this down to two main ideas.

Give yourself something to work with ahead of time

Go on vacation – even a saturday afternoon doing something different in a nearby town can help. Take a break from your “usual” and do something different. Drive a different way. Read a different type of book, different newspaper, check out an industry journal that has nothing to do with your field. These activities can expose you to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and give you a flash of connection. Take care of your health.

Prepare yourself to be open in the moment

Before your afternoon of meetings, go for a walk. Breathe. Stand up and stretch, look out a window. Make a point of going to the gym. Make a list of your key thoughts. Dump the “to-do” list you’re carrying around in your head on paper so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Whatever it is that can calm you, make you feel more receptive and more open to the situation you’re going into, take a moment to fit that in.

When you’ve been fortunate enough to have one of those flashes of insight or cross-pollination, share it with someone else, or let us know here what you think helped it happen.