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Preparing for Stressful Situations: Visualization and Mental Models

Have you ever had someone say you should try visualization? In my mind, visualization can come across cheesy. I don't know about you, but when I close my eyes to visualize, all I see is pitch dark. In the 90s, there were magic eye books where if you looked at the image close enough and long enough, you were supposed to see a 3D object. I never saw anything! That's what visualization can feel like to me- other people see things, and I see nothing.

In this article, we will discuss how you can prepare for stressful situations by utilizing visualization and mental models. We'll discuss what these tools are, what the benefits are, and how you can use them.

1. What are visualization and mental models?

Visualization is when we have a picture in our mind, and we play it out like a movie. For example, Alex Honnold, who climbed Yosemite's El Capitan without ropes, repeatedly visualized the route he would take before his famous climb.

Mental models are similar to visualization, but mental models add the component of past experience. I take the concept of mental models from the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. In the book, Charles references an 80s study by Klein associates, where they studied workers in high-pressure situations. One study cites a NICU intensive nurse who saved a premature baby's life due to her mental models. In the study, there was a baby in the NICU that looked fine, the vitals looked good, and the baby wasn't crying. As a result, the nurse responsible for the baby did not sense any imminent danger. However, there was a nurse named Darlene, who picked up on subtle cues. As Darlene walked by the baby, she noticed the skin color was slightly off, the belly distended, and the blood in the band-aid had a unique color. Based on her experience Darlene had a mental model of what a healthy baby looked like, and when the baby didn't match her mental model, alarm bells went off. Therefore, she warned the attending doctor. After testing, they found the baby had early stages of sepsis, a life-threatening infection. Due to Darlene's experience and possessing mental models of healthy newborns, she was able to pick up on subtle clues.

Alex Honnold, also known as human spider-man, has built up a reservoir of mental models for challenging climbing situations based on his experience. Therefore, his mental models enabled him to visualize a much more detailed climb with various scenarios, such as if his grip started to weaken, the threat of wind, or any other challenge he might face. The combination of visualization and mental models enabled him to complete one of the most amazing feats in human history. Alex Honnold said:

"If, I'm climbing rope-less, then I'll think through what it'll feel like to be in certain positions, because some kinds of movements are insecure. Therefore, they're scarier than other types of moves. As a result, it's important to me to think through how that'll feel when I'm up there so that when I'm climbing, it won't suddenly be like oh my Gosh, this is really scary! I know that it's supposed to be scary, I know that's going to be the move, I know what it'll feel like, and I just do it."

Visualization is imagining the climb, and mental models help color the scenarios Alex might face on the climb. Therefore, when we combine visualization with mental models, we have a much more effective form of preparation. The difference is when people visualize they typically focus on a singular scenario. However, when you combine visualization with mental models you are thinking through various scenarios you might face in the future. Additionally, you are leveraging your past experience to help navigate potential difficult moments.

2. What are the benefits?

When visualizing or using a mental model, we stimulate the same part of the brain as if we were performing the action. Therefore, if you visualize lifting your right hand, it stimulates the same piece of your mind as when you lift your right hand. This has vast implications for athletes, executives, or anyone else in high-pressure situations. For example, if you visualize giving a presentation and then picture a scenario where the technology malfunctions, you would leverage a mental model to handle this challenge. Going through this mental exercise will enable you to activate the parts of your brain that will help you deal with setbacks. Therefore, if you face a setback, it will be much easier to handle because your mind has already gone through it. Michael Phelps goes through a similar scenario visualization exercise. He visualizes various scenarios, so he is prepared no matter what he faces.

3. How can you utilize visualization and mental models?

Mental models are a valuable tool for the professional world. The most practical way to use this tool is when preparing for essential or high-pressure situations. For example, you may be preparing for a difficult conversation, a stressful client, a frustrating annual review, or a challenging negotiation. Let's dig into the example of the challenging negotiation. Start by writing down a series of possible situations you might face in a challenging negotiation.

Situation 1: Facing an aggressive negotiator

Situation 2: You have limited bargaining power

Situation 3: Something changes mid negotiation to swing the power

Now that you have your situations, take a moment to let your mental models guide how you would handle each situation. The key is to think through the details. When dealing with an aggressive negotiator, how would you feel? What would you say? What clues would tell you they were aggressive? How could you de-escalate matters? How could you stand firm? The practice of visualization combined with mental models, will help you prepare for high-pressure situations.

I encourage you to prepare before your next high-pressure project or task mentally. Think of multiple scenarios you might face and then use visualization and mental models to strategize for a range of outcomes. A practical way to apply this is by thinking through how you might handle conflict related to COVID-19, specifically, when you're interacting with someone who views the pandemic differently than you. What scenarios could you face? How could you de-escalate matters? How can you communicate your wishes? What would be some exit strategies? I hope you find this to be a much more practical approach to visualization and frankly one where you can imagine possibilities because you are leveraging your experience.

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