Where do you sit on the Fight or Flight spectrum?  If you don’t know, that’s a problem.

“Let’s go skydive!!!”  Joey the skydiving videographer was trying to get me pumped up, but I just wasn’t feeling it.  Joey was a six-foot-three, wiry, tanned dude from somewhere in Europe, with an accent that sounded like Schwarzenegger was trying to speak in French.  His presence as videographer was part of a going-away present from a skydive-loving boss of mine.

Joey lived to attack that skydive, mon ami!  Once the camera was on, Joey was going 1000 kilometers an hour.  On the fight or flight spectrum, Joey was a fighter.  

While I liked the effort, the problem was that I wasn’t particularly pumped, so the fight action didn’t inspire me.  But I wasn’t scared, either, so Joey’s approach was more amusing than inspiring.

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

I used to perform as an actor in front of (sometimes) 1000 people (and sometimes only 5!).  While I certainly would be excited, stage fright wasn’t my problem.  I knew of some performers (like a cast member named Sarah) who got so nervous they would vomit before every show – that’s how afraid she felt every time.  She seriously looked like she’d rather be anywhere than preparing to go on stage.

Unlike Joey, whose fight instincts are heard on the DVD of my skydive, and unlike Sarah, whose flight risk prompted us to consider locking the side door to prevent her escape, I neither fight a challenging situation head-on, nor do I attempt flight from it.

I live in a weird middle ground that I like to call, “Stand Upright”.  Just go with it.

Jim Collins, the bestselling business author, expounds upon the need for firms to think clearly and decisively, while also avoiding rushing into an action, in his latest book, Great by Choice.  Great companies, he and his team found, don’t rush into decisions, but neither do they shy away from new ventures.  Instead, they take their time to get the right perspective, and then act decisively.  That’s what I mean by Standing Upright in the face of challenges.

Most individuals struggle with this, especially in intense situations.  What do you do, instinctively, when your CFO publicly challenges your work?  How do you respond if your client looks bored to tears, and you can sense the deal slipping away?

My experience has shown that if you launch into either fight or flight mode, you’re leaving value behind.  Instead, if you’re able to stand upright to that challenge, collect your thoughts, listen attentively, you’ll then be able to choose the correct response.  It might even be that the correct response was your first instinct!  But if you never take that moment to introspect, how do you know for sure?

What’s the point, you ask?  Being in control, making sound decisions, and responding effectively to challenges is key to business (and acting, and skydiving).  If we’re locked into too strict of a fight-or-flight response pattern, we’ll either attack a problem too aggressively, without foresight or thought, or we’ll run away from it by shelving a project too early, ignoring an office conflict, or backing down to an assertive boss.

But apart from institutional pressures (some are obsessed with quick-strike actions, while others freeze or run away), there’s this simple fact: most people don’t know their own tendencies well enough to modify them.

To maximize our effectiveness in business, we must first understand where along the fight or flight spectrum we habitually live.  Do you tend to fight, or do you veer towards flight?  If you’re not sure, try these things.  Sometimes just reading the examples will shed some light into your predilections:

  1. Try skydiving.  Or bungee-jumping.  Or some other (controlled) extreme sport.
  2. Take boxing lessons, in which your opponent actually hits you.
  3. Sign up for a speech class.  Or a singing class, in which you have to perform in front of a live audience.
  4. Volunteer to give a presentation at work on a topic of your choosing.

These are just ideas.  As you read them, did you recoil in horror?  Or did you say “hell yes, sign me up!”?  Neither is correct – your response is legitimate.  The whole point is to be aware of your response, and to know when you need to work outside your comfort level.

We owe ourselves, and our families, friends, and colleagues, the realization of self-knowledge.  We need to know ourselves exceptionally well, so that we can then perform at the level we desire.  Part of that is knowing how our gut tells us to react when we encounter a challenging client.  Do we yell?  Do we fight?  Or do we retreat with a stream of “yes ma’am” and “sir, yes sir”?

You might be a fighter like Joey, or you might be a flight risk like Sarah.  Either way, you can take immediate action to alter your animal reactions to give more of yourself to the world.  If we know ourselves, and practice moving towards a space of authentic responses, rather than just a stock fight-or-flight response, we can all add real value to others.

Learn to Stand Upright, and leave the fight or flight reaction to true emergencies.  Come back for Part 2, about how to move away from those initial reactions.

Out comes the Chute!