What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Interview with Dean Heffta

Dean Heffta is a consultant who specializes in leadership, strategic vision, and performance training. He is the host of Communication On Point podcast and trains using the Process Communication Model developed in the 1970s, and since used by NASA and Pixar.

Recently I heard Dean speak in a webinar offered by the Peoria Chamber of Commerce, and found his ideas about taking action in a time of uncertainty inspiring. There is a link to the video of this presentation below, and a link to a handout he shared here.

Dean, can you speak about the difference between scary and dangerous, and how understanding this difference can help us in a moment like this one?

This is a moment where we are trying to process a lot of new information, information that we do not have a previous model for. Our brain interprets “new” as scary – something that is threatening to us.

How does familiarity inform sensations when I encounter something new? What is my approach to confronting and processing a threat? When something becomes very familiar, we begin to discount its risk. I might think, “I’ve walked on my roof ten times and nothing has happened.” This can lead to recklessness. Statistically, the risk of dying from a crash while driving to the doctor is probably higher than the risk of dying from COVID. Does that mean I should be naïve and careless and dismiss info as useless? Certainly not!

Right now the news is 95% about the virus. How do we manage the input? The virus is having an impact on my business and my world. What are the things I have control over? I can limit where I go, can increase how often I wash my hands. I can be creating opportunity for the future, honing new skills. Wisdom is looking at the present and saying, what can I do now to set myself up for a better future? Use the sensation of fear as a driver to prepare for the future.

How does planning for the future help us psychologically navigate the unknown?

Planning offers an element of agency – it is something I can do. I am most scared of things I have not had an opportunity to walk through in my mind. When I plan, it allows me to size things up and think about the best and worst things that can happen. My brain can then confront that worst thing. Back in the old days when sailors made a map, they would put a sea monster in the unexplored areas. Our brain is the same way – if we haven’t had a chance to explore something, that place is scary.

Planning allows us to think about the best and worst things that can happen, and then begin thinking about our resources. Whether I’m a CEO or I’m stranded on a desert island I need to take inventory of my resources. What do I have available to me? I can now begin prioritizing. What can I do? Find fresh water. That process gives us agency, focus, and clarity of where to put our energy. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, planning is indispensable.”

The flip side is we become so focused on our plans that when our environment changes we think, now what? Just because the likelihood of executing your plan the way you laid it out is very small doesn’t mean the process isn’t useful, because of the things we uncover by going through that planning process.

In your talk you described humans as natural map-makers. What does this mean?

When we think about maps we think about physical space. But when you see a physical map, that is a manifestation of what we naturally do – we have maps in our mind of relationships with other people, a good friend or a spouse or someone that you trust. I have a map of how to navigate that relationship. When they break that trust, it upends the map. People will use words like, “I feel lost,” because they have to go through the process of mapping out the relationship again.

Whether you are a business owner, a nonprofit manager, or an employee right now you are lost. You don’t know what I can count on, don’t know what the future holds.

I can pull out a map and tell you how to get to Omaha, even though I can’t see Omaha from here. I can get there in the dark as long as I have headlights to see in front of me. We can drive to where our headlights can show us. It’s ok right now to slow down and just focus on moving forward, whatever that means to you. Maybe instead of 18 month plan you set that aside and create an 18 day plan. What do we need to move forward from here?

Along with maps, what other strategies are there for how we can navigate uncertainty?

Here is one piece of advice when it comes to uncertainty: don’t take advice. We are inundated with “you should do this” and “here are 5 things everyone should be doing.” The reality is each person is unique. There are principles we need to understand, and history, that give us foundation and grounding. But each person needs to know themselves and what works for them.

Confidence comes from self-awareness and reflecting. It comes from times in your life you were uncertain and didn’t know the answers, and looking back and saying, “I got through that.” I find we each have more resourcefulness than we give ourselves credit for. All we need to focus on is moving forward and serving others. And when we have a service mindset, we find more meaning, which then feeds our courage. We will do more for others than we will for ourselves.

Give yourself some grace. No one is going to do things perfectly coming out of this. There is no one right way. Just move forward, and understand what you value. Our values emerge most clearly in times of uncertainty. It is experiences like this that show us what we really care about. What can I learn about myself and the people I care about? What can I learn about the things I want to pursue and accomplish? It’s a giant reset opportunity.

Artistic license is the ability to create reality for others. It is part of an artist’s responsibility. It is easy for people to say – “oh, that person is an artist.” As if it were some special thing held aside for somebody else. Art is just solving problems; it can be and must be alive inside every person. I can’t paint like Monet or compose like Beethoven, but the principals of trying new things and creating a new reality apply to all of us. We get to create reality for our lives, for the world around us. Why not create a reality on my terms? Why not be an artist of my own life?

Watch Dean’s presentation here:

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