By: William Lessley
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a break from work and recharge my batteries by retreating to the woods for the Thanksgiving holiday break. Camping is one of the few times when I can really relax and leave all the work at the office where it belongs. Shortly before the holiday, my in-laws announced they had decided to join my wife and I for our five day, four night camping trip. Five days in the wilderness with my mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law? I started eyeing shovels in the hardware section while my wife, in a low soothing voice, promised me everything would be fine.
Tip: When your best laid plans are suddenly laid to waste, force yourself to physically smile. Think of something happy and relax your face into an open, friendly smile. Hopefully, this will keep you from letting loose with those not-so-nice words your mother would wash your mouth out with soap for uttering. Your relaxed body language will also provide non-verbal cues to your team (or in-laws) that the problem will be solved calmly and without negative conflict.
So, I smiled, and went into “Project Management Mode”. Going out into the wilderness requires careful planning and consideration of everyone’s needs. While my wife and I have established a routine over the years, including the in-laws meant additional planning to ensure everyone was taken care of. I inquired about their food preferences, quizzed them on warm clothing options, and suggested a few additional items they should purchase and bring with them.
Tip: Get to know the folks you’ll be working with so that you can play to their strengths and help minimize any weaknesses in a crisis. Knowing who is likely to miss details, who freaks out when something goes wrong, and who likes to push buttons will help you head off additional problems as you work to solve issues.
As our departure time grew near, I confided in my wife that I wasn’t sure I could make it five days in the woods with her family. She nodded and said she wasn’t sure if she could make it five days in the woods with her family, either. When you are in a leadership role, it is important that you are self-aware. You must actively monitor your own strengths and weaknesses and not be afraid to ask for help when and where you need it. My wife and I discussed strategies for how to deal with sharing a small campsite with three of her family members for the trip. We planned escapes via hikes along the beautiful trails nearby and agreed that if things got too bad, we’d make a run back into town for snacks or ice. This is what marriage is about – banding together against your respective families.
On the whole the camping experience was a fun time with the family. We ate Thanksgiving dinner while watching white tailed deer meander through the wooded area just past the campsite. We laughed together around the fire at night and told stories we all already knew, but laughed at anyway, as if the beauty of the fire, the woods and the night sky festooned with stars that shone like diamonds somehow made them all new again.
There was also the inevitable crisis. My mother-in-law came down with a medical issue that required a doctor’s visit and medication. She didn’t want to raise a fuss or ruin anyone’s time. We finally convinced her to let us take her to a walk-in clinic about an hour from the campsite so that she could get the help she needed so we could all enjoy the rest of the trip.
By the fourth day, we had our first melt-down at camp. My sister-in-law, used to living alone and not spending more than two or three days shoved into a small space with her family, was overwhelmed at breakfast that morning. Her verbal explosion immediately cast a dark cloud over our fun and my wife jumped to the rescue and took her sister on a walk in the woods to help her vent and calm down. It worked like a charm.
Tip: Sometimes it’s better to walk away from a problem and give everyone a little breathing space before you lose your cool and act in a way that does not reflect well on you. While she did have an outburst, my wife was able to help her diffuse it by walking away until she could get control of her emotions again. Take the time to collect yourself so you can react calmly and confidently lead your team to a solution.
I’ve known my mother in law for over thirteen years and I somehow had no idea she likes to sing. Out loud. In public places. Imagine my surprise when, one afternoon while we’re sitting around talking, she starts singing random songs out of the blue. It was like she became a broken radio station that only played segments of a song before moving on to the next. I suppose she was bored with our conversation and, instead of getting up and taking a nap in the tent or going for a walk, she wanted to share her love of music with us. My mother in law enjoys pushing buttons.
I waited for her to get tired, but it never happened. As the minutes ticked by, and she ignored my stares and attempts to ask if maybe she’d prefer another activity, I could feel my blood pressure rising. To be completely honest, I kind of wanted to yell at her to shut up. But, this is my mother in law. More than that, I love and respect this woman. In the end, since I couldn’t beat her, I joined her. Either that was what she wanted all along or my singing was really bad, because she stopped singing shortly thereafter. My vocal styling = crisis averted.
Tip: No matter how much a person is dancing on your last nerve, take a deep breath and appreciate them for exactly who they are, not who you want them to be.
Finally the sun rose on the last day and we began to break camp for the trek home. The tent is usually the last thing you take down and pack away just as it’s usually the first thing you put up when you arrive. We had used a new type of stake to hold the tent down and getting the stakes back out of the ground was proving very difficult. Our stake puller device finally gave up the ghost and bent itself into a completely unusable shape. The last stake remained firmly in the ground mocking us and we had no idea how we were going to fix the problem. In the end, my solution was to use brute force in the form of my steel toed boots. I kicked the stake back and forth enough that it finally loosened and I could pull it out.
This is what we were left with. I’ve saved it as a reminder that all obstacles can be overcome, but some solutions will leave you with less than ideal results.
Whether into our personal or professional lives, a little discord must fall. How you handle difficult people, chaotic situations, and the inevitable crisis shapes how everyone perceives you and your fitness for the role you hold.
I’m proud to say that my in-laws were so pleased with how the camping trip turned out that they want to do it again! After assessing my feelings on the whole thing, I’ve decided I can totally do this again; but only for a maximum of three days.
Tip: Limits – they’re a good thing.
For more ideas on how to keep your cool in difficult situations, try these blog posts: