Communication Managing Self

Mental resilience primer: start with your A, B, Cs

Written by Allison Wolf

This article is the first in a series about how to build up your mental resilience.

What has become increasingly clear to me through my coaching practice and research is that the foundation of resilience is within our minds. Mental resilience comes from how we think about the challenges and adversities we face and this thinking has direct implications for our emotions, stress, and actions.

The good news is that mental resilience can be developed and built up, and the power to do this is within all of our grasps.

The starting point is understanding that our emotions and behaviours are not triggered by events but by how we think about these events.

A partner comes into the office and drops a file on my desk with an abrupt “look at this and come see me in an hour”.

I might get angry.

I might feel worried.

I might just shrug and go back to what I was doing.

The partner didn’t make me angry. It was my thought that took me there: How could he be so rude to just walk in like that and drop off work without barely acknowledging me and what I have on the go!

The partner didn’t worry me. It was my thinking that caused the stress: What did I do wrong? He barely looked at me. He seemed angry. What if he is unhappy with that last piece of work I did?

In the case where I just shrug and get back to work I might just be thinking: Paul sure looks stressed out. I will finish this up and then have a look at what he needs help with.

Something happens. Our mind responds instantly with inner chatter about what has happened. We then respond emotionally and with action (or inaction) to our inner thoughts.

One way to understand this is to think about it as an A, B, C process. (This was first developed by Psychologist Arthur Ellis.)

  1. Adversity: The event or circumstance we experience as adverse
  2. Beliefs: What we believe about the adversity, the thoughts that run through our head about it, also our more deep seated beliefs that rise up in relation to it
  3. Consequences: The feelings and behaviours that arise from the beliefs you have about the adversity

It’s Tuesday morning. John is in the middle of juggling a number of important projects for three separate clients. He is feeling anxious about all the deadlines and is worrying he won’t be able to get it all done. The phone rings, and in need of distraction, John answers it. It is a long-term client who hasn’t called in a while. The client has an important contract he needs written up by Thursday morning. John tells the client absolutely, I can have that done for you by then. Send me the details in an email and then I will call you back.

John hangs up the phone and curses. There is no way he can get a contract drafted by Thursday. He can feel his stress levels rising. At that point an associate pops her head in to ask to discuss a file and John snaps at her to come back later.

The A in this situation is the pile of work on the desk and the unexpected call from a client with another short fuse piece of work.

The C in this situation is John’s acceptance of the file and agreement to get it done by the Thursday deadline.

Did A in this instance cause John to respond as he did? No?

The B in this situation is when John is asked to examine what he was thinking at the time he realises he was glad to hear from the client because he had been a bit worried about not hearing from him for such a long time. He was thinking he needed to be responsive to the client, and to convey enthusiasm and support for his business. When discussed further John talked about his view that the clients come first and that it is essential to always be responsive and helpful and to give each client the impression that they are most important.

These thoughts and deeper beliefs propelled John to react with a yes without pausing to truly think over how this fit in with his other priorities.

Resilient people are able to regulate their reactions so that they are able to respond appropriately in most situations.

The goal is not to always get it right, and to always remain calm, but it is to be able to make choices and respond in a way that will be most productive.

Use the ABC skill when you are confused by your reaction to an adversity or when your reactions are counterproductive.

Step one: Think of a recent adversity that you didn’t handle very well.

Describe the adversity objectively – a description of the facts.

Example of this done correctly:

I was working on my files on Tuesday morning when I got a call from a client I hadn’t heard from in a while who asked for my help with a contract he needed drafted by Thursday morning.

Step two: Identify your Cs

What did you feel and how did you react as the event unfolded? Identify both your emotions and your behaviours. Was your emotion mild, moderate, or intense?

Following the example above John describes his C as follows:

“I felt relieved to hear from the client, and especially that he wanted to send me some more work, but at the same time I was feeling quite stressed out by all the work on my plate already. I told the client I was happy to help out and get that contracted drafted for him by Thursday morning.

Step three: Identify the beliefs operating behind the scenes and directing your reactions. This is when you connect the dots by finding the thoughts at work.

What was I thinking that brought on these feelings and actions?

It is important to accurately report the beliefs as you actually thought them, not to translate them to what you may view as a more acceptable version. The content of the thoughts running through your mind, the precise words you used to capture the meaning, is important.

Make sure for each consequence you relate it back to a particular thought or belief.

In the next post I will build upon these initial A B Cs with additional resilience boosting tips.

Two books that are essential reading on this topic:

Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman and The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich, Andrew Shatté.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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