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How SME owners can handle setbacks and increase their resilience

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Many SME owners would agree. Winning a new contract or seeing profits rise is even sweeter if it’s your own company rather than just one that you work for. On the other hand, losing a client or failing to win a new business pitch can hit you harder. So how can a businessperson or owner of an SME handle setbacks?

Having spoken to businesspeople, coaches and psychologists, for our book Be Bulletproof: How to Achieve Tough Times at Work, my brother and I have identified three techniques which will help people to deal with knock backs and rejections during their business lives.

1. Understand your narrative

A business or, indeed, life is like a book or the script of a movie. There are high points, triumphs and successes – and there are bad moments too. Script consultants and writers call these low points “being in the cave.” At some point during a story the hero or heroine will find themselves out of luck and in big trouble. Everything will have gone wrong and it looks as if nothing will go right for them. Anyone who has set up and run their own business knows this feeling only too well. 

However, in life and business just as in fiction there will be an escape from the cave and the hero or heroine, in other words you in the narrative of your company, will overcome the challenges and setbacks. Seeing rejection in terms of a personal or corporate narrative and understanding that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger will help you as the owner and founder of a small business to deal with failure and rejection.

2. Be mindful

Having been practiced by Buddhists for centuries, mindfulness is increasingly being used in the corporate world. Essentially, it means being self aware and conscious of your thoughts. We all experience negative thoughts which cause us to feel depressed. Standing back for a moment and observing these thoughts objectively is actually very easy and enormously empowering – especially once you get into the habit of it. This way of thinking allows you to separate your emotions from the facts.

When you have an argument with your business partner or you fail to win a contract it can be tempting to become depressed and tell yourself that this is typical, that things always go wrong for you and that it’s not worth even trying. However, by being objective and accepting that you are bound to feel angry and upset in these situations and experience negative thoughts you will be able to handle the situation more effectively. Just taking a deep breath, reminding yourself that everybody has disappointments like this and then looking to learn and move on takes a bit of effort and will power but can be very effective.

3. Be positive

This doesn’t just mean whistling ‘always look on the bright side of life’. It might have worked for the hero in Monty Python’s Life of Brian but most of us won’t find such a approach very useful. Neither is trying to kid ourselves that things aren’t that bad, when they clearly are.

The fact is, though, that a number of psychologists are looking at how taking a positive view of life can improve our resilience and our ability to handle setbacks. Professor Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has developed what she calls the “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions. Broadening your awareness and encouraging new and thoughts and experiences can build new skills and establish new resources. Basically those who cultivate a more positive outlook experience greater creativity, inventiveness and ability see the bigger picture, especially when things go wrong than those who don’t.

How often when problems strike do you find a little voice in your head telling you “This is hopeless,” Or “I can’t handle this.” I know I’ve certainly had it. But what if we are actively encouraged to generate another voice in our heads which says something like, “This is tough but I can handle it,” or “I’ve been in difficult situations before and got through them – I’m going to get through this one as well”? It’s actually not that difficult to shut off the negative one and replace it with one that is realistic but positive.

Cultivating a positive outlook, a mind set that many entrepreneurs and SME owners naturally have, from my experience, can start with something as simple counting your blessings every morning. There is scientific evidence that this basic activity can improve resilience and develop a more outlook. According to James Pennebaker, Professor and Chair Department of Psychology at the University of Texas Austin, Texas, writing down your positive, enjoyable experiences is even more effective.

As every entrepreneur and founder of an SME knows, setbacks and problems are all part of life. Using these three techniques can help you to overcome them and even use them to your advantage.

Simon Brooke is co-author of ‘Be Bulletproof: How to Achieve Tough Times at Work’.

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