Surprise! How we can better withstand surprise, shock and stress

February 8th, 2011 by Patricia Hughes

An elderly man hurried into the veterinary office and announced that his goldfish had a terrible disease.   “He shakes all over!” the man said, clearly distressed.  The vet examined the fish, which was calmly swimming in its bowl, and replied, “He looks all right to me.”  “Oh, but I haven’t taken him out of the water yet!” said the man.

Oftentimes we are swimming through our days, when something yanks us out of our comfort zones.  We become like the fish, shaking all over.  At the very least, it is annoying.  But a shock can shake our wellbeing and cause dis-ease.  Stress has been shown to trigger everything from headaches and stomachaches to sleep problems, forgetfulness and depression, not to mention fear, anger, and the resulting loss of work, poor parenting and fights with significant others. 

Finding ways to deal better with surprise, shock and stress is an indispensable survival skill for leaders.  Noticing how we respond to surprise and making choices about our (re)actions, can make us happier, more resilient and effective people. 

  • Corpus. The first rule for dealing better with surprise is to recognize that we are feeling something.  Corpus is our body, which responds first to external impulses.  Check in several times a day to notice how your body is reacting to people, situations, or life in general.  Do you lean forward with eagerness or backwards with fear? Do you have knots in your stomach or an excited flutter in your chest? The goal is to recognize the feelings, acknowledge them, and use that information to act wisely. Freedom is the moment between stimulus and action.  In that moment we have complete freedom to understand our body wisdom and choose an appropriate response rather than a knee-jerk reaction. 


  • Curiosity. Feelings quickly translate into a story we tell ourselves, which may or not be true.  Curiosity can stop the automatic reaction and enable us to choose a new response.  One way to be more curious is simply to say, “Oh, is that so?”  Not in a challenging way, but with an attitude of watching something intriguing go by.  This works well with my six-year-old.  Like many kids, she often spills, smudges and creates crumbs while she eats.  I should hardly be surprised anymore when she knocks the yogurt to the floor.  But I am!  My reptilian brain clenches in rage, and I become a basilisk, able to cause death with a single glance.  Enter curiosity.  Rather than breathe fire, I simply breathe once or twice.  I look at her and the mess as something interesting that wandered into the kitchen.  I say, “Oh, is that so?”  My heart rate slows downI choose to be curious rather than angry.  And once she knows I won’t slay her with the look, we clean it up and she actually sings.


  • Cognize. Once we recognize our feelings and can be curious about surprise, we can treat the unexpected as something to learn fromWhen we cognize, we perceive, know, or become aware of something.  Surprise offers opportunities to learn something new. Rather than see surprise as evidence that we did something wrong or didn’t plan well, we can see it as information.  What can we learn from the stranger, the other, or the odd idea?  We can choose to see surprise as our teacher, not something which set out to ruin our day.  


Life is messy. Just when we think we’ve got life under control, something happens to shake us up.  The good news is we can learn to treat surprise as an opportunity rather than a threat.  We will feel less shaken up at the end of the day, and we will learn and grow.  

  • Check in with your corpus several times a day. Our bodies hold feelings and valuable information about how we perceive the messy world
  • Be curious about surprises and shocks. Rather than get upset, say, “Oh, is that so?”
  • Treat surprise as something to learn from. New information is not the enemy; it’s an opportunity to get smarter!

For support in becoming a more resilient leader in messy times, contact Pat at

© Trillium Leadership Consulting

Welcome to Trillium Leadership blog

March 16th, 2010 by Patricia Hughes

In these blog pages I (Pat) will share short essays, book reviews, and resources related to leadership, coaching and facilitation. Many of the insights will be inspired by my experiences working with groups over the past 20 years, where I have learned about passion, action and making a difference.