Understanding yourself and your mental committee

March 31, 2021

Critical takeaways

  • In any situation, particularly a crisis, showing up as your best self is key to success. In order to do that, you need to understand yourself.
  • There are many tools to help you identify your key ‘parts,’ but the model we like is based on the internal family system (IFS), which we’ve adapted to include the idea of an internal committee.
  • Spend some time understanding your parts and how these combine to form your internal committee. Then you’ll be better able to have the right committee members show up so you can be your best self in any situation.

Who’s Showing Up?

When dealing with a crisis, it’s essential to know who you can count on to be there when called upon: who is going to show up and who is nowhere to be found when things start to heat up. I’ve written about who needs to be in the room before, but in a critical situation, another, more fundamental question arises: How are you showing up — and as whom are you showing up?

This question isn’t meant to be obtuse. When I ask who you are when you show up, I’m asking which part of your personality will come to the fore in a crisis — and, crucially, will the traits on display help or hinder your performance?

You’ve probably looked back at an experience in your past and don’t entirely recognize the person you were in that moment, or understand the decisions you made. Maybe you behaved badly — or perhaps you were unusually polished. Whether you met the challenge of the day or fell short, you can see in hindsight that a slightly exaggerated version of you showed up during the event. This kind of exaggerated persona is par for the course in a crisis; in a stressful, out-of-the-ordinary situation, your true self is exposed. Remember — the crucible of crisis doesn’t develop your character, it reveals it. And the question remains: Do you know as whom you’ll show up?

Before I get to that, it’s fair to ask why it’s so important for crisis communicators to understand this concept. To answer that, we need to zoom out to look at the crisis communicator’s role.

What’s the Crisis Communicator’s Role?

I like to describe the crisis communicator as being the still hub in the center of a spinning wheel. It’s our job to position ourselves in the middle of the situation, receive information and input from multiple different actors, analyze it, and provide the best guidance we can based on our experience and expertise.

Importantly, the metaphor of a calm, stationary center isn’t meant to suggest the crisis team isn’t busy. There will be times where we exert huge amounts of effort and concentration to manage a crisis successfully. Despite the high-stakes pressure, the role requires you to remain a fixed point of focus, direction, and clarity in the middle of what can be a bustling whirlwind of activity — the eye in the center of the hurricane.

However, to be able to be the still, stoic eye of the storm, we need to understand ourselves so that we can learn to think and act accordingly.

This self-awareness allows you to emphasize the most appropriate facets of your personality while tamping down any elements that aren’t helpful in that particular situation. Without understanding yourself, you’ll be less confident and less effective in a crisis; you won’t be able to embody the calm, focused hub in the center of a spinning wheel.

How Can We Understand Ourselves?

There are many different ways to think about your personality. You’re probably familiar with systems like Gallup Strengthsfinder, KOLBE, and Myers-Briggs. (If you’ve used one of these in the past and found it useful, you can apply those findings to the framework I’ve laid out below.)

I’ve tried several of these models, but the system I’ve found most straightforward — and most effective — is based on the Internal Family System (IFS). This model views your personality as being composed of three top-level archetypes under which you identify the main “characters” who make up your mental committee. Very generally, these three archetypes are: managers, exiles, and firefighters.

Managers are in control, and like to tell us what to do in a systematic, clear way. Exiles tend to be more emotional, and will cause us to react more viscerally. Finally, firefighters show up when there’s some degree of stress or urgency and the managers or exiles don’t know what to do. You’ll probably recognize these general characteristics in yourself.

The first part of the exercise is to determine which characters or parts make up your personality. To do this, you should think about a defining characteristic for each character to help differentiate them. It can also help to give the characters names. For example, you might choose as one character a Drill Sergeant who likes to bark out orders, and think of another as a Professor who likes to think things through. Both characters are managers, but they behave very differently. Keep in mind that you will probably have more than one “character” for each archetype.

The next stage is where I deviate from IFS: I think of these characters forming a committee that determines how I behave, much in the same way that a management committee runs an organization. Which character shows up — and how they interact with the committee — determines how I’m going to show up in a given moment.

There are courses and coaches who can help you identify your characters and committee, but practicing this exercise for yourself is a relatively straightforward activity. Spend a week examining the situations in which you found yourself, and think about how you reacted in each circumstance. Take note of your thoughts and your reactions. Use the manager, exile, and firefighter archetypes to categorize your behaviors, and give each one a personality or nickname that best describes their most notable characteristic.

You should pay particular attention to the characters who come to the fore when you’re in a stressful situation or a place of uncertainty. This will help you get a better understanding of who’s most likely to show up in a crisis.

You’ll gain a deeper knowledge of each of your committee members over time, and this will in turn give you a better sense of what leads them to lean in — and what causes them to take a step back. At this stage, the important thing is to have a solid understanding of the various committee members who together make up the whole “you.”

Get the Right Committee Members to Show Up

Comprehending the multifaceted parts of your personality is the first part of the exercise. Now, we need to do some work to get the most helpful committee members to take the lead in a crisis, rather than the less-helpful ones. This allows us to be the calm, level-headed center — to be our best selves to support and serve the organization.

Even though the committee members who comprise your personality are fixed, you can still influence who shows up. You can invite the more appropriate committee member to step forward at the right time and ask others to take a back seat, depending upon the situation.

For example, you might want the Professor to take the lead when you’re trying to understand the situation. You need someone to ask good questions and analyze the answers. When you need to move with urgency later on, the Drill Sergeant might be more appropriate.

Meanwhile, the other committee members are still there in the background — your committee is just you, after all! You’re simply asking them to step back and let someone else take the lead for a while.

Unfortunately, the character you want to show up isn’t always who appears, because the invitations your committee members receive are often subconscious. You’ve got to tune in to the prompts that will eventually elevate one committee member to the forefront and compel another to recede to the background. This helps you understand how you are likely to react in a particular situation and also prompts you to think about how you might summon another committee member in the same situation. This is going to allow you to prioritize the part of you that’s best suited to that scenario.

Note: This isn’t something that happens right away. It will take some time to get to know these discrete personas and work out how to invite them to step forward or to take a supporting role. It’s something that took me a few years to get good at.

There are also situations — particularly if you’ve experienced some kind of trauma — where you won’t have much influence on who’s showing up. This underscores why it’s important to recognize that there are limits to what you can do, and get to know your own personal boundaries*. Nevertheless, this practice can be a powerful exercise to help you be your best self, and it’s definitely worth the time and effort.

Understanding Yourself Is the Foundation to Success in a Crisis

I’ve discovered within myself — and observed in others — that only people who really understand themselves can achieve the calm and stillness needed to be effective in a crisis.

Our role as crisis communicators, whether internal or external, is to give the best, most straightforward advice based on our experience and understanding of the situation.

However, we can only do that when we’re performing at the highest level, bringing our best attributes and skills to the table. We need to be our best selves. And we can only do that if we understand who we’re bringing into the room with us — and how our committee members will react to the situation.

With this knowledge, we can tailor our behavior, play to our strengths, and develop into a clear-eyed, centered manager. Our internal committee becomes the source of our strength and effectiveness rather than a burden that drags us down.

(*We’re not doctors. If you’ve experienced trauma of any kind, it’s important that you know that there’s help out there, and it’s not something you have to deal with by yourself. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member, your GP, or use the NIMH (US) resources here if you need help.)

Filed under: Blog | Crisis Leadership


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.