Getting to grips with resilience (Part 2)

activities for exploring resilience with students

This post is the second of a two-part look at resilience. In part one I wrote about what resilience is, why it’s important and how it can be introduced to students. In this post I’m going to focus on three models and activities for exploring resilience with students, which can help us understand it in more depth and, more importantly for our students, help to build it.

OWW brain WOW brain – Todd Herman

A few years ago I watched a video featuring Todd Herman, an American Sports Performance Coach and Leadership Adviser, talking about people creating and maintaining positive change, as well as how we tend to respond to challenges and obstacles in our lives. As I outlined in Part 1, resilience is all about dealing with the uncertainty and difficulties we all face from time to time, and a lot of what Todd talks about can help us understand our capacity to be resilient.

Todd believes that our response to change depends on whether our mindset is governed more by what he terms the OWW brain or the WOW brain. If someone has more of an OWW brain, they will tell themselves things like “I’m not cut out for this” or “I’m not feeling it”. People for whom the WOW brain is in charge naturally see the upside in situations, telling themselves “I can’t wait to see what happens” or “this is going to be a great experience for me.”

OWW brain WOW brain and resilience


In terms of building resilience in our students, it’s immediately clear that them having more of either an OWW or WOW brain will have a large impact on their lives. The self-talk of an OWW brain revolves around three dominating stories or narratives – being stuck, being bored and being safe. These static qualities are the very opposite of the ‘elastic’ ability to bounce back that resilience requires. On the other hand, the self-talk of WOW brainers is centred on growth, confidence and adventure.

I’m sure we can all agree that adopting more of a WOW brain approach to difficulties sounds appealing, but how might we encourage this in our students to help build their resilience? Todd provides five tips to help us all move from OWW to WOW, and when working with students these could be useful discussion points, form the basis of a single activity or even an entire workshop.

Todd’s 5 tops for moving from an OWW brain to a WOW brain
  1. Have a vision that’s clear and specific – knowing what you want can help you deal better with obstacles
  2. Set trigger goals – these are micro changes that we need to implement in order to reach larger goals (Todd explains what these are in the video above)
  3. Set improvement goals –this creates a feedback loop which you can use to assess whether you’re growing from the situation you find yourself in. Todd recommends using numbers with a date attached to them e.g. “I will apply for 5 jobs and submit tailored applications for each one by x date”
  4. Gather a tribe – this could be a coach, mentor, friend or online community to cheer you on
  5. Script your setbacks – we can control how we react and respond when faced with challenging situations by thinking through how we might think or feel before we experience them. Todd calls this “the positive power of negative preparation”

Four Components of Personal Resilience – Robertson Cooper

The second model I want to cover is the Four Components of Personal Resilience, something I first encountered through watching a recording from the 2015 AGCAS Conference. The Four Components of Personal Resilience were identified by Robertson Cooper, a business psychology company based in Manchester that helps organisations manage employee wellbeing. Their belief is that everyone has the ability to be resilient if they can draw on the four components of a resilient personality: confidence, social support, adaptability and purposefulness.

What makes this approach particularly interesting is Robertson Cooper’s suggestion that each of us relies on one component more than the others in order to be resilient (you can take their free resilience questionnaire to assess which component you use the most). However, as with the OWW brain and WOW brain, we each have the capacity to work on our weaker areas to ensure that our response to difficulty is more well-rounded and robust. With this in mind I’ve provided a brief summary below of the four components and some of Robertson Cooper’s suggested activities that could be used effectively with groups of students.

Robertson Cooper four components of a resilient personality


A key factor contributing to personal resilience is confidence. This goes beyond how confident we are in our ability to overcome a specific challenge we are faced with, and extends to a sense of competence across all situations. If we combine specific feelings of confidence with a high sense of competence we feel a greater sense of control over challenging situations and will be more likely to bounce back stronger from setbacks. Linking closely with ideas from positive psychology, this means that when faced with a challenge it is important to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses.


Get students to consider what they’re good at by focusing on their personal strengths. You could provide them with a list to choose from or use strengths cards (I really like the ones from At My Best).

Social Support

Although often overlooked, the effectiveness of a strong support network on our health and wellbeing is well documented (see this article). When it comes to resilience, having this network allows us to overcome difficult situations rather than try and cope on our own. On their resilience portal, Robertson Cooper identify five types of social support: emotional (reassurance and support), esteem (showing encouragement), network (a feeling of social connection), tangible (assisting with material help) and informational (providing facts and advice).


Get students to reflect on their personal social support network by asking them to draw a map of who is in their own social system and how frequently they interact with them. You could get students to think about who they get support from. At the same time, a support network should flow both ways, and it would be just as useful to get them thinking about who they provide support to. Being alive to the dynamics of their social support network will help students think about where they might get – or give – more support.


The ability to adapt and see situations from different angles can have a hugely positive effect on our resilience levels. However, we tend to have thoughts about events and situations that fall into the categories below:

• Jumping to conclusions – misinterpreting an event or situation
• Tunnel vision – failing to look beyond the problem itself or why it might be occurring
• Magnifying and minimising – the world ‘ending’ 10 times a day or down-playing the importance of a situation
• Personalisation – thinking something is an attack on you or that people don’t like you
• Externalising – “It’s not my fault, it’s theirs”
• Over-generalising – “This always happens to me…”

In order to adapt we may need to re-train our brain or challenge the assumptions we make when faced with difficult situations. If we want to respond more positively, we need to be realistic and challenge negative beliefs or feelings.


To increase students’ self-awareness and teach them how to avoid negative thought patterns introduce them to the practice of re-framing. Firstly, they will need to identify what their dominant thought patterns are before then going on to question and, if relevant, disrupt them. I found this hand-out which you could use or adapt. You could also introduce the idea of keeping a thought record, which would be particularly useful for students about to go on a placement, a year abroad or those that have the tendency to think negatively.


Having a sense of purpose helps us to persevere through difficult times, and so helps make us more resilient. When facing day-to-day troubles or stresses, having a sense of purpose helps put things in perspective; we’ll know that most setbacks won’t impact on the ‘bigger picture’ things we’re driven by. As with those who have strong social support, research suggests that people who think and act with a strong sense of purpose are more resilient.


Either in pairs or small groups get students to reflect on times when they’ve felt most fulfilled. Ask them things like what they were doing at that time, or why it felt so good. You could also ask about role models and who they admire most and why. Their responses may offer clues to what they value in themselves and others. A slightly different way of getting them to think about their purpose is to ask them how they would want to be remembered by their friends (an activity I first found in the excellent book Business Model You).

Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence – Stephen Covey

The final model I’m going to cover in this post was created by Stephen Covey and can be found in his best-selling book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. In the book Covey describes people as being either reactive or proactive, and which category we fall into depends on how we manage what Covey calls our Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. The model suggests that as we make our way through life there are things that are either inside or outside of our control. When we let things that are outside of our control worry us it means that we are overly affected by our Circle of Concern. On the flip side, the Circle of Influence relates to the things we worry about that we do have control over.

Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence

Covey explains that the difference between proactive and reactive people is where they focus their energy. Reactive people focus on the Circle of Concern – they tend to believe their lives are determined by external forces outside their control. They are more focused on their lack of control and power, which according to Covey results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language and increased feelings of victimization. This focus actually results in the generation of negative energy, combined with neglect in areas they could do something about, which causes their Circle of Influence to shrink. In comparison, proactive individuals focus on and nurture their Circle of Influence. These people tend to be more internally aware with an ability to control their thoughts, feelings and actions:

“Proactive people can carry their own weather with them.  Whether it rains or shines makes no difference to them.  They are value driven; and if their value is to produce good quality work, it isn’t a function of whether the weather is conducive to it or not.”
– Stephen Covey

Although Covey doesn’t specifically talk about resilience in his book, his distinction between the Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence provides some clear ways in which we can further understand not only why some people may be more resilient than others, but how we can encourage and build resilience in those that we work with. When faced with an obstacle or challenging life event, the ability to channel energy and focus on the things you have influence over will certainly increase your capacity to bounce back.


Ask students to make a list of all the things that are worrying them at the moment, any problems they are facing or any difficulties they have in their lives. After they have completed their list, ask them to draw circles, one inside another. Next, ask them to write the things from their list that they have control over in the inner circle (Circle of Influence). Following this they should copy everything else from their list into the outer circle (Circle of Concern).

Once they’ve filled in both circles, get them to show their circles to the person sitting next to them, who should look over what they have done and ask them to justify each of their choices. This exercise should allow students to identify where they should focus their energy if they want to develop their capacity to be resilient.

Final thoughts

The three approaches above have some similarities in how they suggest we organise our lives and focus our energy in order to nurture what might be considered the ‘skill’ of resilience.

Todd Herman’s OWW/WOW brain and Covey’s Circle of Concern/Influence are both about how we make sense of the world. In terms of personal development, they set out the ‘optimal’ way of being (WOW brain / Influence) and a sub-optimal or damaging way of being (OWW brain / Concern). These simple categories provide a useful way of demystifying the very complex and messy realities that people face day-to-day.

Robertson Cooper’s model is clearly more explicitly focused on resilience, and by presenting four different aspects of a resilient personality it does not suggest that any one has precedence over the others. Instead, it highlights multiple ways to building resilience and because of this it offers some different ways of working on resilience with groups.

I hope this post has provided a useful introduction to these models, and that the suggested activities I’ve included along with each one will provide you with ways of exploring resilience further with your own clients.

I’d love to hear how others have explored resilience in a group setting and any activities that you think worked particularly well. Drop me a comment below!

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