ACT for The Squeeze-Machine

This guest post was written by Maarten Aalberse.

We may have been asked to lead an in-company training for stress-reduction and performance-enhancement.

We may have checked as best as we can the ‘spirit’/ culture/ values of the company, and it doesn’t look bad at all. So we decide to agree.

And then… at some moment during the training we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Participants seem to be more reluctant to share their experience of the exercises we propose, there are hardly any questions after a short presentation, the work in small groups appears to be very ‘careful’, or something similar may make us uneasy, and we suspect that something in the company just isn’t right.

If we are lucky, we might hear something more in a break.

But maybe we just have to do with this nagging feeling.

What to do, then? In most cases, any direct questioning may lead nowhere, or even bring in more problems, as we observe people shutting down even more.

One option might be, after having introduced the ACT perspective on values, to invite the group to brainstorm on the values of the company. It would be really helpful if not only the ‘official’ values get mentioned, but also the more implicit ones. But again, this is most likely not something to aim for too openly. But we might pick up some clues…

Then – or at a later time, if it seems better to play safe, we ask the participants to clarify their own values, and explore if there appear to be any conflicting values, and explore some ways how such conflicts can be responded to.

Then the time may come to explore if there are any conflicts between the personal values and the values of the company, clarified earlier on. It might be useful to mention too, that this is a far from uncommon experience.

Now how can such conflicts be dealt with? The most helpful responses would probably be those that emerge from the group.

But some suggestions can be given, and even explored :

1)    Sensing how this conflict affects the particpants : which bodily tensions manifest when ‘staying with’ this conflict ? Which feelings emerge, and where in their bodies can these be felt ? What thoughts pop up, when staying with this conflict ? All the mindfulness skills explored earlier on can be most useful, here. It may be that new alternatives emerge. Or it may that this exercise has prepared the ground for another exploration :

2)    It may be useful to clarify the ‘value in the value’. If the company values (too much) the productivity of the team, we maight ask something along the lines of ‘And when, for your company, productivity is so important, what does it want to have happen through this productivity that is even more important ?’ The same can be asked about the personal values that appear to be in conflict with the company’s values.

Often, when these 2 ‘deeper’ values become clearer, it is easier to find ways in which they can become compatible. Or at least, better lived with. That is, in a way that the employees experience themselves less in an either-or situation that is inherently stressing, and that will bothr reduce the productivity of the company and the quality of life of the employees. 

I would love to read other suggestions for handling this very delicate and often quite important situation.

Maarten Aalberse is a clinical psychologist, living in France and conducting trainings throughout Europe about his integration of ACT, client-generated metaphors and emotion-regulation.

He has co-written two books : « L’intelligence du Stress » (Eyrolles, 2008) and : « Bi-Fokale Aufmerksamkeit » (= Bi-Focal Mindfulness), DKVT-Verlaf, in press.

Contact : m.aalberse@gmail.com ; site under construction.

ACT for The Squeeze-Machine

This guest post was written by Maarten Aalberse.

We may have been asked to lead an in-company training for stress-reduction and performance-enhancement.

We may have checked as best as we can the ‘spirit’/ culture/ values of the company, and it doesn’t look bad at all. So we decide to agree.

And then… at some moment during the training we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Participants seem to be more reluctant to share their experience of the exercises we propose, there are hardly any questions after a short presentation, the work in small groups appears to be very ‘careful’, or something similar may make us uneasy, and we suspect that something in the company just isn’t right.

If we are lucky, we might hear something more in a break.

But maybe we just have to do with this nagging feeling.

What to do, then? In most cases, any direct questioning may lead nowhere, or even bring in more problems, as we observe people shutting down even more.

One option might be, after having introduced the ACT perspective on values, to invite the group to brainstorm on the values of the company. It would be really helpful if not only the ‘official’ values get mentioned, but also the more implicit ones. But again, this is most likely not something to aim for too openly. But we might pick up some clues…

Then – or at a later time, if it seems better to play safe, we ask the participants to clarify their own values, and explore if there appear to be any conflicting values, and explore some ways how such conflicts can be responded to.

Then the time may come to explore if there are any conflicts between the personal values and the values of the company, clarified earlier on. It might be useful to mention too, that this is a far from uncommon experience.

Now how can such conflicts be dealt with? The most helpful responses would probably be those that emerge from the group.

But some suggestions can be given, and even explored :

1)    Sensing how this conflict affects the particpants : which bodily tensions manifest when ‘staying with’ this conflict ? Which feelings emerge, and where in their bodies can these be felt ? What thoughts pop up, when staying with this conflict ? All the mindfulness skills explored earlier on can be most useful, here. It may be that new alternatives emerge. Or it may that this exercise has prepared the ground for another exploration :

2)    It may be useful to clarify the ‘value in the value’. If the company values (too much) the productivity of the team, we maight ask something along the lines of ‘And when, for your company, productivity is so important, what does it want to have happen through this productivity that is even more important ?’ The same can be asked about the personal values that appear to be in conflict with the company’s values.

Often, when these 2 ‘deeper’ values become clearer, it is easier to find ways in which they can become compatible. Or at least, better lived with. That is, in a way that the employees experience themselves less in an either-or situation that is inherently stressing, and that will bothr reduce the productivity of the company and the quality of life of the employees. 

I would love to read other suggestions for handling this very delicate and often quite important situation.

Maarten Aalberse is a clinical psychologist, living in France and conducting trainings throughout Europe about his integration of ACT, client-generated metaphors and emotion-regulation.

He has co-written two books : « L’intelligence du Stress » (Eyrolles, 2008) and : « Bi-Fokale Aufmerksamkeit » (= Bi-Focal Mindfulness), DKVT-Verlaf, in press.

Contact : m.aalberse@gmail.com ; site under construction.

Who runs your life?

In this brilliant TED talk, Daniel Kahneman talks about the tensions between our experiencing self and our remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – The Riddle of Experience v Memory

He says that our memories of the past inform our expectations of the future and determine our decision making.

The problem is that our memories are inaccurate. We fail to notice so much of what is happening in the present moment. Our memory of whether we enjoyed something is overly influenced by how the last few minutes of the experience went (Kahneman explains that it is the last minute of a colonoscopy that determine how we view the experience – good to know!). Each time we tell the story of what happened (even just to ourselves) we unconsciously slightly change the story.

Daniel Kahneman suggests that this causes us a significant problem. Our remembering self forces our experiencing self  to do things that aren’t really in our best interests. We work to earn more and more money (even though, once we are comfortably off, it won’t make much difference to our happiness). We spend our money on long, expensive holidays (even though a longer  holiday doesn’t actually make us much happier than a shorter one). We avoid doing what matters (calling Grandma; expressing our view in a meeting; doing our exercises) because our memory of the last time we did it suggests it will make us feel bad.

So how do we manage this tension? How do we make wise decisions?

The research evidence is growing that a helpful approach is to:

  • Hold the stories our remembering self tells us lightly – sometimes they are useful and sometimes not so much.
  • Clarify our values (what we want our life to be about) and then use them to guide our decision making.

Getting Some Distance From Your Thoughts – Even If It Is Only Half an Inch

Most of us live in a culture that gives the message that our thoughts control our actions. This assumption seems benign but it actually creates a problem for us. The problem is, if we treat this assumption as true, then, if we want to be successful, we have to first get our thoughts ‘right’ (‘I am capable of being a great team leader’; ‘I will do a good job of giving this feedback’; ‘I am going to write a really good blogpost’) and that is actually really hard. I tell myself ‘I am capable of being a great team leader’ and my mind says ‘Yes, but what about the time you...’

A more useful approach is to build our capacity to observe our thoughts and then choose which thoughts to act on and which ones to just let play in the background. To get some space between ourselves and the endless stream of thoughts our minds come up with.

The more skilful we can become at observing rather than acting on our thoughts, the more freedom we have to take actions that create the outcomes that are important to us.

Gilbert sharing some interesting view on creat...
Elizabeth Gilbert (Image via Wikipedia)

In this beautiful TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, (author of Eat, Pray, Love‘)  explores the strategies she used to get some distance from thoughts that were plaguing her that her ‘greatest creative success was behind her’ and ‘creativity is inherently linked to anguish’.

As she explores these idea’s, she uses the gorgeous phrase:

‘You look at it even from half an inch away’.

It is in that space. The space between you and your thoughts, even if it is only half an inch, that freedom can be found*.

When that space is available to you during your next feedback conversation, you can be present with the other person. You can really notice their responses. You can observe your own behaviour and shift it from moment to moment as you see what is and isn’t working. And in the background your mind is gabbling away –  ‘She is going to hate me’; ‘This is going terribly’; ‘I hope I can get out of here soon’; ‘What if she puts in a bullying complaint against me’ and having those thoughts is okay because it is just your mind doing what minds do and you don’t have to pay it a lot of attention.

(*For any ACT experts out there – this is a quote from someone but I can’t remember who! Let me know so that I can credit them!)

How White Dog Poo Can Give Us Hope For 2012

Do you remember white dog poo? It seemed to be all over the place when I was growing up, but now I can’t remember the last time I saw any. What’s going on?

The answer is that humans have decided to pick up after their dogs.  In general, we carry around little black bags for the purpose and deposit them in special bins.

As Jerry Seinfeld said, if an alien ever landed they would undoubtedly conclude that it was the dogs who were in charge. But the real point is that our short term behaviour has changed, making the environment more pleasant for others, even though the immediate consequences for ourselves are unpleasant.

Why does this matter?

Because it tells us something important about human nature. Even behaviour which seems deeply ingrained and resistant to change can be changed.

Yet the thing about humans is that we forget this and give ourselves a hard time. As a species we criticise ourselves constantly, even though evidence suggests our behaviour has never been better or more peaceful.  And at an individual level, when we think about behaviour change we often to chide ourselves for not having changed already.  And any behaviourist will tell you that’s not a great reinforcer.

Steve Hayes once said the real question is not why are we so controlled by short term impulses, but rather how do we ever fail to be?

This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations of all, by Robert Ardrey but used  here by Ken Robinson.  I think it’s a nice reminder as we start 2012.

Happy New Year, everyone.

“Human beings were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.
And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles?
Or our treaties, our symphonies, our peaceful acres, our dreams?
The miracle of humankind is not how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen.
We will be known among the stars not by our corpses, but by our poems.”

How Can We Build Others Motivation to Change their Behaviour?

At work, we often need to encourage others to change their behaviour. It might be the co-worker who repeatedly misses deadlines; the direct report who is irritable with stakeholders, or, our boss who isn’t delegating well to us.

Our instinct is to try asking (or telling!) the person to change. Explaining to them why we want them to change. If we are really good at ‘selling change’ then we might even explain to them the benefits of changing.

A therapeutic technique called Motivational Interviewing suggests a different approach.

William Miller came up with this approach when he discovered that some therapists do a much better job at helping their clients to change compared to others. He then studied the differences between the effective and ineffective therapists and found that the highly effective therapists:

  • Were good at empathic listening and were genuinely interested in understanding the client’s perspective
  • Coached their client’s to explore the pros and cons of change and helped them to make their own decision about whether they wanted to change
  • When the client resisted the idea of change, the effective therapists ‘rolled with that resistance’ rather than arguing with the client
  • Had a respectful stance
    • Honoring the client’s autonomy – the client gets to choose whether they change or not, and as adults, they take responsibility for the consequences of their choice
    • Viewing the client as the expert in their own life. They didn’t talk down to the client but took a collaborative approach where they worked together to figure out what to do next

Miller found that in the sessions that had the best outcomes, it was the clients who were describing the benefits of the change rather than the therapist.  The clients came to their own decision that they wanted to change. It was only at this point (when the client started to say ‘I want to change..’ or ‘I am going to change..’) that effective therapists started to help the person to make a plan for how they would go about changing.

I know that when I apply this to my own life, I am much more likely to commit to change if the other person takes this approach with me – but perhaps I am just a contrary Derbyshire lass!

The collaborative, respectful approach used in motivational interviewing fits well with the approach taken by a good ACT practitioner.

An ACT practitioner helps clients choose their own values rather than values that society or significant others might want the individual to adopt.

ACT practitioners have the stance that we are all dealing with our own difficulties – the ACT practitioner isn’t the expert who has it all sorted.

An ACT practitioner works to help the client see the reality of their situation and then make decisions taking this information into account.

Both ACT and Motivational Interviewing are empirically supported approaches shown to help people make important and often challenging changes in their lives (from giving up drugs to losing weight) and they seem to be saying similar things about the best stance for the practitioner to take.

Perhaps there is something for all of us to learn here?

Perhaps, next time we want some else to change their behaviour, it might be helpful to start by being genuinely interested in their viewpoint. What if we were really curious about understanding how the current approach both is and isn’t working for them? What if we respectfully explored whether the person sees any benefits in changing their behaviour? Perhaps we might discover that they are less likely to dig their heels in and resist us? They might even be more inclined to work collaboratively with us to create a better outcome that meets both of our needs.

So Do You Really Care About Your Team?

How likely is it that your team would say ‘Yes’ in response to the following statement?

My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person’

If they do say ‘Yes’, would you be one of the people they think of as demonstrating ‘caring towards others’?

Gallup has found that people who answer ‘Yes’:

  • Are more likely to stay with the organisation
  • Have more engaged customers
  • Are more productive*

So, caring about your employees/co-workers seems to be a good idea. But, so often this comes across as fake and, in my opinion, fake interest is worse than no interest at all.

In order for this to feel authentic to both you and others, it needs to connect to a deeply held value. So, my question for you is: Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to see you? If ‘caring’ is a value you want to enact at work then not only will you feel authentic and vital but you might just be adding to the bottom line too!

* Taken from Vital Friends – Tom Rath