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.

3 thoughts on “ACT for The Squeeze-Machine

  1. I’m new to ACT and would like to hear more, starting with the basics.
    I’ve heard about this article from Maarten and from a Clean Language forum. He has asked how a Clean Language trainer might approach the situation above (I’m not a trainer but have facilitated some groups).
    Clean Language uses very open questions and almost no assumptions. Because of this, the facilitator works with the client to model or describe their experience using their words and their structure (their sense of causation, sequence etc.) Clean Language makes use of metaphors and will accept a metaphor as a real description of a client’s experience.
    Clean Language won’t make a group talk. It doesn’t use force, but the quality of listening and the (at least temporary) acceptance of the client’s perception and reality can win many people over.
    Also, Clean Language tends to use client words or refer to gestures rather than make observations, but objective observations can be used well with it.
    So what might I do with this group?
    It might start with an observation or focusing in on a seemingly important comment.
    Facilitator: “And there are no questions, and when there are no questions, what’s happening now?”
    This is very different to a direct question of “Why don’t you answer?”. There is an enquiry, but not a demand, nor an implicit reference to what the group “should” do.
    I will imagine the group says says something periphery to the real problem, like ” I think we’ve had enough”.
    A facilitator can bring more focus onto the immediate situation with “When you think you’ve had enough, and there are no questions, …what kind of enough is that enough?” or “…what happened just before ‘we’ve had enough’?”
    The Clean Language facilitator can be there calmly, waiting for anything the group is willing to share and bring it in to model the situation.
    After more group comments, a full recap of the model, which just reflects those comments, may look something like this:
    “”When you’ve had enough,
    and there are no questions
    and this isn’t the right sort of session
    and the project will go wrong like it did last time
    and you’re always being squeezed
    and whatever you do is never enough
    what would you like to have happen?”
    The Clean Language facilitator will seek to focus attention on a relevant part of the model or situation, according to their role. If the discussion was supposed to be about team meetings, then industrial action or potential law suits may be outside your valid role as facilitator.

    A facilitator may start or re-start from other angles:
    “And you’re always being squeezed; and what kind of squeezed is that squeezed?”
    “Where does squeezed come from?”
    “When ‘whatever you do is never enough’, is there anything else about ‘enough’ ? ”
    Some questions sound funny, but when we’ve just used a metaphor like “squeezed”, then being asked about it seems natural.

    Consider the term “stress-reduction”. If you tell me that’s what I need to do then I have a challenge to take something and remove or reduce it. I might not be good at that sort of solution. Phoebe from “Friends” goes to her “happy place”. She may use a journey metaphor to be happy, but might get very confused if told to reduce something called stress.

    Good Clean Language facilitators can understand where the attention of a group is and ask a relevant question that encourages the group to share. They will focus on what the group would like to have happen and find out what needs to happen for that to happen.

  2. Hi Brian, Thanks for this interesting comment. What you describe is certainly consistent with the approach of a good ACT practitioner – when I am at my best I hope that I am open and flexible and curious.

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