It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.
As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up. You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.
And he was doing something more than that.
Something I didn’t understand.
When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.
That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.
It was hard.
I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.
Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).
A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.
I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.
Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)
The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.
Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.
I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.
‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000
What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)
For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!
In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!
Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!
I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.
Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic
Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?
When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?
Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?
Now pause and ask yourself, what do you care about deeply in this? Kelly Wilson says that suffering and values are poured from the same vessel. It is likely that this issue is causing you pain because it links to something you really care about. What is it?
Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?
Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:
Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?
What would that look like?
And how would it feel?
I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.
If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)
And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.