Why I Am Not As Empathic As I Want to Be

Last year, my daughter Ellie, had her wisdom teeth out. It was horrible. It is a painful and unpleasant procedure and, to make matters worse, Ellie has a needle phobia. Ellie felt terrified but she hid it well and looked completely calm. This meant that I looked like a crazy, over-anxious mother insisting that my daughter wasn’t coping whilst Ellie appeared to be fine.

My worry for Ellie, combined with the difficulty in getting her the help she needed, was just horrible.

After the operation Ellie had a lot of pain and vomiting. I felt so bad for her. It was so distressing to see her in such discomfort.

Even now, when we talk about the operation, I have a tendency to get upset and hijack the conversation – suddenly I am going on about how I found the whole thing awful.

When my loved ones are in pain, I feel it so acutely that I struggle to be present and helpful. This is because I lack some key empathy skills.

Louise McHugh recently taught me that there are three aspects to empathy:

1. Perspective taking – Imagining how I would feel if I were you. Or, even better, if I was you, with your history and temperament and circumstances, how would I feel?

2. Being open to feel the painful emotions provoked by taking the other person’s perspective.

3. Handling those painful emotions effectively so as not to get so swamped and distressed that you can’t focus on supporting the other person. Strategies for handling painful emotions include mindfulness (getting present with your five senses; holding your pain with compassionate awareness) and connection to that still part of yourself that observes what is happening without being caught up in it.

If I am to become more empathic I need to work on the third aspect of empathy. When the feelings swamp me, I need to remember to breathe and get present. I need to connect to the part of me that can observe and transcend pain and difficulty. When a precious human being needs my help and support; I want to become better at giving them what they need.

How empathic are you? What gets in the way of empathy for you?

How Believing You Will Be Successful Leads to Success..or Not

If, like me, you watch ‘The Voice’ or ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘(Insert Country you live in here) Idol’ or any similarly painful and joyful reality TV show, you will have heard competitors proclaiming that they won because they had ‘absolute faith’ that they would win.

Ben Gulak after being given $1.25 Million by the Dragons said, ‘If you really believe in something, keep going after it. If you want it badly enough there is always a way. You can make your dreams come true’

But if you watch a few of these shows you might also notice that there are hundreds of people with ‘absolute faith’ that they would win and most of them don’t end up the winner.

(Be warned  – this clip is painful to watch. Mary Roach who said ‘I want this so bad, there is no way I am not going to get it‘ and then gets a dose of reality.)

and sometimes it is actually the person who is a bit doubtful about how good they are who wins:

(The deeply vulnerable Karise Eden, winner of The Voice Australia, singing with her mentor, Seal.)

So what does this mean?

Believing you will succeed can help you to set challenging goals and persist in the face of difficulty which does increase your chances of success. But if you fuse with the belief that you will succeed and treat it as the absolute truth then you aren’t open to feedback. You don’t even notice subtle feedback and you respond to more direct feedback with defensiveness and anger. Which means that you can’t learn, improve or change tack. So you are actually less likely to succeed.

What is a better plan?

  1. Be clear about what values you want to express as you go after your goal. Notice the moments when the desire to win pulls you away from being the person you want to be. Then pause and breathe and come back to living your values. For Karise it looks like she has some deeply held values around singing from her heart; opening herself to the vulnerability of connecting with her own pain as she sings.
  2. Make a plan that gives you the best shot at success. Do some research. Have other people succeeded at something similar? What did they do?
  3. As you progress seek feedback and adjust your plan as you get more information.
  4. Have some clear ideas about how long you will persist. What sacrifices are you willing to make and what sacrifices aren’t you willing to make? What will you use as a marker to tell you it is time to quit and move on to something else or that it is worth persisting some more?

And remember, the goals that are most likely to lead to emotional wellbeing are about connection, curiosity and kindness.  So perhaps you don’t have to win ‘The Voice’?

10 Factors to Consider When Rewarding Staff

David has been working hard to deliver exceptional service. His manager, Sarah, is pleased and wants to recognise his efforts, so she nominates him for an ‘Employee of the Month’ award. David then starts to slack off. He puts in less effort and seems less engaged by the work. Sarah feels frustrated. What did she do wrong?

It seems to be a good idea to reward people when they do a good job. But it can often decrease motivation. Rewarding people is more complicated than you might think. Here are 10 factors to consider when giving a reward:

  1. Are rewards allocated in a way that seems fair to recipients?
  2. Do they occur soon after the desired behaviour?
  3. Do they tend to focus on clear performance standards. i.e Do I know what to do to get the reward?
  4. Are the rewards matched to the individual? Different people find different things rewarding. Extroverts love a public announcement at a meeting, introverts don’t.
  5. Most people find the following experiences rewarding: autonomy, respect, connection & belonging.
  6. Do the rewards feel controlling? This is subtle. For rewards to feel fair, I need clear performance standards but if I feel like I am being rewarded for complying with instructions I will tend to be de-motivated. We value freedom and autonomy highly. A ‘reward’ that is about compliance can make me feel less autonomous. For example, ‘Thank you so much for getting that board paper to me today, I appreciate that you had to stay back last night to get it done‘ is probably rewarding unless the evening before you told me, ‘You have to stay back tonight to finish that board paper’.
  7. Don’t use extra money to reward behaviours that the person would do anyway because they find the activity enjoyable or because doing it is in some way linked to their values.
  8. Do help people to make the link between what they need to do and who they want to be i.e. their values.
  9. Do reward behaviours that will help the person to learn something challenging. When we are just starting to gain a complex skill it is often hard and we need some external encouragement. Once we can do it well then we start to enjoy it for it’s own sake and we no longer need the rewards (in fact they can be counter-productive).
  10. The best rewards are ‘natural’  – a smile; a thank you; an authentic expression of the impact of what the person did. (Again think: autonomy, respect, belonging and connection).

So what went wrong with David? He had been giving excellent customer service for the joy of it. The award changed that for him. He felt controlled by it. Sarah presented the award at the monthly team meeting and David is an introvert and felt embarrassed. David knew that Connie had been giving a similar level of service but she didn’t get a mention. He didn’t feel that Sarah had been fair and he now felt awkward around Connie. It had decreased his respect for Sarah and his feelings of connection to the rest of the team.

So, give others lots of respect and as much autonomy as you can. Build feelings of connection and belonging. But think carefully when you use bonuses and awards – they are risky!

Sources for this post:

Judy Cameron, Katherine M. Banko, and W; David Pierce Pervasive Negative Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation: The Myth Continues. The Behavior Analyst 2001, 24, 1-44 No. 1 (Spring)

Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner, Richard M. Ryan  A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin 1999, Vol. 125, No. 6, 627-6

and a thought provoking post to the ACT listserv by Dr Paul Atkins

Creating Great Mentoring Relationships


Last night I spoke at an event held by the QUT Career Mentors Scheme. They were a great group of people – the mentees are students about to finish their degree and the mentors volunteer their time to support the students as they make the transition from study to work.

I shared some ideas on how to create great mentoring relationships, particularly how to avoid mentoring relationships that lack vitality and are….frankly boring.

Here is the handout that goes with the talk: How To Create Great Mentoring Relationships


What Leading A Cardiac Arrest Team Taught Me About Team Work

Ventricular Fibrillation (VF)
Ventricular Fibrillation (VF) (Photo credit: Popfossa)

As a very young doctor, fresh out of medical school, I led the hospital cardiac arrest team. Yep, that is right. I made life or death decisions; treating patients whose hearts had effectively stopped. It was utterly terrifying, and when we saved a life, wonderful and miraculous.

The really cool thing about cardiac arrest teams is that they function as an effective team from the moment that team members arrive in the room; even though they often have never worked together before.

Decisions get made quickly and are acted on immediately.  And sometimes, as a result of those decisions, people are brought back from the dead. It is wonderful.

Why do cardiac arrest teams work so well together?

Because they are well set up.

The purpose of the team is very clear and everyone agrees what that purpose is.

Everyone in the team understands who is responsible for what. They know who will do which action. They know which decisions each team members makes individually; which they will make in consultation with others and which decisions the whole team will make by consensus.

If one member of the team is unable to respond to the ‘Cardiac Arrest on Ward A1‘ call, there is a clear agreed way of sharing out the work, so that it all gets done. Team members don’t have to waste time renegotiating responsibilities.

The situation itself also helps the team to work well together. There is immediate feedback. The doctor takes an action and can see the result within seconds. Either the patient’s heart rhythm improves or it doesn’t.

These characteristics are important in building effective cooperative effort:

If you want your team to be more effective, pause for a moment. Have you set your team up to work well together? How is the situation influencing their behaviour?

How to Build A Cooperative Team

Whenever we work in a team there is a tension between getting the outcomes we want and contributing to the outcomes that others need.

If I spend time giving John the information he needs to get his board paper written, then I might have to delay my meeting with my direct report, Sarah, and as a result she doesn’t meet her deadline. I will need to trust that, at some point in the future, John will return the favour.

Humans are incredibly good at quickly recognising whether to cooperate with others or whether to just look out for ourselves. Within minutes of joining a group we size up the situation and adjust our level of contribution accordingly. We have learnt this skill because being cooperative in a competitive environment is a really bad idea.

David Sloan Wilson has been doing some cool research on this in his home town of Binghamton. He has found that the culture of the suburb where teenagers live determines to a large extent how prosocial they are (i.e. how readily they will take voluntary actions to benefit others, such as sharing, comforting, helping, rescuing). If teenagers move from a harsh suburb to a more nurturing environment, they often become more prosocial.

It looks like certain environments encourage people to be cooperative, trusting and kind and other environments don’t.

So what does this mean for you and your team? If your team aren’t very cooperative; it may not be because they are selfish or difficult; it may be because the environment isn’t set up to encourage prosocial behaviours. How do we create those environments?

Press conference with the laureates of the mem...
Press conference with the laureates of the memorial prize in economic sciences 2009 at the KVA: Elinor Ostrom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his work with groups at Binghamton, Sloan Wilson uses Elinor Ostrom‘s design principles, which are:

  1. Strong group identity and purpose
  2. Clearly defined boundaries
  3. Getting rewarded for contribution. Members of the group agree a system that rewards people for their contribution to group outcomes
  4. Group members create their own ground rules and make group decisions by consensus
  5. Monitoring – a process to check for free-riding or active exploitation by individual group members
  6. Graduated consequences for inconsiderate or selfish behaviour
  7. Mechanisms for fast and fair conflict resolution which are cheap and easy to access
  8. Local Autonomy – The group (and subgroups within the larger team) have some authority to manage their own affairs
  9. Where the group is part of a larger system, they are organized as multilayered nested enterprises. Each group has its own governance that fits within the larger group. Local efforts are linked together.

Ostrom found that groups that have these principles in place are more likely to work together to look after group resources rather than compete for and ultimately deplete them.

Sloan Wilson has been applying these principles to create changes in schools and neighbourhoods with surprisingly good effect.

My experience is suggesting they are helpful for workplace teams too.

Sadly Elinor Ostrom passed away on June 12th. My hope is that her contribution will live on, helping us to improve the way we interact with each other and the world.

On Holding Our Feelings Gently

This post is based on some writing by Dr Hank Robb. Hank is a deeply wise psychologist based in Oregon. You can see a video of him here.

Sometimes, when we act to make something important in our lives, we experience painful emotions. And, we can choose to feel them willingly.

There are, really, two important aspects to that willingness. There is “willingness with your feet” and also “willingness with your heart.” If you think about “flight phobics” you see
 both kinds. Some won’t get on the airplane – they lack “willingness with their feet.” However, many who do get on the plane are then “white knuckleflyers” – they lack “willingness with their heart.” Both kinds of willingness are choices.

To give you a sense of “willingness with your heart”. Cup your hands. Imagine holding a feather in your cupped hands, it will be gentle. And, you can hold it gently. Now imagine putting the fruit of a prickly pear cactus in your cupped hands. It will not be gentle. And, you can still hold it gently. Willingness with your heart is holding gently whatever is there to be held.

Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetatio...
Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetation found in the hills of Balaghat Range (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever feelings turn up, you can choose to treat them with compassion and gentleness.

What would that be like? Which are the emotions that are hardest for you to hold with gentleness? For me anger is really tricky.

Can you catch yourself when you harden your heart against your pain…and soften?

If You Had a Couple of Extra Hours In The Week, What Would You Spend Them On?

Just imagine, something magical happens and you suddenly find yourself with two extra hours in the week. Empty…waiting to be used. What a delicious thought!

How would you choose to spend those hours?

Romanian Family
Romanian Family (Photo credit: JoshLawton)

Would you:

  • Work on a pet project that matters to you?
  • Spend more time with loved ones? Doing what?
  • Look after yourself a little better – perhaps exercising more often; cooking healthier food; getting more sleep?
  • What would it be…..?
And…what wouldn’t you choose to do with that time?

I invite you to sit with those questions. To let them be with you over the next few days and see what turns up.

If you want to find time for an important but neglected activity, then I encourage you to start small. Just pick one action and commit to focussing on that area for 10 minutes more each week.

If that change seems to give your life more vitality, you might then choose to gradually increase it over time.

This question comes from an interesting book: Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobal and Jerold Panas

Hello Again!

Some of our subscribers have not had any updates from Rob and I for some time. If you are not in this group then feel free to ignore this post.

We weren’t excluding you on purpose, it was all due to a tricky IT problem. But all is now sorted. Thanks to some top IT support from my son, Patrick. (Thanks Pat!).

So what did you miss?

The most popular post in the last few months was this one:

Successful People Feel Bad Too  – It is about how we all pretend that we have got it together even when we are feeling sad and overwhelmed.

Some readers seemed to also enjoy this post on what my chickens taught me about conflict resolution.

We started a Working With ACT Facebook page – if you are so moved you can now ‘like’ us!

You may notice that I (Rachel) have been dominating the blog somewhat in the last few months as Rob has been fiendishly busy with his other projects. But he assures me that he will be back delivering his own quirky style of writing soon.

So, ‘Hello Again’, we hope you are pleased that we are back.

How To Super Charge Your Leadership Training

I recently heard of a leadership programme where it is expected that half way through the programme participants will contact the CEO of their large organisation to complain. They are doubtful about the usefulness of the programme and feel overwhelmed, stressed and angry. The CEO apparently responds by telling them to ‘suck it up’. Why does he tell them this?  Because he sees that, in the long run, the programme works – the majority of participants do become better leaders after the programme. They are wiser, more courageous and demonstrate more integrity.

Although the programme apparently ‘works’ it sounds to me like it is causing unnecessary suffering to participants. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was a junior doctor, all gall bladder operations involved a long incision, a 2 hour operation, 5 days in hospital and 4-6 weeks recovery time. Fast forward 15 years and most gall bladder operations are now done laparoscopically, via small incisions in the abdomen. The patient only needs to stay in hospital overnight and returns to normal activities within a week.

I think that some leadership trainers are doing the equivalent of an open cholecystectomy. They are inflicting unnecessary trauma on participants in order to achieve the required changes when they could be using newer, more effective and less damaging behaviour change technology.

Contextual behavioural science has the clues to these more effective and less traumatic ways of achieving the same important outcomes.

Contextual behavioural science (CBS) aims to ‘predict and influence behavior, with precision, scope, and depth.’ What this means is that CBS is using scientific inquiry to work out exactly what works in helping human beings to develop and grow.

So what does a leadership course based on these principles look like?

  1. It understands that most of us become inflexible when we feel threatened. If the learning environment is safe, secure and playful we are more likely to learn new behaviours that we will then apply in the real world.
  2. At the start of the programme participants choose the values they want to express through their work. What they want to stand for. How they want others to experience them. This is important as this links the leadership programme to their own internal motivation (‘What is important to me’) which is much more powerful than external motivation ( e.g.’My CEO says I have to suck it up’).
  3. A combination of 360 feedback and reflection (supported by coaching) helps participants to identify the behaviours that they need to Keep, Start and Stop doing.  Participants learn research findings about which leadership behaviours are effective in which settings; so that they can make wise choices about what behaviours to focus on.
  4. Participants explore the function of any behaviours that they find both problematic and resistant to change. They then use this information to develop a plan for change. This is because behaviours that look the same can actually have completely different underlying aims. If the plan for change doesn’t take this into account it is likely to be ineffective. For example: participants who complain to the CEO could either be trying to avoid something difficult or they could be asking for a more effective leadership programme. In the first case, some work around becoming better at handling uncomfortable emotions might be warranted, whereas in the second, it might be helpful to learn how to manage upwards more skilfully.
  5. Facilitators in a programme based on contextual behavioural science understand that problematic thoughts and feelings are often what hold people back from expressing courageous, caring and inspiring behaviours. The programme therefore includes evidence based methods to handle painful thoughts and feelings more effectively.
  6. Participants learn to become more mindful. They become good at observing their own behaviour and it’s impact. Noticing when their behaviour aligns with their own deeply held values and when they are off course…and then self correcting.
  7. Relational Frame Theory is used to improve the design of activities and metaphors. Why relational frame theory? Because it is a theory of language, cognition and learning that has more than 60 studies to support it.
  8. During workshops, the behaviours that participants have identified as needing to change are likely to occur. These events are seen as opportunities for authentic and thoughtful conversations where the effects of these behaviours on both the particular participant and on other participants is explored. The outcomes of the behaviour in the session are then linked to their possible outcomes in the ‘real’ world.
  9. Facilitators and other participants also look for and encourage positive changes in behaviour. Participants make plans for how to try out these new behaviours in their work and then observe the effect.
  10. Participant’s managers are seen as an important part of the programme. It is much easier to change when people around you are supportive of the change.

A leadership course run this way would still be challenging for participants but it would be less likely to overwhelm them.  Even better, early research is suggesting it might even be more effective than standard leadership training. (Professor Frank Bond has some research in press showing just this).