Seven (or Eight) Reasons Why Executive Coaches Need ACT

I’ve been been talking to fellow coaches at Ashridge Business School about the benefits of using ACT as part of coaching.

In the interests of space I won’t try to explain what ACT is, but will restrict myself to listing some of the benefits of using it in a coaching context.  My intention is to generate responses below, which I’ve learned are nearly always more valuable than mine.

  1. Evidence-based. If coaching is to be progressive and credible, then the interventions used should have been shown to be effective. They should have achieved a desired effect over and above alternative interventions.  Over 100 Randomised Control Trials now show ACT works, with most of these in the last 5 years.
  2. Theory-based. ACT is based on a clear theory which attempts to explain something fundamental: how language and thinking influences human behaviour. Because of this theoretical basis, ACT is clear about why changes happen, i.e. the mechanisms of change.  When using ACT, coaches know that it works and why it works.  In session, this enables coaching to become more accurate, as ACT coaches can focus exclusively on the active ingredients of behaviour change.
  3. Liberating.  Just in case this is sounding too hard-edged, in practice ACT is deeply personal because it puts people in contact with the things they truly care about (if you haven’t read this post by Rachel, please do). The aim is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to choose one’s behaviour even when experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions. For some people, moving towards one’s values is only plearn_from_your_past_mistakesossible in the presence of immense pain. But by increasing flexibility, they can be liberated to do just that…and the world opens up before them.
  4. Universality. ACT is a therapy, but it is not only a therapy. The 100 RCTs apply to almost every outcome you can think of; from smoking cessation to chronic pain to workplace performance. By promoting psychological flexibility ACT enables people to choose their behaviour with greater purpose, broadening peoples’ choices in life. This is therefore a fundamental life skill which applies equally to the clinic and the boardroom. (And don’t get me started on schools…).
  5. Mindfulness, with a purpose. Yes, this is another trendy mindfulness-based intervention and ACT benefits from the immediacy and vitality of being strongly in the moment.  At the same time, ACT is more than just mindfulness; it is mindfulness withlightsabercrop_large_verge_medium_landscape a purpose. It uses mindfulness as a call to action, for people to get out of their minds and into their lives, rather than a desirable end state in itself. This is mindfulness used as a lightsaber, to help deal with the danger and messiness of real life.
  6. Practical and pragmatic. ACT has strong behavioural roots, which means that coaching conversations are primarily about tangible and practical behaviour change. ACT has a cognitive component of course, but there is no ‘right’ mindset to achieve, no ‘good’ way to think.  Behaviour is not judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but pragmatically assessed for its ‘workability’, i.e. whether a given action works over the long term.
  7. Consistency. Because of ACT’s theoretical roots, coaches work to a single, coherent and testable model of human behaviour. This allows coaches to multiply reinforce or model psychological flexibility, lending coherence and consistency to sessions. This contrasts with other approaches that more resemble a collection of techniques.   NLP is a good example, as it borrows a number of tools and techniques and relates them to a theory based on language. However, this model has not stood up to scrutiny, and is therefore haphazard pseudoscience.
  8. Ignore this final point.  In ACT training you are taught not to believe what the ACT text books tell you, or what Steve Hayes tells you, or even what your mind tells you. You are taught to trust your own experience of what works. So here is my experience…

Before ACT I was a fairly good coach. I established good relationships, was sensitive, brave and as a former consultant I had wide experience.

But post-ACT, everything is different.  When my mind tells me that everything is going wrong, that I am incompetent, that I am a terrible psychologist, I can respond with compassion for myself instead of reacting.

This tiny breathing space allows me more options for responding to my client than I had before. Maybe I will share my experience and model acceptance, maybe I will choose to refocus on the working alliance, or maybe I will reconnect to what matters to me, and recommit to being of service to another human being.

As a result, I feel as though I am more purposeful as a coach, making more of a difference, helping good people do good work in often bad systems.  And that’s not a bad way to spend my time on earth.

But then, of course, don’t believe what I tell you either….

 

Postscript

If coaches need ACT, it is equally clear that ACT needs coaches.  We in ACBS want to change the world for the better….and coaches are out there, right now, having helping conversations with powerful people.

I believe coaches are a force for immense good – bringing much-needed support and challenge to people who may not receive this elsewhere. If we want to get  evidence-based practice into the water supply, then we must learn from coaches and welcome them. 

My next post will cover this very thing.

A Letter to The Escape Tribe

For regular WWA readers, some context.  I’ve been working as one of the Faculty at the brilliant Escape School, in particular an amazing Tribe of 50 people who have been on a 3 month journey to get unstuck and do something more meaningful with their careers.  It was so enjoyable and moving that I wanted to write them a short letter…and I’m sharing it here because it is hopefully a good example of ACT being used in coaching (and getting into the water supply).

Dear Escape Tribe,

I can’t tell you my admiration for your courage to stand for something in your lives, even in the presence of your fears. It feels like a privilege to watch you and work with you; in many ways one of the highlights of my career. So I wanted to write you my own letter, perhaps because I was so moved by those you wrote to yourselves…

Get out of your mind and into your life

 This is a great book with a cheesy title, yet which captures a critical idea in psychology.

Society teaches us to think that if we can only get more confident, certain, less anxious etc, then all will be well. But it’s really the other way round. Thinking follows behaviour. From another great book:

“We think that the key to successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But change usually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second”. 

Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity

Remember the anemone

When stuck, our minds often tell us that the action we must take has to be big and bold.

If that works for you then great, go for it.  But if it doesn’t, think of an anemone.

If you aren’t willing to open your whole self up to some big change, see if you can be willing to start by opening one tentacle out into the ocean; exploring and experimenting.

anemone

Experiential avoidance will always be an option….

Our minds can always find an excuse not to do difficult things. And that is normal.

But if avoidance becomes our objective, then it narrows our lives.  And over a lifetime this can lead us to feel trapped – trapped in prisons made only by the words in our minds.

Picture1

Values are about the here and now

Instead of seeing values as ‘out there’, a remote and distant pipe dream, remember that they are accessible to you right now.

You have a choice to tune into them and show up to them, right now.  What will you stand for in this moment?  Put enough of these moments together and you become a different person.

‘The road less travelled’ is less travelled for a reason

The irony of human existence is that if something feels important to us then it will have a flipside which feels scary.

If you dare greatly, you will feel fear. If you commit to love then you risk rejection.

Happiness and sadness are not exclusive, but intimately connected.  They grow weak together, or strong together.

Acceptance changes everything

Once you start those first few steps out in the real world, the feedback you receive may be mixed.  If avoiding pain is your objective then it is tempting to retreat into the narrow repertoires of behaviour that have trapped you.

But if you are willing to accept yourself – that is, the whole of yourself – then you will have pain and joy, anxiety and meaning.

Only if you can accept the thorn, do you get to keep the rose.

Don’t forget; the world needs you

Don’t be fooled into thinking there is nothing for you to do. The world is full of challenges which need you – your skills, talent and energy.

This may not be fighting great battles of justice or injustice, but contributing to the world in the best, most vital version of your self.

That is really what the world needs more than ever.

Therefore, for yourselves, but not only for yourselves, may you all find the courage to keep going.

And in so doing, may you all be ignited.

with huge thanks, admiration and hope for all of you,

Rob

What I have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?

Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, the holy and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Getting Things Done (2.0)

Perhaps in common with other people who run their own business, I am mildly obsessed by productivity techniques.  From apps that help organise work, manage attention, to ways of filtering emails and using technology to help limit the impact of technology – I am always a bit obsessive interested.

One of the best productivity systems is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where he explains why we need a system (a ‘second brain’) which we trust if we are to work without   distraction.

It’s great stuff, but I think ACT has much to add to his system, in particular two key ideas:

1.  Clarify values.  The distinctive problem with knowledge work is that it is difficult to know what the ‘right’ work is at any given moment.  There are so many competing priorities; should I be writing this blog or perfecting a proposal?

For knowledge workers, how we define our work is our most important task, so a clear understanding of what matters to us – what we want to stand for – will help.  I certainly want to stand for more than winning commercial contracts, hence me finding time to contribute to this blog.

2.  Acceptance.  So often productivity is not actually at the mercy of external factors, but our own thoughts and emotions.  For example, I know that if a task makes me anxious or bored then I will find a sudden urge to clean the shiny handles on my kitchen cupboards.

shiny cupboard
Must…shine…handles

This is where all the advice to do work you love or find your passion is so dangerous.  If we focus on how we feel during a task, we start to hand control of our lives over to our emotions.  And our emotions – even the ones we want – are not really in our control, or reliable bellwethers of where to head next.

MoritaThe most quotable psychologist in this area is Shoma Morita –> who always makes a point of separating how we feel from what we do:

“Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die”.

Ultimately it is only by holding our emotions lightly – by committing to our values in the presence of anxiety and boredom if necessary – that we will build the kind of working life we want.  Or, as Morita says:

When running up a hill, it is all right to give up as many times as you wish – as long as your feet keep moving.

 

(And as my mind says ‘check this post one more time’ with my finger I press…PUBLISH).

The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

Many times in Executive coaching the person I’m working with is facing a difficult choice.  Do I take job A or B?  Should I spend more time at work or with my family?  How can I work with a difficult colleague?

I am a fan of decision science, but more often than not, this does not actually help the person to decide.  That’s because they are wrestling with what Ruth Chang calls  ‘hard choices’ – there is no right or wrong answer.  However this is usually not what people want to hear.  They want certainty… and an answer!

How then should we choose?

The thing about hard choices, Chang argues, is that yes, they are hard; but that is what makes them  so liberating.  After all, if there were only ever choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice, then life would be very dull.  In fact, there would be no real choice at all.

This is where the ACT distinction between choices and decisions is so useful:

Decisions can be “explained, justified and…supported by reasons”, whereas a choice

” is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”

In ACT, choices are where values can guide us.  Values are freely chosen; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ or reason-giving driving the choice.  Therefore choices (or what Chang calls ‘hard choices’) are precious because unlike decisions, they are our chance to author our lives and to take a stand for something that we feel matters.

Instead of saying ‘A was better than B so I went with A’, we get to say ‘this is me, this is the choice I made and this is what I stand for’.

Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt.  But what  is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all,  the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…

Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool.  The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.

Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?

mail

Right there.  We attend to it immediately.  (Or is that just me?)

If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention?  It has to become shallower and more fractured.  Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.

The Costs of Distraction

Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy.  But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance.  Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy.  So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective.  Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?

In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2).  In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.

In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful.  It can also make us feel needed and important.  It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy.  Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.

But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?

Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth.  Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.

This makes sense from a theoretical perspective.  High performance states involve intense focus on one thing.  Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task.Business Man Texting  This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.

When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety?  As Robert Leahy argues:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.

So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?

Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats.  But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.

* your job involves a cognitive load

References

1. Institute of the Future

2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.

Guest post: When Anger Strikes like a Bolt out of the Blue

One sunny morning around a year ago, I stormed into my office shaking with rage. In half an hour I was due to counsel someone.

My husband had driven me to work; he and the children were going on to soccer training. It had been a typical Saturday morning: coffee, croissants, music played probably a tad too loud and the children bounding around.

As we’d approached the office my husband had said something (I can’t even remember what it was), and I’d exploded with anger. My voice had sounded weird. Even as I’d glimpsed the thought “You need to keep it together,” every cell in my body steeled to fight ~ run, hit out, fix, prove ~ NOW. My eyes narrowed and hardened, and my heart felt like it was curling inwards.

I walked away, leaving my family, the people I hold most dear, sitting in the car shocked and still.

There was no turning back. I had to keep my feet moving, eyes dry; half an hour was all I had. The heavy glass doors were light as I pushed them open, fuming. Fragments of shame  ~ collided with the Imposter spectre that’d whooshed in ~ collided with phrases from ACT ~ bah!

Thanks to a few less dramatic bouts of anger over the preceding months, I had found a few things which helped…

By the time the session began I was feeling a bit bruised but otherwise fine. Guilt and apologies were tucked away to manage later.

If out-of-the-blue rage is something you struggle with, these are some things you could try:

In the heat of the moment,

  • Slow and deepen your breathing, eyes closed if possible. Do this by counting slowly, in… 2… 3…..pause….out… 2…3…. a few times.
  • Soften the muscles around your eyes, especially if a child is present. My dad had what we called “The Pirate Look” when angry, and it terrified us!
  • Rest your tongue gently on the back of your top teeth. This helps relax the jaw.
  • Run cold water over your wrists. Have a swig of cold water and notice how it feels as it moves down your throat.
  • Take note of the different parts of your experience: notice how it’s possible to unwind thoughts, feelings and impulses to act from the tangle of fury.
  • Open up: make room for discomfort. With anger it can be easy to be swept back into whirlpools of argument during this step. Loving-kindness, prayer or self-compassion offer guide-ropes which you can try using. I found this post particularly helpful, maybe because it was quite visual.
  • Picture: This will sound corny, but try softening your vision and seeing the person you are angry with at a time when you loved them to bits. This may be helpful in opening up and connecting with your values. Experiment and see what works for you. It could be a role model. Or a beloved pet. Or it could be yourself  that you see, managing the situation in a way that’s true to your values. (Assuming these are peaceful!)
  • Pursue your values: do what matters, with uncomfortable feelings in tow if need be.
  • Perspective & problem-solving: can be tricky in the eye of a storm, but do-able later on, and important. It’s tempting to get stuck in how right you are and how wrong they are..
  • Apologise (although it may feel easier to skip this step and move on.) Something we did later that Saturday which also helped, was talking about how anger had been managed in our families as children ~ and about how we wanted things to be different.

When you have calmed down somewhat,

  • Learn about anger. This is a gem, “ACT on life not on anger” by Eifert, McKay & Forsyth. Many posts on this blog may be helpful, for example, this one on touching fear and other difficult emotions.
  • Make a note in your diary when anger visits. See if there’s any pattern.
  • Get clear on the type of person/colleague etc you want to be, and the atmosphere and communication style you want in your home/office. Use this as motivation to make changes.

(Reading about values on this blog was, for me, like seeing colour TV for the first time. “Values”  till then had been abstract, dry and dull. So, Dig in! “Your Life on Purpose: How to Find What Matters and Create the Life You Want” by McKay, Forsyth and Eifert is also excellent.)

  • Get to know the triggers. This takes effort, especially if the anger seems to have no cause. Use them as alerts; to plan strategies and to problem-solve.
  • Become clever at spotting, and responding to, the earliest flush of anger possible.
  • Practice, practice, practice – even with minor annoyances.

The order is not important, nor do you need to do each step. In the service of self-compassion and workability, experiment, and see which tools work best for you.

I hauled myself off to the GP that week. She reassured me that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, nor was it my dad’s fiery genes. Turns out it was medicine I’d been taking.

 

Catharina Belgraver is a counselling psychologist in Brisbane, Australia. After many years in the perinatal field, she is about to embark into health and wellbeing counselling, using ACT.  Follow her on Twitter at @Rina_Belgraver

2013 in review

We’ve been quiet but we’ve not gone away.

Here’s a review of last year on this blog.  Thank you for reading and commenting and getting involved and encouraging us.  It is very much appreciated.

Here’s to another year of taking ACT into organisations and getting our ideas into the water supply.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:

“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.

References:

  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.