Helping Alpha Executives to Drop The Corporate Armour

According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Interrupting others
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)

And unfortunately these behaviours seem to worsen as they get more power.

Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.

Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.

But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.

I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!

How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?

An ACT-informed coaching approach would likely include:
– Identifying workable and unworkable behaviours
Helping the executive to make better quality decisions
Choosing values and choosing how to convert those values into action
Developing compassion for self and others
Broadening behaviour and improving the criteria the executive uses to select their behaviour in a given situation.
Building psychological flexibility (of course!)
Uncovering unhelpful internal rules that are controlling behaviour

In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.

My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions.  This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour.  The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Executives have often donned corporate armour, in order to protect themselves, in the sometimes hostile environment of organisations. Whilst this armour can be helpful, it does make it hard for them to be emotionally intelligent and agile.

In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.

The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.

The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.

This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape.  Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.

Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?

As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.

As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.

As emotions become welcome companions, the corporate armour becomes less necessary, vulnerability becomes possible and life becomes richer.

(For Australian Readers – I am running a workshop on this topic at the APS International Coaching Congress in Melbourne in November 13th to 15th)

Which 8 Practices Will Help You To Flourish?

We are experiencing a rapid increase in the incidence of ‘lifestyle’ disorders such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders, depression and anxiety.

statistic_id240883_number-of--us-americans-with-diabetes-1980-2015Number (in Millions) of Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011

Dr Kelly Wilson (who IMHO wrote one of the best books I have ever read on psychotherapy) is hoping that contextual behavioural science and evolutionary science can help us to work out what can be done to understand and reverse this trend.

At a recent workshop, Kelly reflected on the impact of the 24/7, hyper-connected yet socially isolated world many of us inhabit and he kept coming back to:
‘We aren’t that kind of a monkey’.

We aren’t the kind of monkey who does well in isolation. We aren’t the kind of monkey who can get away with less than 8hrs sleep a night.

Now Kelly knows we are hominids not monkeys, but ‘We aren’t that kind of hominid’ is a bit less catchy.

The hominid family includes humans and our close genetic relatives – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans. Just sit with that for a moment – think about what our ‘cousins’ need to thrive…

A sense of belonging?….Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables?….Time to rest?

What if many of the problems that beset us are because we are ignoring our most basic ‘monkey’ needs?

Based on an extensive review of the literature, Kelly suggests that, in order to flourish, you probably need to:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

You can learn more about his suggestions here.

Now Kelly isn’t saying that, if we do this, there will be no more illness or distress. What he is suggesting is, if we look after ourselves in these ways. Then, when stressors visit us, as they will, we will have a little more resilience. We won’t be living at the limit of our resources. We will be less vulnerable to those ‘lifestyle’ disorders.

And during less challenging times, perhaps we will be more likely to flourish?

Read that list again:

Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

and ask yourself:

What would happen if I were to care for myself in these simple ways?

What would be one small step towards self care that I could take in just one of those areas?

Kelly travels the world delivering workshops. He currently in Australia teaching counselors and psychologists how to support their clients in making these simple but challenging changes. You can get details at his website. Highly recommended.

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

How Science Can Help You to Use Words to Weave Magic

Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals
Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals

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)

If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.

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.

Working in a harsh environment can mess you up more than you think…

Have you ever had to survive a harsh environment at work? This woman has…

Most of us have lived through an unpleasant time at work. When it ends, we sigh with relief and assume all will now be fine. Unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

The hostile environment changes us, we learn strategies to cope, to get our work done despite the difficulties. However, the very strategies that helped us to survive a dysfunctional workplace can be counterproductive in a more supportive environment. And in a cruel twist of fate, it is seems to be almost impossible to unlearn something that you learnt when you were scared or stressed. So we often continue to be defensive, aggressive or self-protective even when it is no longer needed.  We can’t seem to get rid of the mental junk we have acquired during our painful experiences.

A reader wrote to us about a problem she encountered when she moved from a hostile, aggressive environment to a much more harmonious workplace.

She was really happy in her new job and was doing well but she was given feedback that her communication skills needed work. This hadn’t been a problem for her in previous workplaces. She realised that she had learnt some unhelpful habits in her last role. Now she needed to relearn how to interact in more workable ways. She was worried that she didn’t know how to bring about this change.

So how do you let go of problematic interpersonal behaviour and start to behave in ways that work? Here are some tips:

1. Start with self-compassion. The less you beat yourself up for your failings, the more you will be able to notice the times when your behaviour isn’t working.

2. Get present. Mindfulness helps us to act on our good intentions. In this moment now, what is happening? Try to notice your behaviour moment to moment.

3. Do a self-assessment and get feedback from people you trust. There are some good questions about interpersonal functioning here that you could adapt to the workplace.

4. Don’t just change as a reaction to what others want. Spend some time thinking deeply about your values. Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to experience you? Changing your behaviour is a hard slog, linking the change to your values will help you to keep going.

5. Aim to gradually evolve your behaviour rather than suddenly transforming yourself overnight. Just focus on one or two small changes and see if you can repeat those behaviours over and over until they are a habit. Then pick some more behaviours you would like to change.

6. Get really present in your interactions with people. Notice the impact of your behaviour on others. See if you can get out of your head and into this moment now.

7. Accept that when you feel threatened you are likely to revert to self-protective and unhelpful behaviours. Consider what might trigger that in you and make a plan to be particularly mindful and self-compassionate at those moment. Hold those feelings gently.

8. Seek feedback on your progress but accept that it may take people a while  to notice that you have changed. Our opinions of others are quickly formed and slow to change.

Becoming the person we want to be is hard. Facing those times where our behaviour isn’t in line with those ideals is painful. Can you turn to yourself in kindness?

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.

How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

How can ACT help reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels?  In this blog, the third and probably last in my series on ACT and environmental change, I want to critique an economist’s view of behavioural change and argue that ACT helps us understand how to tackle our addiction to consumption.

An Economists Perspective on Addiction to Fossil Fuel Use

So first to the economists’ view. In a fascinating article, Suranovic (2013) argues that addiction to fossil fuels use is a lot like addiction to cigarettes: In both cases, there are short-term reinforcers for continuing current behaviour and punishers for changing. And in both cases, people undervalue the long-term outcomes. Suranovic argues that:

“… an individual can break an addiction to fossil fuel only if two conditions are met. First the present value of the future costs of climate change, accounting for its likelihood of occurrence, must outweigh the current benefits of using fossil fuels. Second, this perceived net future benefit of preventing climate change must also exceed the adjustment costs borne by an individual switching to alternative energy sources.”

The problem is that human beings heavily discount the value of future outcomes. Just as smokers are likely to discount the negative effects of long-term illness from smoking, most of us in the developed world are excessively discounting the negative long-term effects of our consumption patterns.

In the end, Suranovic seems pessimistic. If it has taken us 50 years to deal with the relatively simple case of cigarette addiction, what hope do we have of bringing about behaviour change in the much more complex and interdependent case of addiction to fossil fuels?

While I do occasionally despair, I also find hope in watching how ACT can help people create real and sometimes rapid changes in problematic, repetitive behaviours.  In the next section, I explore how ACT could change some of the basic assumptions arising from economics.

An ACT Perspective: Changing our relationship to the stories we tell changes what and how we value

The view of people as utility optimisers is limited in at least two important ways: it doesn’t account for how we can change our relationship to what we value, and it ignores identity.

The stories we tell affect the value of events

For Suranovic, the extent to which we value different outcomes is relatively unchanging.  He treats utility as “exogenous” – it affects the system but cannot be affected by the system. But as we practice with ACT we know that we can change not only how much we value different aspects of our lives, we can also change the process of valuing itself.

One reason why mindfulness seems to help with smoking addiction is because it helps addicts reinterpret and accept the pain of withdrawal (e.g. Witkiewitz et al., 2012). Positive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated the power of reinterpreting aversive experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Psychological flexibility is about changing our responses to negative experience.  If reducing fossil fuel use is not happening in part because of the short-term ‘pain’ of change, then psychological flexibility can help us reinterpret and re-value the pain.

What is interesting here is that changes in meaning and valuing can occur instantaneously.  I remember standing in a line at a café growing increasingly annoyed at a sandwich maker who seemed to be taking forever to make each sandwich.  But then I heard him speak …. and I realised he was intellectually disabled.  As my perceptions shifted in an instant, so did my valuing of standing in line patiently.

Think of the 180 degree shift in perception we experience when we stop seeing a person as selfish, stubborn or lazy and instead choose to see them as an individual with needs and wants just like ours.  This type of change in meaning and valuing of a situation is not the linear, incremental change that Suranovic bases his argument upon. It is nonlinear – there is a tipping point as changes in one small meaning cascades to change the meaning of everything about the situation.

The stories we tell about who we are change the value of events

Often this sort of radical reappraisal of a situation involves a change in identity. We suddenly see that we are defending some belief about who we are or what we stand for. And this might also be true for dealing with addiction to fossil fuel. For many of us, our self-worth is entwined with our purchasing power.  My value as a parent sometimes feels proportional to the things I can give my children.  ACT helps us become more flexible about our identity, less defensive of any particular view of ourselves – and this makes change easier as we become more flexible and responsive to what is actually going on and not rules about how we should be.

I have tried to emphasise how change can occur not just in what we value or how much we value it, but in the way that we do valuing – in the way we make sense of our lives.  While this might be obvious to readers of this blog, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions economists make about human behaviour. Relational frame theory provides an account of how changing the stories we tell ourselves changes the way we value our experiences.

I am excited about the possibilities of combining the tools of ACT with powerful tools from other disciplines such as scenario planning.  Vivid stories about possible futures, like those outlined in this wonderful paper by Bob Costanza, help us avoid the perils of excessive discounting of future outcomes. But these stories also help us reinterpret our experience now, and the tools of ACT help change our relationship to the pain of change so that we can act more in the direction of what really matters. This is making use of language at its best.

Understanding the Real You

As a psychologist, many clients want me to help them understand themselves better. Who am I? Who is the ‘real’ me? How do I become more like the real me?

And because I am all seeing and knowing, I am able to tell them and their lives are transformed.

In particular, people going through a transition (for example a career change) are understandably keen to understand who they really are, because this will help guide them and inform their decisions.

It is very easy to believe that if we can just understand who we are, then we can be  liberated to be that person.  It is an alluring thought, as the pull to certainty always is.

The problem is that whilst the idea of a ‘core’ you; a fixed, immutable essence of you (that sounds like a brand of perfume: Immutable Essence of You by Chanel) is alluring, it is also dangerous.  It can lead people to see their lives from a narrow perspective, as the content of their history and experience. Then we create powerful stories of who we ‘really’ are – I am an introvert, I am bad at Maths, I am depressed. In ACT this is known as the self as content perspective.

Yet there is another perspective of the self which is where we are the context or the holder of our ever changing experiences.  This allows us to take a more fluid, flexible perspective of our selves. One exercise I like to do with people to explore this idea is to take their Myers Briggs ‘type’ and then list all the ways in which they regularly act against their type. It is easy to do, and helps loosen the power of the self as content perspective.

In this short video Julian Baggini explores exactly this idea, but what’s interesting is that he does this without any knowledge of ACT, thereby bringing a fresh perspective.  He asks whether the self is an illusion, and concludes that this is not a helpful question. It is more helpful to see the self as a process, rather than a thing.

It is this view of our self as a process which can liberate us. Instead of something fixed to discover, our selves become something we create.  Instead of ‘being’ depressed, I am someone who sometimes experiences feelings of depression.  What I like about this advert is that it takes just such a view – I have pain and my life is bigger than pain:

rofen-ad-2013-46_460

In turn this flexible, ‘context’ perspective helps us act more flexibly.  We are free to experiment, and to transcend narrow, fixed views of ourselves.

Instead of asking who we really are, we can begin to see that we are the person we create, one behaviour at a time.

High Five Mirror BW

ACT and conscious evolution Part A: Why cant we get our act together to respond to global change?

We live on a planet completely transformed by humanity.  Our impacts upon the planet are so great that scientists have now coined a term for a new geological age – the Anthropocene.   We are changing the climate, the chemical balance of the oceans and soils, biodiversity and even the physical structure of the planet –humans move more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined.  Together this is referred to as ‘global change’.  Whether we like it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are designing the future of not just our species, but every other species on the planet.

In this blog and the next I argue that Contextual Behavioural Science is not just a tool for individual wellbeing, it is a tool for global transformation.  For future generations to live meaningfully, happily and sustainably, we must master our thinking and feeling at least as much as we have learned to master the physical world. We need to more consciously evolve our behaviour, choosing our evolutionary path instead of reacting unconsciously.

Getting better at choosing is critical for many of our most pressing problems, but nowhere is it more important than the choices we make about our treatment of the natural world. The natural world is the context for everything else: It is the cradle of our development as a species, the support system for our thriving today and the legacy we leave our children.

Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.  In this blog, I outline some of the reasons we seem to be so ineffective at collectively responding to anthropogenic changes to the natural world.  Next week I will explore some ways contextual behavioural science can help us to respond more effectively to such wicked problems.

Why cant we get our act together?

From a contextual behavioural perspective, human beings have at least six characteristics that get in the way of successfully responding to complex problems [1].   These characteristics served us well in old contexts, but might just be big problems for our ongoing survival.

Responding to reinforcement

a)      Immediate consequences outweigh delayed consequences – we might be concerned about the fate of our children, but we tend to act on our desire for that new car or second helping of food right now.

b)      Strongly unpleasant stimuli presented abruptly prompt action, but gradually increasing unpleasant stimuli do notThis is the story of the boiled frog. So long as global conditions worsen gradually, we will tolerate bad air, foul water, and species loss that would once have been considered intolerable.

Complexity and Accuracy of Thinking

c)       Simple, familiar ideas are often preferred over complex, alien ideas that are more correct. It is estimated that evolution, about as well-established a fact as it is possible to obtain in science, is rejected by 46% of the American population, one of the best educated populations on earth.  This figure doesn’t appear to be changing – there is a limit to the power of science and education, in part because…

d)      Coincidental events often strengthen ineffective behavior –  Short term weather events lead to claims that climate change isn’t happening. Our cognitive systems are tuned to use even random patterns as evidence supporting our beliefs.

e)      Thinking more complexly puts us in contact with uncertainty and paradox which can both feel aversive – As we learn language we are repeatedly rewarded for being coherent [2]: Parents discourage children for saying they like spinach one day and not the next.  Uncertainty, ignorance and inconsistent beliefs feel deeply aversive for most of us and thinking about complex environmental issues inevitably exposes us to these states.

Our relationships

f)       Consequences for the individual usually outweigh consequences for others although we can and do act altruistically, our primary concern is usually to protect ourselves and satisfy our own needs.

So what can we do about it?

This is a pretty depressing list. But actually these characteristics are just the products of human evolution.  Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.

But what makes human beings really interesting are the times when we act differently to the basic tendencies outlined above.  Next week I will explore how ACT and contextual behavioural science help us to make sense of what happens when we are at our best as a species – when we plan well for the future and act beyond our own self-interest.

Between now and then, you might like to see if you can notice examples of these evolved tendencies in action.  How do they serve you and how do they get in the way of living the life you want to live?  I would love to read about what you notice.

1. Chance, P. (2007). The ultimate challenge: prove B. F. Skinner wrong. The Behavior analyst, 30(2), 153-160.  Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2203635/

2. Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Vahey, N. (2012). Holding On to Our Functional Roots When Exploring New Intellectual Islands: A Voyage through Implicit Cognition Research. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 17-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.003. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144712000075