ACTing On Mental Health: The Evidence

This week someone asked me for a meeting, so I looked at my diary….kept looking…and eventually came up with a date in early December.

It’s not just me – though of course I am terribly important.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy (and terribly important) and perhaps no surprise – many of us feel stressed as a result.

Some of the stress statistics would be shocking if they weren’t so familiar:

  • In the UK, work-related stress accounts for 37% of ill health and 45% of days lost (Health and Safety Executive, 2016).
  • 1 in 6 people in paid employment will suffer a common mental health issue this year (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
  • The estimated cost of poor mental health is £74 – £99 billion p.a. (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).

So what can be done?

Tackling Stress at Work

In a recent interview for the New Scientist (on behalf of one of my Fintech clients), I argued that interventions at both organisation and individual level were required.

But given that 75% of people suffering from a mental health issue will never receive any form of psychological support (Seymour & Grove, 2005), this places extra emphasis on other forms of support, such as workplace training, to help people deal with the demands of the modern workplace.  The trouble is, of course, that workplace training often gets a bad name.

 

 

 

 

 

And a lot of it lacks even that most basic criterion; evidence that it works.  Ideally there should also be evidence of how the training works too.

The Case for Using ACT to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

As part of the preparation for the New Scientist interview (and prior to publishing a Systematic Review on the subject) I looked at some of the main evidence for ACT training.  Below I’ve listed five workplace studies which caught my eye.

1. Dahl, Wilson and Nilsson (Behavior Therapy, 2004)

This study gave an ACT intervention to a group of Swedish care workers selected as being at high risk of long term work disability due to stress and musculoskeletal pain.  An ACT group was compared to a group who received their respective medical treatment as usual (MTAU).

At post and 6-month followup, ACT participants showed fewer sick days and used fewer medical treatment resources than those in the MTAU condition, with a mean of 1 sick day versus a mean of 11.5 sick days for the MTAU condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Flaxman and Bond (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010)

This study randomly assigned 311 local government employees them to either stress management training based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (n =177) or to a waitlist
control group (n =134). The ACT program consisted of three half-day training sessions.

Across a 6-month assessment period, the ACT training resulted in a significant reduction in employee distress for those who had been at high risk initially, as well as a significant reduction  compared to the waitlist group.  In fact, of these initially distressed SMT participants, 69% improved to a clinically significant degree, compared to 31% in the waitlist group.

3. Waters, Frude, Flaxman, Boyd, (British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2017)

This study demonstrated that even a short, one-off training intervention can have positive effects.  A 1-day ACT workshop was offered to 17 care home workers in Wales, UK with a further 18 assigned to a waitlist control group.

At 3 months post-intervention, those in the ACT group reported a significantly lower level of psychological distress compared to the control group, with clinically significant change exhibited by 50% of ACT participants, compared to 0% in the control group. When the control group received the same ACT intervention, 69% went on to exhibit clinically significant change.

In keeping with ACT theory, the ACT intervention also resulted in significant improvements in psychological flexibility, but did not significantly reduce the frequency of negative cognitions.

4. Vilardaga et al., (Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2011)

This was a cross-sectional survey with nearly 700 addiction counsellors working in substance abuse treatment centres in the USA.

Results indicated that burnout was more strongly associated with psychological flexibility than other well-known predictors of burnout e.g.  job control, supervisor support, salary etc.  The study concluded that a future approach to reduction of burnout among addiction counsellors should target psychological flexibility.

5. Lloyd, Bond and Flaxman (Journal of Work and Stress, 2013)

This study took 43 employees of a UK government department receiving an ACT workshop (3 half days over 2 months) aimed at increasing participants’ levels of psychological flexibility (PF), and 57 participants allocated to a waitlist control group. The study found significant reduction in burnout and strain in the ACT group.

Crucially the study was also able to show that it was higher levels of PF that mediated (or caused) the reduction of emotional exhaustion at follow up.  In other words, this study showed not only that ACT training works, but why it works.

Conclusion

Of course, training psychological flexibility is only a part of the solution to a complex problem.  We shouldn’t overstate the evidence, or see it as a standalone solution.  But increasingly it looks to be a critical part of our response to an increasingly demanding world of work.

 

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Avoiding Stuckness With Values

[This is from a series of posts written by Rob Archer and Rachel Collis in reply to a reader who felt that values were actually keeping him stuck].

Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me, and made so many things clearer.

Apart from the bit about values.

That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.

But it never did really.  I still get stuck on values really easily.  I think my mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing.  Finally!

Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing.  I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do).  I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs.   I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.

I don’t think it’s just me.  Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited.  But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices.  Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.

Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life.  How the hell did that happen?

How I understand values, when I understand values

The other day  my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride.  The words caught in my heart.  Orla Archer.

Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies.  Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer.  I was never in doubt.

Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, without ever really knowing why.  Now I think it was all about choices.

I chose the name, but I also began to choose other things.  I chose all the best stuff; sport, Liverpool FC and of course, The Beatles.  I also chose organisation, determination, anger, softness, self-reliance.

As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself.  I was in survival mode too often.  But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.

Crucially, I didn’t have to state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue.  They weren’t the ‘right’ choices necessarily, or the easy choices.

But looking back, this choosing was the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the most worthwhile bits of me, even today.

This is how I understand values.

Values help with hard choices

Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals.  With values it is the choice that seems key.  What am I valuing rather than what are my values.

My favourite all-time TED talk is by Ruth Chang.  In it she argues that values are about ‘hard choices’; situations where there is no right answer.  Those situations are tough!  But from another perspective they can be liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….

Avoiding stuckness with values

I still don’t really know what my values are.  Or at least if I cling to the idea that I have a stable set of values for all situations, then I quickly get stuck.

But if in a given situation you ask me what my ‘values move’ is, or how I would choose to respond to a situation, or how I behave when I feel like a version of myself I can be proud of – generally I can do that.

So right now, in this moment, I try to focus on the choosing.

And one day – perhaps long after I’ve gone – Orla Archer will tell you what my values were.

 

 

 

 

Is Meaningful Success Possible Within an Organisation?

Working in a twenty-first century organisation can feel pretty bleak. Many employees describe feeling increasingly discouraged, disconnected and disengaged. They struggle to feel a sense of meaning or joy in their work.

Do the harsh realities of the global economy make this inevitable? The situation can seem pretty depressing. But there is hope! New ways of running organisations may be about to change everything.

In his book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederik Laloux describes vibrant and meaningful workplaces that still deliver key outcomes. He calls these organisations ‘Teal organisations’.

in this approach, the organisation is considered to be a complex adaptive system, like a city or a forest. This is in contrast to the current dominant metaphor of the organisation as a machine. This change in metaphor is important. If an organisation is a machine, then people are seen as replaceable cogs. Whereas, in a complex adaptive system, all of the parts are important. Different parts interact in surprising ways and a small action by one element can create large, system wide changes.

In Teal organisations:

  • The usual hierarchies are dropped.
  • Individuals are given much more autonomy.
  • People often work in small, semi-autonomous groups that are nested together to create a larger system.
  • Everyone is seen as able to take on a leadership role whenever needed.
  • All employees are provided with training in the skills they need in order to navigate the complexity of this sometimes challenging environment.
  • Individual workers can make important decisions – as long as they seek advice from those who will be affected by the decision.
  • The CEO doesn’t decide on strategy or tell people what to do. The group agree a broad purpose, and then ‘the role of the leader is to listen for where this organisation naturally wants to go’ (Laloux). 

What I particularly like about Laloux’s perspective is that he doesn’t pretend this is easy. It is clearly challenging to implement this approach. If a Teal organisation is to flourish, appropriate processes and systems need to be put in place. For example, successful organisations adopting this new approach all have clear processes for dealing with conflict.

This model does give hope for the future. It suggests that grim and soulless workplaces may be replaced by something much better. Within a Teal organisation, it is highly likely that employees will experience a sense of meaningful success.

You probably don’t work in a Teal organisation at the moment, but it may be possible to start to shift the centre of gravity. In a complex adaptive system, small changes can lead to dramatic shifts. Just adopting some of the Teal daily organisation practices in your team could help build autonomy, meaning and a sense of community. Try picking one small change suggested on the Reinventing Organizations Wiki, implement it and see what happens.

Fostering these changes will require a degree of psychological flexibility. You will need to be present, open and flexible. You will need a capacity to observe what is happening; take thoughtful action; notice the outcome and then take more action.

You can watch Laloux explaining his research in more detail in this talk:

Running from Depression

20170117_151236It was very sudden this time.

Suddenly, like an eclipse, gloom descended and the birds stopped chirping.

I shouldn’t have been surprised I suppose.  The end of a long-awaited holiday, dark January days, lots of travel, the death of my Step Father.  I should have expected the black dog’s appearance.

But these days I know what I have to do.  I reach for my trainers, and run.

I’ve learned that I can outrun depression, especially if I get a head start.

running-from-black-dog

 

 

 

I am not sure why running works.

I guess there’s the obvious physical effects – endorphines and the like.  But it feels more than that.

Running feels like an assertion of my values over my emotions.  I never want to run, but I run.  If that sounds easy, it isn’t.  When I’m running the battle can feel quite elemental, like I’m in a fight for the direction of my soul.  But if I can hang in there running starts to reconnect me with a version of me that I like, or at least find harder to hate.

This experience exactly mimics the latest research, which shows that committing to valued actions reduces suffering, but not the other way round.

In his seminal book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, Haruki Murakami says:

“Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.”

I think that’s true, even though my inner voice often says FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP AND EAT CAKE!

But to have a thought and not be pushed around by it….running helps me know where to draw the line.  Over time my sense of self becomes defined less by what I think, and more by what I do.

It’s not just thoughts though. I also experience emotions more strongly when I run.  Today I found myself choking up mid-run to Time to Say Goodbye.

I felt a bit stupid, but it occurred to me that running is the only time I allow myself to properly feel my emotions.

Maybe this is the difference?

When I started to get depressed in my 30s, I really would run from my feelings.  But not by running – more often it was alcohol.

Today I run, but running doesn’t feel like running away from anything.  It’s more like running towards my emotions.  And even when sadness shows up – big gulps of it – I keep running towards them, like old friends greeting each other at a train station.

In this context sadness almost begins to feel like joy.  A kind of reconnection with the best part of me.

The depression gains no traction.

It is just me, running in a forest, taking care of the person who sometimes hates himself.

 

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

I am writing this whilst sitting comfortably on a plane, powering through a brilliant autumn sunset towards Helsinki.  I have everything I need, and the work will be great.20160126_152837

And I don’t really want to go.

This has nothing to do with Helsinki you understand.  Who couldn’t be excited by the land of sauna, summer cabins and err, Moomins?

Me.

I don’t want to go because it’s going to be hard work.  And lots of travel.  And above all I’m sad because I’m going to miss my family.  I feel like I just want to stop and go home.

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

This classic ACT move is easily forgotten, but when I remember it always helps:

  1. Ask the cabin attendant for an extra gin
  2. Take a moment to consider why I am making this trip in the first place:

What values are at the heart of my choice to be here?

This question tilts my attention towards the purpose of my being here.  And purpose is the great generator of meaning.

So, why did I choose to be here?

  1. Meaningful work.  I am here because the workshops I run often help people shift in a positive direction.  The data we’re collecting supports this.
  2. Learning.  I hope to learn something from the people I meet, and their reaction to the training.  And it’s exciting to learn something about the countries I visit; Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
  3. Security.  I want to provide for my family so that they have the stuff they need to thrive. It is not the sole purpose of being here, but it is a factor.
  4. Psychological Flexibility.  Deep down, I know that without moments like these, my capacity to experience joy in life would diminish. As Kelly Wilson said, happiness and sadness are twins that either grow strong together or die together.

ballon-2Tuning into my own values doesn’t get rid of the sadness, but it provides a different context for it.

It mixes something in with the sadness.  Something richer.

And now I’m flying in a different way.

I am not so consumed by thoughts of wanting to go home.

My sadness feels like it has been dignified somehow.

It is the admission price for a life I have chosen, and I am grateful for it.

 

 

The Incredible Tale of Leicester City Football Club…and the (Limited) Power of Thinking

“Following today’s devastating result for the national team, I take full responsibility for the most unfortunate choice of coach, which has resulted in such a poor image of the national team being put before the fans.”

ranieri sacked by greece

 

 

 

 

 

It is November 2014 and Giorgos Sarris, the head of the Greek Football Association, has just sacked Claudio Ranieri, a genial 62 year old Italian manager, after losing to the tiny Faroe Islands.

It was beyond embarrassing, and the end for Ranieri after only 4 games in charge.  It was also probably the end of his career.  His quirky, kindly personality seemed out of kilter with the hard realities of modern football.

At that time, Leicester City Football Club were rooted to the bottom of the English Premier League.  After a record 13 match winless streak they were certainties for relegation, which was really no surprise – Leicester are one of the ultimate ‘yo-yo clubs’.

Meanwhile the league title was again being won by Chelsea, a team managed by Jose Mourinho who had replaced Ranieri some years previous.  Mourinho was the opposite of Ranieri; knowing, calculating, snide.  He is the kind of man who stamped on insects as a child. Even his jokes contain a bitter aftertaste.

But Mourinho seemed modern, Ranieri a relic.  Chelsea, at the top of the league, had the manager and the money.  In contrast Leicester had 20% of the budget of Chelsea, and were facing certain relegation.

It’s all just maths.

Season 2015-16

The following season started out like any other, but then unfolded as though reimagined by Picasso.

One by one the established realities were invertedPicasso:

  • Leicester City had escaped relegation and somehow remained in the Premiership after all.
  • Jose Mourinho was sacked by champions Chelsea after a disastrous start to the new season.
  • Leicester City charged to the top of the table, stayed there, and – incredibly – last Saturday were crowned champions with largely the same players who had battled relegation a year ago.

The odds of Leicester winning were 5000-1 against.  To put that into perspective, the odds of finding Elvis alive today are 2000-1.  It was unthinkable, impossible.  The greatest upset in sporting history.

And at the helm of this towering, absurd achievement was a man called Claudio Ranieri.

 Explaining Leicester’s Season

There is now a cottage industry re-examining the leadership secrets of Leicester’s rise.  Of course Ranieri is no longer seen as a relic.  Now he is seen as having an ability to keep things light and deflect pressure, to ‘make his players believe’.

Certainly for months he had joked with the press, smiled with the fans, laughed at any talk of winning the league.  Suddenly he seemed a refreshing alternative to the cynicism of Mourinho.

But from a psychological perspective, there is one standout lesson from this incredible tale.

The (Limited) Power of Thinking

Leicester didn’t win the league because they believed they could do it. Let’s be clear, no one believed they could do it.

The psychology behind their success lies in being able to hold thoughts lightly, whilst focusing on constructive, workable actions in each moment.

Of course this isn’t easy.  Although thoughts are not reality, they feel like reality.   This is fusion – the process of seeing thoughts and reality as the same thing.  Fusion can be very useful, especially for survival.  But it can also limit our ability to thrive because our thinking can be so limited, prone to bias and swayed by ‘wisdom’ which turns out to be wrong.

Even now it feels wrong for Leicester to be champions, which is perhaps why so many people say that it still feels more like a dream than reality.

What does this have to do with ACT in the workplace?

So many people today feel trapped in jobs they don’t enjoy, or are drawn into lifestyles that are drained of joy.  Yet the traps are set by fusing to thoughts like:

  • ‘I am too old to change career’.
  • ‘I am too introverted to be a leader”.
  • ‘I can’t control my angry response with my kids’.
  • ‘I am not in a position to take control of my career’.

Whilt these stories may contain elements of fact, they are not reality. We feel trapped by these thoughts, but we are not trapped in a way that say, a dog would understand.

Picture1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is that when we buy into our thinking and stories wholesale, we risk acting within the confines of the story and failing to author our own story.  We fall into the comfortable illusion that there is nothing to be done, events are outside of our control.

And this is what Leicester have really taught us.  It is not ‘if we dream it, we can do it’.  Most of us find it hard to control our thinking.

The skill we can learn is to hold belief (and disbelief) lightly, acknowledging that our own thinking is limited; an artist’s impression of the real thing.

Fusing to stories of hard luck or powerlessness may make life easier in the short term, but it also makes it smaller.

Leicester have shown us that reality is far from what our minds tell us it is.  If we learn to hold our thoughts lightly, and focus instead on workable behaviours in the direction of what really matters to us, then the world opens up.

And just occasionally, we far exceed what we can ever have imagined.

Leicester champions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

source: BBC website

What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.

The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.

There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.

In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.

In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.

In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.

What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:

  • Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
  • Become very curious about the present
  • Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
  • Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
  • Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
  • Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
  • Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
  • Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).

My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.

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” – Steve Hayes

It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:

Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.

Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.

Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.

Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.

Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.

These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.

And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.


 

If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.

How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 2!)

I’ve recently been travelling around Europe and the Middle East on a kind of values and defusion tour.  It’s been an amazing experience.

And no matter where I went I saw humans.  Lots of them!  Some in busy cities like Brussels or Munich; others miles from anywhere, in the wilds of Sweden, the deserts of the Middle East or quiet fishing villages in the Med. And everywhere you see how humans have adapted to their environment through different cultures, clothing and lifestyle.  Clever old things.

EMEA tour

But if humans are so good at adapting, why do we sometimes struggle to adapt to what life throws at us?

Funny you should ask, because this is where our second Very Exciting Idea from Behaviour Analysis comes in:

“Fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer”.

And why is this such a big idea?

Because it is useful for clients who struggle to adapt and that turns out to be, erm…

ALL OF US!

So sit back, take the soft top down and put on some rock classics, as we explore why ‘fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer’ is such a useful idea, especially in coaching.

relief

What is Fusion?

In ACT, fusion is a term for when we become fused with, or stuck to, our thoughts.

In a state of fusion it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts. For example, if I am fused to the idea that ‘this is a hopeless blog post’, that is all I can see.   Yikes!

fusion (1)

From this perspective, it is easy to act as if the thought is true. So I might give up writing halfway through and see that the garden needs watering, or that the cat urgently needs stroking.  (And I don’t even have a cat).

If this becomes a pattern I might fuse to a new story: I am hopeless…

Hopeless_TCP_illo_2

Here there is no distance at all between me and the thought.

One recent example I had was with a manager at a construction firm who had received negative reviews about his ability to influence senior execs. His story was that as an ‘I’ on Myers Briggs and someone who hates small talk, there was little he could do to influence others.  He was simply “not cut out for senior management”.

It is easy to see how fusing to stories like this can hinder development. But why do people fuse so readily to such unhelpful stories about themselves?

Meaning as the Brain’s Priority

Klinger (1998) argued that humans survive primarily by being able to respond to their environment. The brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into action”.

Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is therefore the brain’s top priority.  This is why the experience of not understanding something is associated with feelings of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood, we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is much more pleasant (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006).

With language, meaning takes on a wider metaphorical significance, so humans start to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:

meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).

Meaning is constructed in context ,and for humans especially this means it becomes socially constructed:  “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” (Mead and Morris, 1967).  Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.

When someone tells me that I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean’ is often greatly reassuring:

Provided that languaging is reinforced from an early age, coherence is also reinforced. As a result, coherence… becomes a generalized reinforcer for verbally competent human beings.” (Blackledge, Moran, & Ellis, 2008).

Aha! Why Fusion acts as a Reinforcer

One reason why fusion is reinforcing is that it can quickly provide a sense of coherence (i.e. meaning) to otherwise confusing or ambiguous information.

story

For example, if I receive a poor assessment of my influencing skills, I can make sense of this by fusing to a story that I am an introvert, or have never had any training in assertiveness, or am ‘not cut out for senior management’.

Perhaps it is no surprise that people cling to these stories as a means of control over their lives. My life is a mess and this is why.

Meaning trumps everything, including whether the story is helpful or not.

For example I often fuse to a story that certain aspects of my character and upbringing make me unable to hold down relationships, and this can be consoling at times.  The story makes sense of my experience – and relieves me of the responsibility to change.

And this is when fusion becomes truly problematic.

Because when we fuse to language our behaviour tends to ossify, which can reduce our capacity to adapt.

But if we can learn to hold language more lightly we retain our ability to adapt, and the world opens up before us once more.

IMG_1134

Sources:

  • Examining the Reinforcing Properties of Making Sense: A preliminary Investigation. Wray, Dougher, Hamilton & Guinther, The Psychological Record (2012).      
  • The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications, Klinger, from The Human Quest for Meaning edited by Wong & Fry (1998)
  • Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist.  Mead and Morris (1967)

 

For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching please follow The Career Psychologist blog.

Little Things Lead to Sucess At Work

What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?

In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.

For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.

Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.

In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:

  • What is happening in this moment?
  • Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
  • What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?

This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.

It requires that we have a clear sense of who we want to be (our values) and a broad sense of what we want our life to stand for (our purpose).

And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.

These are the skills of psychological flexibility.

Acceptance and Commitment Training has been shown to build psychological flexibility.

To get a sense of how to do that – you could explore this blog, read one of the many excellent ACT books or find an ACT coach.

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. 

For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching see The Career Psychologist blog.