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.

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).

Creating Nurturing Environments

I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.

Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.

If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility

Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.

His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.

What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?

I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.

You can read more about Dr Biglan’s new book The Nurture Effect here.

How Mindfulness And Compassion Could Help You Do What Really Matters

The end of one year and the beginning of another is often an opportunity to torment ourselves with difficult questions:
Did I give enough energy to the things that really matter to me?
Did I give too much energy to things that aren’t important in the long term?
Did I live my values? (To get a visual picture of this, you might fill out Tobias Lundgren’s Values Bulls Eye.)

When you review the previous year, it is likely that you have done well in some areas of your life and have some regrets about others. We often don’t devote as much time and energy as we would like, to what really matters . We often don’t live our values as consistently as we want. We frequently waste time and energy on things that, it turns out, don’t really matter in the long run.

When you consider the aspects of life you neglected last year, you may notice that some are very familiar to you. They will have shown up for you many times over the course of your life. Perhaps there is some aspiration that is important to you, that just keeps being put to one side?

To give you an example.

Since I was 11, I have wanted to be a writer. I love reading and I wanted to be like the authors I admired. I wanted to be one of those people, the people that befriend strangers by sharing their thoughts in a book.
I have started many books but, despite this deep desire to be an author, I have never finished writing a book. This desire to write seems to matter a lot to me but each year goes by and I still don’t accomplish my goal.

A couple of years ago, I turned 50 and I realised that time was running out. If I really want to be an author, I need to knuckle down and actually write a book. So I started another book. It is on a topic that matters to me (Meaningful Success). Sitting at my Mac trying to express my ideas with honesty and courage is hard and scary and wonderful. Two years later and I am still wading through this project. Trying to create something useful. Something that isn’t rubbish. In the process, I am discovering that this writing lark is harder than it looks!

But even though this matters deeply to me. Even though I love writing. Even though every thing I read about how to become a good writer starts with the advice – just write.
I often don’t write. My days are filled with other stuff. Stuff that isn’t writing.

How about you? What are the goals that really matter to you? The goals that year after year, you don’t quite manage to give enough time and energy to? It could be:

Creating a beautiful garden;
spending more time playing with the kids;
travelling to beautiful and exotic places;
learning to play an instrument or speak another language….
What is the goal that calls from your heart?

And …what gets in the way of you pursuing that goal?

There are lots of reasons why we don’t pursue these important goals with the necessary energy and passion. One reason that seems increasingly common is, ‘I am too busy.’

So what are we too busy doing?
If you analyse what you are too busy doing, you can divide your actions into:
1. Things that were genuinely, at that moment, a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
For example: spending time with the people you love; caring for your fragile human body; doing meaningful work; earning enough money to pay the bills; volunteering for causes that matter to you…
These choices are valued actions. You are being the person you want to be. Life is full of conflicting priorities, can you notice these choices and be gentle to yourself about them?

2. Things that, at that moment, felt like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task but they actually weren’t.
For example: trying to impress or please people; trying to earn more money than you need; doing things just to get prestige or recognition; doing things to avoid unwanted feelings.
This is a recurring problem for many of us. I certainly keep getting hooked by these activities. I look back on my life and I have spent too much time focussing on things that seemed important at the time, but actually, from the perspective of a few months or years later, I realise didn’t really matter.

3. Things that, at that moment, didn’t even feel like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
This is basically all the things we do to procrastinate and avoid the harder stuff. It might be: watching inane TV or silly YouTube clips; checking in on Facebook; going shopping. (NB These activities can also be acts of self care – in which case they are category one activities – only you can decide this.)

At this point I could just tell you to make sure you focus your energy on the right things. But I don’t think that advice is very helpful. I know it doesn’t work for me.

So I want to encourage you to do something different. To start gently.

I want to suggest that mindfulness and compassion might be a better response.

Just start by noticing with curiosity what you are doing. In real time. Notice which category your behaviour is in. You might also notice if you tend to berate yourself for spending time on the ‘wrong’ things. How effective has this harshness been for you? What would happen if, instead, you responded with compassionate understanding of your human failings?

Instead of harshness, could you notice how each behaviour feels? Notice how it feels in your body as you take these various actions? What emotions are you feeling? Notice which circumstances seem to encourage you to do which types of behaviour. Are there any common themes?

For me the ‘category two’ activities – the ones that seem important at the time but actually aren’t important- are often associated with a scrabbly feeling, like I am desperately trying to get something. At those times, if I pause and notice what is going on inside me; I realise that I am often hooked by thoughts that I am not good enough in some way and/or there isn’t enough of what I think I need. The best response to this seems to be to pause and breathe. To turn to myself in kindness. To be willing to be with myself and the thoughts that I am not adequate or the world is not the way I want it to be.

‘Category three’ activities – the ones where I know I am frittering time away – sometimes feel to me like I am hiding out. Trying not to think about the scary task I am avoiding. At other times these activities are accompanied by a whiny voice – ‘I don’t want to…I am too tired…I deserve a break…It is too hard…’ It feels like when I was a kid and I used to put my fingers in my ears and loudly say ‘I can’t hear you…LA…LA…LA…I can’t hear you’.
If I am courageous enough to pause and check in. I notice the thoughts and feelings I am trying to avoid. Can I turn towards these feelings with compassion, knowing they are part of being human?

I want to encourage you to do the same. Instead of trying to get it right. Instead of fighting with yourself.

Just notice.

Notice whether what you are doing is moving you towards your values; towards what matters to you or whether it is taking you away.

Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.

Be mindful and curious.

Turn towards yourself with compassion.

And then notice what happens next.

It may be that you will make a small move towards what matters. It may be that you won’t.

Could you notice that with compassion and curiosity?

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)

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

Learning to Touch Fear

Training Josie to TouchMy daughter, Ellie, is training her horse to touch an object. Ellie points at the object and says the word ‘touch’ and her horse, Josie, touches it with her nose. This seems like an odd skill to train. So I asked Ellie why she was doing this. She told me that if a horse sees something that is new, like a paper bag or a traffic cone, then their natural response is fear. Their focus narrows down to the thing that is frightening them, as if they were wearing blinders. Josie then becomes skittish and unpredictable and she ignores Ellie. But if she touches the threat, she realises that it is fine, settles down and opens up to Ellie’s instructions.

Of course horses aren’t the only ones that scare easily, and they aren’t the only ones that can learn to touch the fear. You and I can become skittish, unpredictable and cut off from what’s happening around us when we are afraid.

The big difference is, we aren’t usually spooked by paper bags and traffic cones, for most of us it’s our emotions that we’re afraid to touch.

When fear, anxiety, sadness or anger turn up, we can become both preoccupied by the feelings and also focussed on getting rid of them. We tend to treat internal discomfort as if it is the same as a real threat in the external world. In the grip of painful emotions, we find it difficult to focus on what is happening around us. We tend to ignore the suggestions of our wiser self and we make foolish or impulsive decisions.

What if we could learn how to respond differently to painful emotions? What if we could lightly touch the feelings that scare us? With time we might find that although they seem very threatening they can’t actually harm us.

Like all new skills, it is good to start small with less challenging emotions. Touch them gently and imagine yourself expanding to make room for them. If over and over again we practice the skill of turning towards emotional discomfort with curiosity, something important happens.

Eventually, when fear, anger or sadness turn up, instead of freaking out and being controlled by our emotions, we accept our feelings as signs that we are human and that we care. We are able to take actions based on both our values and what the situation affords and over time these wiser choices will help us to flourish.
So next time you feel yourself freaking out, take a breath and see if you could, just for a moment, touch your feelings with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. It might just change everything.

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.

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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.