The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus

We are delighted to release VERSION 2 of this free, practical guide of evidence-based ways to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus.

DOWNLOAD HERE

This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.

This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:

Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.

Continue reading “The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus”

A Guide to Lockdown for Other Parents, from a True Parenting Expert

Anyone who knows me or my children will know that I am definitely both a relationship and parenting expert.

For example, before I proposed to my wife I felt I need to list all of my imperfections (which took a while), and only this morning I dealt with my two-year old’s tantrum by swearing at the top of my voice and then storming out of the room.

I’m available for paid consultancy.

However I am a reasonably enthusiastic consumer of parenting strategies and have lots of clients who are asking for ideas to help deal with the pressure of lockdown.

So here are some ideas which I like, even if the implementation for me is still a ‘work in progress’.

If you have any of your own (especially ACT-consistent ideas and resources) please let me know in the comments below.

The Executive Summary

For all you lazy layabouts who have no time to read another long winded concise and excellent post written by me, let me save you the trouble by drawing your attention to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in which Wendy Mogel rejects the idea of making things easy for our children, of praising them constantly, of them to be somehow unique and ‘special’ – all of which loads pressure on to both them and us:

In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but uninspired) teachers, good enough and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends.

Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary…your child won’t end up with expectations that can’t be met on this worldly plane.

Or how about this little beauty:

My advice to parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops.

Disappoint my kids with my essential mediocrity?

Now THAT is a parenting approach I can get behind!

Nothing I’ve read comes close to relieving the pressure on myself and my children during lockdown than this, so I urge you to read the full summary here.

Here are some more ideas:

1. You need respite

It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you need a break from it.  In a study mentioned on the excellent Psychologists off the Clock podcast, soliders in the military had the lowest rates of burnout even when the break was going to war.  In other words, what we need is a break from what we are doing.  Do anything for too long with too little respite and we start to mentally fray.  And here’s a powerful image to illustrate this point:

A picture of a frayed rope powerfully represents how parents sometimes feel during lockdown.

Ideas for implementing breaks will obviously vary but here are a few:

  • Enlist others. If there is another adult in your house, work in shifts to cover short breaks. If not try to enlist a Granny to read a story or an Uncle to make your kids laugh, even 20 minutes’ respite can work wonders.

Do what you must:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Manage your energy. When you have brief periods when the kids are occupied, do your low-attention tasks (like admin, most emails). When you get a break from the kids,  tackle high-attention tasks (like problem solving).  Or just take a break and do nothing.  You decide, but do one or the other.
  • Deadlines work. For parents and children alike.
  • Turn housework into a game. The tidy up song is good for this, but giving kids proper, grown up tasks to do on a regular basis (and rewarding this) can be an effective way of lightening the load.
  • Routines are powerful because they reduce fatigue.  So try to at least create a ‘shape’ to the day that everyone understands. Things like bedtime stories, a specific time for homework, meals; all of this will reduce your levels of shatteredness (technical term).

2. Beware perfectionism

We all need to lower our expectations a bit, particularly in terms of how we should be feeling and what we should be achieving.  As Brene Brown says:

When we hit that wall, sometimes courage looks like scaling it or breaking through it. AND, sometimes courage is building a fort against the wall and taking a nap.

  • Set small targets. You are living in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.  Survival is good!  Anything extra is a distinct bonus.  For example, today I changed my pants.
  • Find a way of noting all your achievements (however big or small) and create meaningful ways to celebrate them. 
  • You cannot do it all. Think back a few months and consider what you would have advised other working parents to do during A GLOBAL PANDEMIC?  What springs to mind?  Let me guess, is it ‘you should definitely seize the chance to teach little Ernesto Mandarin?’
  • Remember the sound of learning.  From the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast, a story about a music teacher who put sign outside the music room that said: ‘This is the sound of learning’.  In other words, learning is often not very smooth or beautiful, so don’t expect things to feel or sound great along the way.

3. Reframe this as a chance for your kids to learn

Before the pandemic I feel like the biggest challenge my 2 year old had faced was that time when I cut his toast in squares, when in fact he wanted soldiers.

In other words, the biggest risk for many (middle class) children is that life was too easy.  Well now we can put that right!

After all, we don’t build a child’s resilience by making life perfect for them.

Let’s also remember that when we step back it gives our kids the opportunity to step up.

If we expect them to do nothing they will do precisely that.  But if we expect them to step up they will do that too, and this has the bonus of building resilience and confidence.

4. Stay present

One of the reasons that burnout occurs is because we are not mentally in the present very often.

By constantly worrying about the future and ruminating over the past, we drain ourselves of energy and deprive outselves of the little fragments of joy which still appear with children in lockdown, especially if we look for them (the joy not the children).

And of course our kids notice when we’re not paying attention, when we’re scrolling on phones, when our laugh is hollow or a few milliseconds too late.  Under what heading will they file that experience away?

So what percentage of the time are you present?

When I applied this question to myself I noticed that I’m often not very present and that’s usually because I was trying to avoid some kind of emotion (something called experiential avoidance).

Here is an example:

Before bed time we have the habit of watching a few short videos with both kids sitting on my knee.  The videos are really tedious, so I often found myself scrolling on my phone.  This has the function of relieving the boredom, but it was not exactly building joy or connection.

So now I put my phone down and try to get present to my children’s reaction.  I smell their hair, fresh from bath time, and then suddenly this evening I noticed this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know this is a tiny example, but how much will I crave just one more of these moments once they are gone?

5. Create buffer zones

For me one of the toughest aspects of parenting in lockdown is that the small buffers between work and family interaction are squezed.

For example – and you must understand this is purely hypothetical – if I have a difficult work call and then walk out of my office straight into my 2 year old, who is asking me to be a horse, but

“NOT THAT TYPE OF HORSE DADDY NO – NOT THAT HORSE!”

Then it is fair to say that – hypothetically – I often don’t handle it well.

There is an emotional hangover with all things, and if we remove natural buffers it is inevitable that things start to go less well.  At least, that’s what I’m telling my wife.

The things that work for me are:

  • Trying to build a minute or two buffer before leaving the office, and tap into the type of Dad I want to be when I re-engage (i.e. loving, active, joyful); and
  • Giving myself a time out if I get hijacked by my own emotions.

6. Connecting to values

Notice those values above: loving, active, joyful.

When I first had children I was terrified – convinced – that I would not know how to do parenting.  I felt like I had no ‘Dad’ template and would really mess it up.

But actually the thing that has helped me the most is to orientate myself, again and again, to a set of values that I try to model.

It is the most enormously helpful idea for lots of reasons.  Firstly, I find it impossible to eradicate the bad bits of my parenting.  I’m impatient and swear too much, for example.  But I am able to put positive stuff in there too.  I am able to go downstairs, right this moment, and chase my children round the garden pretending to be the Coronavirus.  I can tickle them until the 2 year old says

“Dop Daddy, dop!”

This moment can be all about crisis parenting, or it could be about connecting enough of these tiny moment so it becomes about something more meaningful or even joyful.

By connecting to our values, again and again, we can transform the pressure cooker of lockdown into an opportunity to connect with what matters to us most.

Further resources from actual experts

I’ve been listening to podcasts on the topic and can recommend a few here now – please see below and please let me know any that you’d add.

Books and resources for children:

Learning To Step Over Coercion And Create The Workplace Culture That You Want

In his wonderful book, The Nurture Effect, Tony Biglan, states that ’the most important stressor we humans typically face comes in the form of coercive interactions with other humans.

Coercion is where people use unpleasant behaviour to influence you. If you do what they want, then the aversive behaviour will stop…at least for a while. Coercive behaviour in the workplace includes overt bullying and intimidation but it also can be more subtle – put downs, teasing, social exclusion etc. It can even involve using expressions of disappointment as a form of control.

Pause for a moment. What workplace situations have you found most stressful?

How much of your stress was because other humans were being coercive towards you?

My hunch is that coercion is an almost universal quality of deeply unhappy workplaces.

Sadly, some organisations have a culture which encourages coercive behaviour. These organisations are unpleasant places to work.

Biglan writes:

 ‘We need to replace all of this coercive behaviour with behaviour that calms, supports and teaches – the kind of behaviour that helps others thrive.’

What would that be like? Imagine a workplace where people ask directly for what they want in a calm way. Where they support each other to do well, to learn and to thrive.

Biglan suggests many empirically supported strategies for creating these nurturing environments. The one that has resonated most strongly with me is to make a personal commitment to this sort of calm, supportive and nurturing behaviour.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It is particularly hard to be calm, supportive and nurturing when others are being harsh and coercive towards you. Our impulse in these situations is to either respond with our own harsh, coercive behaviour or to just give in. The nature of coercion is that we want it to stop and we want it to stop quickly, so we tend to react to it in unhelpful ways.

If we want to create change, Biglan suggests that we need to learn forbearance. We need to step over our initial impulse to punish and coerce others and instead focus on responding with firm kindness. We need to be able to shift gear and respond in ways that build connection and foster growth.

Biglan quotes reams of research to support his suggestion that what the world needs now is for millions of us to just decide – ‘I want to step away from harsh and coercive treatment towards others, Instead I will nurture connection and growth. I will focus on creating environments where humans flourish.’

He also suggests empirically supported strategies for how to put this into practice.

These strategies include the behavioural analysis that Rob described in the previous post. Looking with openness and curiosity at what antecedents and consequences may be encouraging the damaging behaviour and also at what antecedents and consequences would encourage the desired behaviour.

Biglan also explores how ACT skills can be important in achieving this change to a more nurturing culture. As people become more mindful, practice acceptance of their emotions and are more connected to their values, they find it easier to change their behaviour.

I highly recommend The Nurture Effect to you. It is an important book. A book that explores how the science of human behaviour can improve human lives.

I want to live in a world where the majority of people are behaving in ways that nurture learning and growth. How about you? Shall we get started?

Maybe we should ask our staff to read Harry Potter?

What if reading novels helped us to learn the perspective taking skills that we need to empathise with others? Maybe our staff development programs should include a book club. My kind of workplace!

 

Harry PotterRecently Vezzali et al. (2014) showed that the more Harry Potter books that undergraduates had read, the more positive were their attitudes towards refugees and other stigmatised groups. Interestingly, the strength of this effect was moderated by the extent to which participants identified with Harry or with Voldemort. Those who identified with Harry were more likely to take the perspective of the refugees and have more positive attitudes towards the refugees. While those who saw themselves as more like Voldemort were less likely to show these effects.

Why might these results have occurred? We have a clue already from the Vezzali et al study – those who had read more Harry Potter self-reported that they were more able to understand the perspective of the refugees. But unfortunately the measure of perspective taking that Vezzali et al used relied entirely upon the person’s own beliefs about their perspective taking ability. Participants rated themselves on items like: “I think I understand the way refugees see the world” and “In general I’m able to jump into refugees’ shoes.” This was not a measure of actual skill in perspective taking.refugees

How language allows perspective taking

ACT is based upon a theory of language and cognition called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). RFT has a lot to say about perspective taking and it has been used to develop behavioural measures of actual skill in perspective taking. According to RFT, perspective taking involves the skill of being able to flexibly (i.e. appropriately to context) use such terms as I – YOU and HERE – THERE. If we are to take the perspective of another, we must be able to appropriately distinguish between I-HERE and YOU-THERE. These relational frames are very hard for children to learn because the frames rely entirely upon the point of view from which an event or object is observed. For example, if I walk across the room my initial HERE becomes a “THERE” while my initial “THERE” becomes a HERE. From an RFT perspective, mastery of these so-called “deictic” relational frames (and others that rely on a point of view such as LEFT-RIGHT and NOW-THEN) is the basis of learning to take the perspective of others. And knowing how to take the perspective of others is implicated in almost all human functioning from work performance to schizophrenia.

It takes lots of training in a language community for a child to develop a good repertoire of appropriate usages of these terms. We can easily see this by watching how a young child easily confuses right and left, or gets confused about whether they or their toy had eggs for breakfast. Young children appear to have to learn that others have separate minds and that they might think and feel differently to the child.

We can only speculate about why reading Harry Potter might enhance attitudes towards minorities. Harry is a mixed minority/majority himself and he often takes the perspectives of underdogs.

HarryParseltongue Brazil here I come
Harry takes the perspective of a Boa Constrictor – “Thankssss Amigo”

So one way that Harry Potter might contribute to better perspective taking and enhanced attitudes towards minorities is through multiple exemplar training in deictic framing. Effectively the reader might learn something like “I like Harry. Harry is a minority figure, Harry is like a refugee. Therefore I like refugees”. These perspective taking effects might also be affected by an emerging sense of a coherent and stable self. “I am like Harry, Harry likes minority figures, I must like minority figures.”

 

The links between perspective taking ability as conceptualised by RFT and empathy for others are only just now beginning to be researched. Vilardaga, Estévez, Levin, and Hayes (2012) proposed that we first need deictic skills to take the perspective of another, but then when we do, their suffering can become our suffering so we need mindfulness skills to bring this suffering under helpful contextual control. I made a very similar argument in a recent article on the effects of mindfulness training upon empathy (Atkins, 2013). Unfortunately, although Vilardaga et al. (2012) showed that both perspective taking and empathy predicted how interested people were in social relations (measured using a social anhedonia scale), perspective taking and empathy were not strongly related to one another in their study (r = .13). So the link between perspective taking and empathy for others might not be as clear as we first thought.

So what does this all mean? RFT suggests that reading Harry Potter (or indeed any novel) might give people practice in shifting perspectives between I and YOU, HERE and THERE and NOW and THEN. And the intriguing possibility is that doing this might eventually lead to improvements in empathy and human relationships. But, while these studies suggest this intriguing possibility, we still have a lot of research to do exploring how and when reading novels enhances empathy for others.

 

Links to the papers mentioned in this blog:

Atkins, P. W. B. (2013). Empathy, self-other differentiation and mindfulness. In K. Pavlovich & K. Krahnke (Eds.), Organizing Through Empathy (pp. 49-70). New York: Routledge.
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Vilardaga, R., Estévez, A., Levin, M. E., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). Deictic Relational Responding, Empathy and Experiential Avoidance as Predictors of Social Anhedonia: Further Contributions from Relational Frame Theory. The Psychological Record, 62(3), 409-432.

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)

Are we more likely to be compassionate to others when we are compassionate to ourselves?

When you feel judgemental about yourself, do you also feel more judgemental about others? Or are you one of those people who speaks harshly to yourself in ways that you would never dare or care to speak to another?  What do you think is the relationship between self-compassion and compassion towards others?

These questions matter a lot. A strong relationship between self-compassion and compassion perhaps suggests common learning histories for the two behaviours. While ACT directly cultivates self-compassion through acceptance, it emphasises other-related compassion only indirectly. If we want to improve the ways we relate to one another in organisations and daily life, we need to know how and if changing our relationship to ourselves changes our relationship to others.

The evidence is mixed. Some research suggests we treat people very differently to ourselves, while other research suggests commonalities. Looking carefully at the differences between these studies may help us learn more about what is going on.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be unrelated

There might be no relationship between self-compassion and other-directed compassion. As children, we learn to distinguish between “I” and “you”, and much of our early sociolinguistic experience teaches us that others have different perspectives, preferences, Two-girls-looking-at-each-othertraits and experiences to ourselves (McHugh & Stewart, 2012).  We can learn to behave quite differently towards ourselves than we do towards others.

Language can create powerful differences between how we behave towards ourselves and others. One example is the fundamental attribution error where, when someone acts badly, we overestimate the effect of personal characteristics and underestimate the effects of the situation as a cause of their behaviour.  Towards ourselves we are more likely to take account or circumstances influencing our behaviour.  For example, while we are quite happy to blame bad driving on someone else’s incompetence or malice, we are more likely to see our own poor driving as the result of situational factors like being late for work. This is a clear case where we behave quite differently in our judgements towards self and others.

Once we make an appraisal that a person is personally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, we are less likely to experience empathic concern and more likely to experience non-compassionate emotions such as anger (Atkins & Parker, 2012).  And of course in Australia we have seen how it is perfectly acceptable to treat asylum seekers arriving on boats with their children in a very different way to how we would expect ourselves and our children to be treated.  The more we see the other as different to ourselves, the less likely we are to extend compassion towards them (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Society reinforces big differences between compassion towards self and others. It wasn’t that long ago that our society seemed to reinforce young women in particular for being kind to everyone except themselves.  Many older women in particular seem to feel badly about themselves unless they place others’ needs ahead of their own. So, if the distinction between self and other is seen as real, and the right social reinforcers are in place, it is entirely possible that self-compassion and other-directed compassion could be quite unrelated.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be related

But, perhaps fortunately, there is also a growing body of evidence that emphasises the similarities between the ways we relate to ourselves and others.  Many of the psychological approaches developed during the 50’s and 60’s relied upon the assumption that self-acceptance was related to acceptance of others (Williams & Lynn, 2010).   More recently researchers have begun to test this idea empirically. Neff and Pommier (2013) recently found that self-compassion is positively related to compassion towards others.

Neff and Pommier (2013) studied three groups: college undergraduates, community adults and meditators.  They measured both self-compassion and different aspects of other-focused concern such as perspective taking, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and altruism.  Overall there was a significant positive relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern.

Why might self-compassion and other-compassion be related?

Why did this relationship occur?  The factors that were consistently related to self-compassion across all groups were perspective taking, forgiveness and the capacity to manage personal distress.  Perhaps our capacity to stay present to our own difficult experiences helps us to stay present to the difficult experiences of others. Or perhaps our capacity to stand back and see our self-critical thoughts as thoughts and not necessarily the truth, is exactly the same skill as our capacity to stand back from our automatic stereotypes and judgements about others.  Perhaps learning to accept our own failings teaches us that we are all fallible. Or perhaps we acquire a deeper knowing that we are not, after all, ever separate from others, that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (Martin Luther King in his letter from Birmingham Jail).

However, Neff and Pommier’s study also revealed interesting differences in the strength of the relationships for different groups.

  • For meditators, there was a stronger link between self-compassion and other-focused concern – perhaps we can explicitly train people to break down barriers between self and others?
  • For women, there was a weaker link. Women are more likely to display higher levels of other-focused concern than men, but they are not more likely to display higher levels of self-compassion.  Perhaps that social training of young girls that I mentioned earlier is still alive and well.
  • Finally younger adults showed weaker links between compassion for self and others. Neff and Pommier argued that this might have been because young adults over-estimate their distinctiveness from others and they are still forming their own identities and understandings of others.

Neff and Pommier’s study has big limitations. It ignores individual differences and relies upon self-report measures.  We cannot tell whether the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others really is weaker for women or whether this is just an artefact of women feeling more pressured to self-report compassion towards others.  What we really need are within-person studies using measures of behaviour and context.  Am I more likely to act compassionately towards others in circumstances that have primed me to act compassionately towards myself: e.g. when I have just meditated or been treated kindly by another?

And what life experiences strengthen or break down the distinction between self and other?  ACT is one experience that can build both self-compassion and compassion for others (Atkins & Parker, 2012). Perhaps other life experiences work the other way.

lawyers-arguingAs I have been writing this blog, I have been working with legal educators to design programs to enhance well-being and relationships among legal students and practitioners. In emphasising objectivity and the distinction between right and wrong, legal training seems to sometimes create almost impenetrable walls between thoughts and feelings, and between self and others. And legal students and practitioners are among the unhappiest people in Western society  (e.g. Kelk, Luscombe, Medlow, & Hickie, 2009).  Could lawyers perhaps be a canary in the coal mine for what happens when we let language excessively dominate our lived experience and we build the walls too high between ourselves and others?

Relational Frame Theory offers a very useful way of understanding what is going on here. Consider the two sentences:

  • I am less deserving
  • I am more deserving

The first thought might precede a lack of self-compassion, while the second might precede a lack of compassion towards another.  What is going on in these sentences? Our society generally focuses on the comparison words MORE or LESS, and so we have endless debates about who is more or less deserving of compassion. But by focusing on this comparison we ignore the more fundamental move contained in these sentences. The shared “I am” slips by unnoticed.  It is in these little words that the “truth” gets established that there is a separate “I” that has inherent qualities. And of course what these sentences really mean is “I am more or less deserving THAN YOU” so in making the claim that I have certain qualities I am implicitly and always making the simultaneous claim that YOU are separate and have certain qualities as well.

Macro-Water-Drops-Grass-GreenDifference and separation arise in language. We relate to ourselves and others differently only when we are caught up in the world of words, judgments and abstractions. Perhaps Neff and Pommier’s results point to what is left when the language of separation loses its hold just a little. In those moments we see that these divisions only exist in language not in the underlying reality. In the end we are drops of water, or bubbles rising in a pot.  What looks like difference and separation is really only a temporary expression of an unfolding process – and “I am” and “you are” become simply “IS”.

Of course, philosophers through the ages have come to the same view.  Rumi put it this way:

Out beyond our ideas
Of wrong doing
And right doing
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the words
You and me
Have no meaning.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

Taoism is a rich source of similar ideas. I would love to hear from you if you have other examples of similar quotes illustrating the power of language to create separation between self and other as this is an area I would like to explore further. Thank you.

 

References

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 524-546.

Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Kelk, N., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S., & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners: Brain & Mind Research Institute: University of Sydney.

McHugh, L., & Stewart, I. (2012). The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science: Context Press.

Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.649546

Williams, J. C., & Lynn, S. J. (2010). Acceptance: An Historical and Conceptual Review. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 30(1), 5-5.

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?

You must have a good reason to….

The Lego AisleLast week I was wandering around Kmart trying to find an adapter plug. In my search I found myself walking through the Lego aisle. I was taken aback by the fierce feeling of joy and longing that hit me as I walked into that aisle. When my son, Patrick, was little we would spend a lot of time in this aisle. Pat would carefully examine each box – trying to decide, ‘Is a Luke Skywalker + Desert Skiff set better than a Hans Solo + StarFighter set?’ I would get bored and impatient as he carefully pondered these questions and start to hurry him along.

Standing in that aisle, those memories came back to me with such intensity. I felt so proud of the young man that Pat has become and at the same time I longed to go back in time, hug that earnest little boy and gently tell that younger version of myself not to be in such a rush, that these moments were precious.

I drank in that memory and walked on. A moment later, I saw these bargain jeans.$7 Jeans

I thought, ‘How can they do that for $7?’ and unbidden, thoughts of the recent news about deaths in garment factories in Bangladesh came to mind. I felt sad, guilty and powerless.

Someone watching me might have been surprised by the emotions I seemed to be experiencing. They might have come up with a story for why I seemed upset looking at a pile of jeans or why I had a tender smile in the Lego aisle. It is unlikely that they would accurately work out what was going on inside me.

These two moments show why perspective taking can be so hard.

On the surface they seem very similar. I was reminded of something and then I felt an emotion. But they are quite different in one important respect. In the Lego Aisle I was reminded of something that had actually happened to me. But in the jeans aisle the ideas that provoked the painful emotions weren’t a result of my direct experience. I had looked at a series of squiggles on a computer screen a few days earlier and now seeing some jeans makes me sad. This difference might seem pedantic but it has some important practical implications.

The second incident requires language.  Language means that a pair of jeans can make me sad because of something that has happened to some people I have never met, in a place I have never been to. This is an important difference between humans and other animals.  It is part of the reason that humans are much more vulnerable to emotional pain than other animals. It also means it can be incredibly hard to interpret, predict and influence our own and other people’s emotions.

Say my manager tells me I haven’t done a good job on a piece of work. My response won’t just be to that event, it won’t even just relate to all the other experiences I have had that my mind tells me are similar  – conversations with this manager, with previous managers or other colleagues and possibly even that time 40 years ago when Mrs Leary (the scary teacher) shouted at me in grade 3. (I asked to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after we had returned from lunch break, she found this annoying.) Experiences I have had in the real world won’t be the only factors influencing me. I will also be influenced by what I have learnt through language. It could be my Dad telling me that most managers are fools, the theory I learnt at university about how these conversations should go or the story I have about myself that I am disorganised and incompetent.  The factors influencing my response could be numerous. (Psychological flexibility is the skill of not being pushed around by these responses and is the central theme of this blog.)

This means that when my manager tries to do the right thing and work out my perspective on the feedback, she is likely to get it wrong.

It is almost impossible to really see the world through another person’s eyes. Insoo Kim Berg used to say ‘You must have a good reason to…’ She believed that people’s behaviour always made sense to them. If the behaviour doesn’t make sense to us then it is because we don’t have enough information. Her response was to ask questions with a stance of genuine curiosity and a real interest in understanding the other person and their behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that negotiations lead to better outcomes when at least one party asks good questions. Negotiators tend to make false assumptions about the other person’s needs and motives. Acting on those assumptions leads to poorer outcomes for both parties.

So next time you need to have a difficult conversation with someone – do spend time considering their perspective before the conversation but also make sure you remain curious throughout the conversation, gathering information that will help you both to reach a good outcome.

“You must have a good reason to…” Insoo Kim Berg

The Science of Gratitude (or What your Mother didn’t teach you about how to say ‘Thank You’)

Spring Bouquet 032909Saying thank you is important. Your parents probably spent hours drilling this into you. A polite ‘Thank you’ smooths social interaction and makes life a little kinder.

But what your Mum probably didn’t teach you, was how to express heartfelt gratitude in a way that enriches your relationships, has genuine meaningful impact on the other person and can also make you happier.

Expressing sincere appreciation is risky. The other person is often pleased but sometimes they seem uncomfortable and occasionally they seem to see it as an invitation to tell you how disappointing you are. Which can be unpleasant.

Is it possible to be more skilful in the way we express gratitude?

Behavioural science has some suggestions.

How Behavioural Psychology Can Increase The Impact Of Gratitude

In the new bookMindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology,  Mairéad Foody et al analyse a positive psychology intervention called the gratitude visit.

This activity involves writing a letter of gratitude and delivering it in person.

Foody et al suggest that, in behavioural terms, gratitude involves a complex interplay between the thanker and thankee.

If you thank someone for something they don’t see as important or if your ‘thank you’ feels transactional, that you are doing it out of obligation or as a reward for good behaviour rather than as a genuine expression of what really matters to you, then the interaction can easily go awry.

So the first step is to ask yourself whether expressing gratitude is a behaviour that you value. Is it an expression of your best self?

If your answer to this is ‘Yes’ (and research would encourage you in this) then the next step is to realise that:

‘Gratitude requires complex levels of perspective taking, in terms of recognising what you value for yourself and how you perceive this should be … appreciated by others’

“Gratitude is an intimate expression of shared values that goes above and beyond what is felt’

Mairéad Foody, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes & Dermot Barnes-Holmes

This means that if you want your expression of gratitude to have the best chance of positively impacting on the other person, it would be wise to consider:

1. How does what happened link to the values of the other person? For example, ‘Thanks for signing my expenses form when I don’t have the receipts’ is unlikely to link to your manager’s values but ‘Thank you for trusting me enough to know I wouldn’t put in a false expenses claim. I promise to be more careful with my receipts next time’ might have more meaning for them.

2. How does what happened link to your own values? And where is the overlap between your values and theirs? It is in this shared space that deeper connection can form.

Taking a moment to think through these questions is likely to increase the chance that your expression of gratitude feels meaningful to the other person. And if, despite your best efforts at perspective taking, your thanks still don’t seem to have the positive impact you were hoping for – you will know that in that moment you were doing your best to be the person you want to be, which isn’t bad.

So…

I want to thank you for reading this blog post to the end; for trusting that I will do my best to write something helpful and meaningful that, in some small way, enriches your life.

Thank you!

PS For Brisbane based readers  – I am running another low-cost ‘Introduction to ACT’ session on May 26th. Details here.

Training People To Do What You Want – Ethically

There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon trains Penny to do what he wants. He uses chocolate.

We are all constantly ‘training’ the people around us but we don’t usually use chocolates and it is rarely deliberate. Because we aren’t even aware we are doing it, we are often inadvertently rewarding behaviours that we don’t want and punishing the behaviours that we do want.

For example, imagine your new enthusiastic staff member stops taking the initiative and starts waiting to be told what to do, what could have caused the change? It might be because you criticised her whenever she didn’t follow the correct procedure and didn’t encourage her when she was proactive. Gradually, over time you shaped her behaviour.

So it seems like a good idea to become much more aware of the impact of our behaviour on others and start to more consciously reward people when they do what we want.

But people can feel manipulated by this approach. You don’t want to be like Sheldon.

So what is an approach that feels more ethical and less like manipulation?

To be collaborative. Rather than deciding what behaviour I want to shape in the other person, I ask them directly, ‘Who do you want to be at work? What behaviours do you want to demonstrate? How would we recognise those behaviours? How can I support you in those behaviours?’

It is also helpful to acknowledge that these interactions work both ways. So I talk to my direct reports about how I want to behave as a manager. And then I ask, ‘Would that work for you? Are you willing to encourage me when I do those behaviours? And let me know when I am drifting away from them?

This more collaborative, transparent approach builds trust and engagement. How could you apply it at work this week?

You might also want to take a look at this earlier post on the 10 factors to consider when rewarding staff.