The Psychology of Leaving

In my work as a psychologist I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of people who face a common career dilemma:

  1. They are dissatisfied with their current situation;
  2. They feel uncertain and anxious about alternative options.

This is when people get trapped in a dilemma; stay or leave?

From working with so many people in this situation, here are some general points I’ve observed.

The mind instinctively prefers the status quo

Our minds prefer the stuff they already know, because it is safer.

The problem is, most of my clients want more out of life than ‘safe’.  Overwhelmingly, they want the chance to author their own lives, make positive decisions, and to break free from inertia.  Yet it is impossible to do this without taking a risk and minds prefer certainty…

So people often end up staying where they are, but more by default than choice.  They console themselves with hopes that their situation will get better.  And the organisation often responds, offering enhanced status and perks.  I remember I was offered a promotion and a £5,000 pay rise.  Yet what I needed was a more fundamental change in my life.  Most people want a sense of control and authorship over their lives and that was certainly the case for me.

By accepting these short term compensations, we duck the human need to author our own lives – the ‘hard choices’ that Ruth Chang so brilliantly identifies as the way to build identity and meaning.

Other people have a stake in the status quo

Another common issue is that those around us often have a stake in the status quo. These vested interests can be hard to tease out, especially as they often show up as a kind of protective concern.

In my case, I had perhaps 3 or 4 friends who ‘got’ the change and offered support.  Many of the rest questioned and even ridiculed it.

Moving towards what we value always takes willingness

On the flipside of what we most value is always something that we fear.  Therefore, for the really big decisions in life we need to:

  • Define what we really want – for example meaningful work or more autonomy;
  • Develop willingness to experience some anxiety in exchange for making a choice which is in line with our values.

Without this willingness, it is very difficult to break out of patterns that are not working.  Change is essential for renewal, but it always takes courage to take that first step.

Change is never ‘in’ or ‘out’

There is always the temptation to see (career) change in terms of black and white. Do I stay in my job, or leave?  Yet the reality is rarely like this.  All of my clients make intelligent transition plans to gradually shift towards something better.  The most common is to stay in their current job, but changing their relationship to it so they can work on a ‘plan b’ on the side.

No matter what the choice – stay or leave –  the most important thing is the plan that follows.  After all, the plan is where we deal with the reality of what follows.

So what’s the right answer?  Of course there is no right answer, only context and choices.

But in general, whilst it is usually easier in the short term to stay, I notice that those who leave rarely regret it.  In fact, they almost all start to feel more authorship over their own decisions, and greater vitality, meaning and purpose in life as a result.

How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 1)

So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis.  After all, isn’t that what  they do with rats?

After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.

The Lingo:

In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.applied-behaviour-analysis-aba

Insight from Behaviour Analysis:

If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.

Useful for:

Clients who are really stuck.

Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:

OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party.  This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around me them.

To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway.  And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent

*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*

This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask).  This is the behaviour.

The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.

Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.

Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness.  As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.

In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’.  But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.

Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck

By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.

Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away.  This she puts down to ‘laziness’.

In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:

Antecedent

Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.

Behaviour

Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer.  This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.cross-rd

However, as she then moves further into analysis mode,  she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.

Each option is analysed and rejected.

Consequence

The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.

Conclusion

Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.

This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.

Applying ACT to Workplace Coaching – E-book by Rachel Collis

As promised, here is a link to Rachel’s excellent new E-book, Applying ACT to Workplace Coaching.

I think this is a hugely important contribution to the development of effective, ACT-consistent coaching interventions, and essential reading for:

  1. Members of the ACBS with an interest in using ACT in the workplace: the paper explains how to make interventions which organisations will actually buy and which organisational clients will respond to.  It also provides a fantastically clear outline of how and why ACT is relevant to organisational contexts.
  2. Organisational coaches with an interest in evidence-based practice: in a previous post I argued that coaches need ACT (and that ACT needs coaches).  This e-book will provide you with all the information you need about why this is the case, as well as practical tools and suggestions to get started.  There are specific chapters dedicated to coaching Alpha Executives and Poor Performers, as well as overviews of an ACT-consistent GROW process and goal setting.

I am going to read it again as I travel around Europe over the next few weeks.  I am looking forward to it, and I know it will make me a better coach.  Thank you Rachel (and well done)!

ACT coaching

The Price

This is a story about two blog posts, two people wanting to make a contribution, and the price that comes with doing that.

In my last post I promised to write something about the difference between ACT as therapy and ACT as coaching. Before I did, I checked with Rachel that she was happy for me to do so, as we’d presented together on a similar subject before. This was her (edited) reply:

On 24 Apr 2015 22:27, “Rachel Collis” <racheljanecollis@gmail.com> wrote:

Go for it!

Also, if you think it is helpful, I would love you to link to the ACT Coaching e-book that goes with my ACT coaching training.

I have decided to just give it out free to folks.

No pressure, if you don’t think it is appropriate in the context of the post.

I then read the e-book. Reader, it is AMAZING.

It is the most valuable contribution to this developing field I’ve read and beautiful too (very Rachel). Needless to say it is far more useful, well written and valuable than my blog was going to be. I will be devoting the whole of the next post to it (no way am I shoehorning it into this).

But the question is, how does this happen? Here’s the next exchange:

On 25 Apr 2015, at 7:53 am, Rob Archer <rob@thecareerpsychologist.com> wrote:

Err. …Rachel this is amazing.  Why didn’t I know about this??

From: Rachel Collis [mailto:racheljanecollis@gmail.com]
Sent: 24 April 2015 22:58
To: Rob Archer
Subject: Re: ACT and coaching

 Cos I am an idiot!

It needs more work but I am quite pleased with it!

I then asked Rachel about the functions of ‘cos I am an idiot’ and she hinted at some aspect of her learning history that made praise both craved for and difficult to receive:

From: Rachel Collis [mailto:racheljanecollis@gmail.com]
Sent: 25 April 2015 23:42
To: Rob Archer
Subject: Re: ACT and coachingThe function of ‘cos I am idiot’ is that I do something- like spend hours writing an ebook – and then don’t tell people. I think it is EA around embarrassment and shame.

And there we have it.

Meaningful work, ‘towards moves’, contribution: all come with a price. And the more we value the contribution, the higher the price.

So I wonder what the next ‘towards moves’ are for me and Rachel?

I asked her if I could post the link for her, because I didn’t want her to undersell it. But then I felt caught between two options. I could:

  • Post it myself, to reinforce her value to the community by praising her work. This sounds good, but am I really trying to rescue Rachel from her discomfort, and thereby reinforcing her avoidance?
  • Let Rachel post it. But is that just testing Rachel’s willingness? And why wouldn’t I actively support a colleague who I believe, has done such important and valuable work?

And what should I now do with my post?

I am left with something I have worked on, not as important as Rachel’s, but a contribution nevertheless. I could:

  • Not post, and perhaps work on it some more, trying to offer something different to Rachel.
  • Post anyway, in the service of making my own contribution to something that matters to me.

Both of these feel like ‘towards’ moves to me….and both will probably come with a price.

If I don’t post, I will need to make way for feelings of jealousy that Rachel has written something far better than me, without even mentioning it.

If I do post, will I secretly hope that somehow my post will be seen as just as valuable (oh Rob, this is really good too!) – and move straight to feelings of rejection if that doesn’t happen?

So there we are again.  Two humans, on different sides of the world, both wanting to make a contribution to something that matters.

Both hesitating over the price.

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.

2013 in review

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

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

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

Click here to see the complete report.

ACT and Conscious Evolution Part B: How ACT can help us respond to global change

Last week we looked at how our psychology gets in the way of effective responding to the challenges of global change. This week we look at how ACT might help us meet some of those challenges by helping us think long-term, more complexly and with others. I want to explore with you how ACT could impact upon society not just individuals.

(As I write this, I notice my doubts – ‘who am I to write about global change?’, ‘these issues are far too complex for a short blog’, ‘do I really think ACT can make a difference in the face of huge, powerful and rich vested interests?’ and so on. And yet, here I go – stepping beyond the ways my language machine tries to protect me, and just moving my fingers to write something that might be of value to you.)

How can ACT help us to meet the psychological challenges I outlined in my last blog? Challenge number 1 was our natural human tendency to respond to short-term reinforcers.  This challenge is at the heart of ACT in the way it helps us name and act in the service of long-term values. Do we want our society to be about ever-increasing consumption or something deeper?

ACT helps us to think long-term

We are evolving in at least four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and cultural [1].  Just as genetic evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of genes, behavioural evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of behaviours. Conscious evolution happens when we turn our language machine back on itself, and consciously select behaviours that work well in the long-term, not just the short-term.

We usually think of ACT as being about individual change. And change at that level is important. ACT helps people better manage their emotions so they might reach out to a friend instead of, for example, buying another pair of shoes to feel better in the short-term. Furthermore, mindfulness training might help people act on their pro-environmental intentions.

But global change is happening so quickly we cannot rely upon incremental individual change. We need new forms of public dialogue oriented around purpose and values. ACT works to support dialogue: suspending our own beliefs long enough to take multiple perspectives, keeping conversations directed towards bigger interests not particular positions, and loosening the hold of automatic, self-protective and reactive patterns of responding. We need these skills to get beyond polarised debates and turn our collective attention towards the longer term.

ACT helps us to think more complexly

The second family of barriers to change I talked about last week concerned the complexity of our thinking.  As Einstein recognised, we cannot solve global problems at the same level of thinking that created them.

From the perspective of ACT, thinking is our capacity to relate things to one another, even arbitrary and abstract symbols.  As we mature, given the right mix of challenges and supports, we can learn to relate things in increasingly complex ways  including being able to take bigger perspectives on our own and others behaviour. More complex thinking helps us notice how our existing assumptions, beliefs and values are constraining the range of solutions we can imagine to global challenges. Do I really need that large house, new car or overseas holiday to be happy?

The complexity of our thinking also depends on emotional balance. Thinking about complex issues is uncomfortable because we experience doubt, uncertainty and fear.  And we think more simplistically when we are under stress, relating in ways that make us feel more certain, more right or more comfortable in the short-term.

Learning to manage discomfort helps us to think more complexly.  If you are anything like me, you might have noticed yourself sometimes switching off from even thinking about global change because of the difficult emotions it raises.

ACT enhances awareness and emotional balance. Both contribute to thinking more complexly.

ACT helps us to think together

The last psychological barrier that I considered was how self-interest often trumps the interests of others.  Effectively responding to global change will inevitably involve responding in the collective interest. ACT appears to enhance pro-social behaviour.

Within evolutionary theory there is increasing recognition that selection occurs at the group level as well as the individual. So there is a selection pressure for pro-social behaviour. In other words, groups that work well together tend to survive. In highlighting self-interest, public discourse based upon economics has unduly ignored how cooperative we are. Governments, laws, hospitals, schools and even language itself are all fundamentally cooperative.

The science underpinning ACT shows that language, cognition and even our sense of self is intrinsically social.  ACT increases pro-social responding in different ways: Increasing self-compassion increases compassion for others, increasing self-awareness increases our capacity to understand others’ perspectives, learning to defuse from harsh self-rules and critical stories about ourselves is associated with reduced stereotyping of others [2]. The skills we learn in ACT not only help us get along better with others, they call into question the very idea that we were ever separate to begin with.

It is this aspect of ACT that may ultimately have the most impact upon the way we deal with global change. We need an ‘orthogonal rotation’ in consciousness (to quote Jon Kabat Zinn) where ‘me’ becomes ‘we’ not just conceptually but lived sense conveyed so beautifully by Martin Luther King:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” (Martin Luther King)

In a real sense, all life, not just human life, is inter-related. ACT turns that idea into science and action.

[1] Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life: The MIT Press.

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