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.

Hello Again!

Some of our subscribers have not had any updates from Rob and I for some time. If you are not in this group then feel free to ignore this post.

We weren’t excluding you on purpose, it was all due to a tricky IT problem. But all is now sorted. Thanks to some top IT support from my son, Patrick. (Thanks Pat!).

So what did you miss?

The most popular post in the last few months was this one:

Successful People Feel Bad Too  – It is about how we all pretend that we have got it together even when we are feeling sad and overwhelmed.

Some readers seemed to also enjoy this post on what my chickens taught me about conflict resolution.

We started a Working With ACT Facebook page – if you are so moved you can now ‘like’ us!

You may notice that I (Rachel) have been dominating the blog somewhat in the last few months as Rob has been fiendishly busy with his other projects. But he assures me that he will be back delivering his own quirky style of writing soon.

So, ‘Hello Again’, we hope you are pleased that we are back.

So Do You Really Care About Your Team?

How likely is it that your team would say ‘Yes’ in response to the following statement?

My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person’

If they do say ‘Yes’, would you be one of the people they think of as demonstrating ‘caring towards others’?

Gallup has found that people who answer ‘Yes’:

  • Are more likely to stay with the organisation
  • Have more engaged customers
  • Are more productive*

So, caring about your employees/co-workers seems to be a good idea. But, so often this comes across as fake and, in my opinion, fake interest is worse than no interest at all.

In order for this to feel authentic to both you and others, it needs to connect to a deeply held value. So, my question for you is: Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to see you? If ‘caring’ is a value you want to enact at work then not only will you feel authentic and vital but you might just be adding to the bottom line too!

* Taken from Vital Friends – Tom Rath

When Your Mind is Saying: ‘You Just Aren’t Good Enough’

I want to tell you a secret…I have a fierce ‘I am not good enough story’ running today. It has been in my face on and off most of the day.

What triggered it? My dear friend and co-blogger, Rob Archer, has written four really good posts in the last few weeks. In case you missed them, there are two on values here and here and two on talent management here and here. They are really good. I feel intimidated. My mind is telling me how embarrassing it must be for Rob to have to put up with my inarticulate ramblings on this blog. I have a strong impulse to delay posting until I come up with something absolutely brilliant.

So what do I do?

I breathe…and pause for a moment. I lean into myself with kindness. I acknowledge that this ‘I am not good enough’ story has been around for many years. If I dig around, I can even find my first memory of it (I was 4 and got in trouble at school for needing to go to the bathroom during class – let’s just say that the incident ended with me wearing some borrowed knickers from the school knicker cupboard). This story is an old friend that visits me often. And I know that it is trying to help, trying to keep me safe. To protect me from further ‘knicker cupboard’ embarrassment. I also acknowledge to myself that I am not the only person in the world that has that story running now and again.

And I think ‘What do my values tell me to do here?‘ This endeavour – Working with ACT – really matters to me. Being authentic and real really matter to me.

So here I am writing away…whilst my mind whispers, ‘This is rubbish, who wants to read this’.  Thanks mind.

Handling Painful Thoughts and Feelings

If we are to live rich and meaningful lives, painful thoughts and feelings are going to come along for the ride. If I love with all my heart, at some point I will get hurt. If I value doing a great job at work, sometimes I will make mistakes and look like a fool. If I want to really connect with someone, I have to show vulnerability.

So, what is the best approach to handling the painful thoughts and feelings that are an inevitable part of life? Russ Harris suggests letting go of strategies that don’t work in the long run, such as:

  • Ignoring your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Believing your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Not believing your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Resisting your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Letting your painful thoughts and feelings control your behaviour.

Instead, Steve Hayes suggests:

  • Honouring your pain the way you would honour a friend by listening
  • Walking with your pain the way you would walk with a crying baby
  • Carrying your pain the way you carry a picture in your wallet

Could you show yourself that compassion when you are in pain?

Ken Robinson and The Element – Holding Passion Lightly

On my career psychology blog I wrote about Ken Robinson’s excellent video about finding and connecting with your passion.  I love this talk, and his book ‘The Element’, but I think there are a number of problems with his viewpoint from the perspective of finding one’s passion at work.

Your passion does not always translate into a career.
As Seth Godin once argued, some things are best left as hobbies. For example, my early talent was in sport, but I could never make it professionally and turning that passion into something sport-related is not going to meet the other criteria I have for a job. A passion is one element of many that needs to be considered.

 Passion is learned
It’s rare for us to have a truly natural, God-given talent or passion. More often, the things for which we have a ‘natural’ capacity are in fact learned. If they are learned, then unless we have already learned them we will not know what they are. Therefore, searching for your passions is misleading – we should be creating passion.

Passion is contextual 
The things we love are loved for many different reasons, and for those in difficult jobs the things they love are loved because they are a release from their troubles. Very often, ‘what we love’ is simple behavioural reinforcement of the relief we experience when not working. That’s why so many of us want to run B&Bs or cafes.

The flipside of what we really value is what we really fear.
For example if I value counselling people, I will fear the consequences of failing to help them.  Following a passion often comes with higher states of anxiety and fear. In my experience it can also come with higher states of uncertainty. ‘Is this really my passion’?

Exploring passion is a fantastic exercise. But if we cling too rigidly to the idea of passion, then we risk getting stuck right where we are.

What’s the answer?
We need to hold all thoughts – what we love, what we’re like, what we need to do to succeed – lightly. Thoughts can help us and imprison us. Far better to focus on identifying broad, valued directions to move towards, and developing a willingness to keep moving towards these.

Following your passion means bargaining with life that you must or should feel passionate about something. When we subsequently do not feel passionate about something we conclude we have lost our way.  In contrast, following our values is a moment to moment choice, that is available to us all right now.

How Using ACT in the Workplace Could Transform….Well, Almost Everything

Rachel and I will shortly presenting at the World ACT conference in Parma, Italy.

We’re jolly excited by it and have had a lot of fun working out our messages, putting our slides together and generally telling each other how brilliant we are. (p.s. Rachel, you ARE brilliant).

To support our presentation, we’ve put together a number of supporting documents and handouts. These will be available for download on the ACBS website, but for now they are available here:

  1. Presentation slides (and full deck is here)
  2. Working With ACT Parma Session Handout 25th July 2011
  3. ACT Presentations checklist
  4. List of ACT in the workplace research
  5. List of mindfulness in the workplace research
  6. Using ACT in team facilitation
  7. Career paralysis – using ACT in career decision making

Buying Happiness

In ACT, we try to undermine efforts to control our emotional or mental experience in exchange for focusing on valued directions and actions.

That means, we try to rebalance peoples’ focus on what they think and feel more towards what they actually do with their hands and feet. 

I say rebalance because there’s nothing wrong with mental experience.  It’s just that, humans being humans, we tend to experience more and more of life indirectly, or mindlessly, and this has the effect of robbing us of vitality and purpose.  And in the workplace, it tends to mean repeating the same old routine, even when that routine is ineffective.

Trouble is, ACT is counter-cultural. The culture says you do not need to feel bad, ever.  The culture says you can feel good if only you try harder, think better…or make the right choices.

If you doubt me, take a look at this:

Do the Next Right Thing and Let That Be Enough

“Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things” ~Joe Paterno

This quote turned up in my twitter stream yesterday. It looks benign. It looks helpful. But it is seriously problematic.

Firstly, it implies that not only is it very important to get our ‘beliefs’ right but also that we can chose those beliefs. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a con. We can try really hard to brain wash ourselves. We can repeat positive affirmations over and over. But deep down in our hearts most of us carry a secret  – that we aren’t good enough. That we are too…something. Too selfish, too weak, too loud, too quiet, too greedy, too boring….if you dig around inside yourself and sit with the discomfort for a moment, you will be able to add your own words.

The brainwashing of our society makes the burden of that secret even harder to bear. Because apparently what we should be doing is believing deep down in our hearts that we are destined for something great. So we have failed before we have even started.

The quote also implies that we are all destined to do great things (as long as we get our thoughts stacked up right). And this is madness. What most of us are destined for is a life of ordinariness – raising children, working for a living, loving our family and friends. I think that chasing success and greatness are actually distractions from the challenge of doing the ordinary stuff well. I suspect that we want that distraction because it is actually really hard to do that stuff well.

I think a better quote would go something like:

‘Even on the days when you worry that you are a fool and a failure; be kind and compassionate.  Come back to the present moment and do the next right thing. And let that be enough.’

I am paraphrasing Kelly Wilson here: In Appreciation of Crashing, Bliss Following, Hero’s Journeying, and Practice.

How about it? Will you join me in doing the next right thing and let that be enough?

Four Simple (But Not Easy) Things You Need to Offer to Your Staff (Besides Money!)

In 2010, Diener et al did a huge survey  of 136,839 people (who were a representative sample of the population of the world). They found that income is only moderately linked to positive feelings (whether you smiled or laughed yesterday or felt feelings of enjoyment).

Positive feelings are much more influenced by ‘psychological need fulfilment’. Psychological need fulfilment is about whether you have family or friends you could count on in an emergency, and also, whether, when you think about yesterday, you:

  • Felt you were treated with respect
  • Learned something new
  • Did what you do best, and,
  • Chose how your time was spent.
When managing staff, or managing yourself, it might be good to make sure these four things are happening regularly.