A Letter to The Escape Tribe

For regular WWA readers, some context.  I’ve been working as one of the Faculty at the brilliant Escape School, in particular an amazing Tribe of 50 people who have been on a 3 month journey to get unstuck and do something more meaningful with their careers.  It was so enjoyable and moving that I wanted to write them a short letter…and I’m sharing it here because it is hopefully a good example of ACT being used in coaching (and getting into the water supply).

Dear Escape Tribe,

I can’t tell you my admiration for your courage to stand for something in your lives, even in the presence of your fears. It feels like a privilege to watch you and work with you; in many ways one of the highlights of my career. So I wanted to write you my own letter, perhaps because I was so moved by those you wrote to yourselves…

Get out of your mind and into your life

 This is a great book with a cheesy title, yet which captures a critical idea in psychology.

Society teaches us to think that if we can only get more confident, certain, less anxious etc, then all will be well. But it’s really the other way round. Thinking follows behaviour. From another great book:

“We think that the key to successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But change usually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second”. 

Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity

Remember the anemone

When stuck, our minds often tell us that the action we must take has to be big and bold.

If that works for you then great, go for it.  But if it doesn’t, think of an anemone.

If you aren’t willing to open your whole self up to some big change, see if you can be willing to start by opening one tentacle out into the ocean; exploring and experimenting.

anemone

Experiential avoidance will always be an option….

Our minds can always find an excuse not to do difficult things. And that is normal.

But if avoidance becomes our objective, then it narrows our lives.  And over a lifetime this can lead us to feel trapped – trapped in prisons made only by the words in our minds.

Picture1

Values are about the here and now

Instead of seeing values as ‘out there’, a remote and distant pipe dream, remember that they are accessible to you right now.

You have a choice to tune into them and show up to them, right now.  What will you stand for in this moment?  Put enough of these moments together and you become a different person.

‘The road less travelled’ is less travelled for a reason

The irony of human existence is that if something feels important to us then it will have a flipside which feels scary.

If you dare greatly, you will feel fear. If you commit to love then you risk rejection.

Happiness and sadness are not exclusive, but intimately connected.  They grow weak together, or strong together.

Acceptance changes everything

Once you start those first few steps out in the real world, the feedback you receive may be mixed.  If avoiding pain is your objective then it is tempting to retreat into the narrow repertoires of behaviour that have trapped you.

But if you are willing to accept yourself – that is, the whole of yourself – then you will have pain and joy, anxiety and meaning.

Only if you can accept the thorn, do you get to keep the rose.

Don’t forget; the world needs you

Don’t be fooled into thinking there is nothing for you to do. The world is full of challenges which need you – your skills, talent and energy.

This may not be fighting great battles of justice or injustice, but contributing to the world in the best, most vital version of your self.

That is really what the world needs more than ever.

Therefore, for yourselves, but not only for yourselves, may you all find the courage to keep going.

And in so doing, may you all be ignited.

with huge thanks, admiration and hope for all of you,

Rob

What I have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?

Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, the holy and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Getting Things Done (2.0)

Perhaps in common with other people who run their own business, I am mildly obsessed by productivity techniques.  From apps that help organise work, manage attention, to ways of filtering emails and using technology to help limit the impact of technology – I am always a bit obsessive interested.

One of the best productivity systems is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where he explains why we need a system (a ‘second brain’) which we trust if we are to work without   distraction.

It’s great stuff, but I think ACT has much to add to his system, in particular two key ideas:

1.  Clarify values.  The distinctive problem with knowledge work is that it is difficult to know what the ‘right’ work is at any given moment.  There are so many competing priorities; should I be writing this blog or perfecting a proposal?

For knowledge workers, how we define our work is our most important task, so a clear understanding of what matters to us – what we want to stand for – will help.  I certainly want to stand for more than winning commercial contracts, hence me finding time to contribute to this blog.

2.  Acceptance.  So often productivity is not actually at the mercy of external factors, but our own thoughts and emotions.  For example, I know that if a task makes me anxious or bored then I will find a sudden urge to clean the shiny handles on my kitchen cupboards.

shiny cupboard
Must…shine…handles

This is where all the advice to do work you love or find your passion is so dangerous.  If we focus on how we feel during a task, we start to hand control of our lives over to our emotions.  And our emotions – even the ones we want – are not really in our control, or reliable bellwethers of where to head next.

MoritaThe most quotable psychologist in this area is Shoma Morita –> who always makes a point of separating how we feel from what we do:

“Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die”.

Ultimately it is only by holding our emotions lightly – by committing to our values in the presence of anxiety and boredom if necessary – that we will build the kind of working life we want.  Or, as Morita says:

When running up a hill, it is all right to give up as many times as you wish – as long as your feet keep moving.

 

(And as my mind says ‘check this post one more time’ with my finger I press…PUBLISH).

Creating Nurturing Environments

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

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

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

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

His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.

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

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

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

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.

The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

Many times in Executive coaching the person I’m working with is facing a difficult choice.  Do I take job A or B?  Should I spend more time at work or with my family?  How can I work with a difficult colleague?

I am a fan of decision science, but more often than not, this does not actually help the person to decide.  That’s because they are wrestling with what Ruth Chang calls  ‘hard choices’ – there is no right or wrong answer.  However this is usually not what people want to hear.  They want certainty… and an answer!

How then should we choose?

The thing about hard choices, Chang argues, is that yes, they are hard; but that is what makes them  so liberating.  After all, if there were only ever choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice, then life would be very dull.  In fact, there would be no real choice at all.

This is where the ACT distinction between choices and decisions is so useful:

Decisions can be “explained, justified and…supported by reasons”, whereas a choice

” is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”

In ACT, choices are where values can guide us.  Values are freely chosen; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ or reason-giving driving the choice.  Therefore choices (or what Chang calls ‘hard choices’) are precious because unlike decisions, they are our chance to author our lives and to take a stand for something that we feel matters.

Instead of saying ‘A was better than B so I went with A’, we get to say ‘this is me, this is the choice I made and this is what I stand for’.

Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt.  But what  is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all,  the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…

Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool.  The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.

Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?

mail

Right there.  We attend to it immediately.  (Or is that just me?)

If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention?  It has to become shallower and more fractured.  Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.

The Costs of Distraction

Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy.  But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance.  Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy.  So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective.  Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?

In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2).  In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.

In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful.  It can also make us feel needed and important.  It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy.  Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.

But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?

Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth.  Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.

This makes sense from a theoretical perspective.  High performance states involve intense focus on one thing.  Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task.Business Man Texting  This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.

When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety?  As Robert Leahy argues:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.

So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?

Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats.  But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.

* your job involves a cognitive load

References

1. Institute of the Future

2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.

Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:

“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.

References:

  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

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

When Feeling Awkward Gets In The Way Of Change

Have you ever wanted to try something new but because it felt awkward you backed away from the change and went back to what felt more comfortable, even though part of you really wanted to persist with the change?

I have been struggling with such a difficulty.

I recently become aware of something small that could lessen the influence I potentially have in the world. It looks like this:

Dotty Rachel

When you look at that photo do you think – ‘There sits a credible executive coach and corporate facilitator?’ I didn’t think so!

Although I don’t actually turn up to meetings with clients looking this dishevelled and dotty (really I don’t!). I do have wild hair and a tendency to present myself a bit like a kindly lady doctor (as this is what I was for many years!).

However, I recently read this paper and also this one and realised that appearances do impact on whether others take us seriously. Then a dear friend, who is also a client, told me, ‘Rachel, one of the things I love about working with you is that you turn up to run a session and people don’t expect you to be so competent because you aren’t dressed in a sharp suit and you appear so unassuming and then you do amazing work and they are surprised‘.

And I became concerned. I want my work to have a significant impact on others. I want to play a part in helping people to have more vitality and meaning in their work. I don’t want something as simple as my appearance to mean I am starting at a disadvantage with new clients.

So I decided that I wanted to present myself in a way that is authentic but perhaps a little more skilful. Goffee and Jones call this: Be Yourself – More – with Skill.

What does that look like for me? Probably not a sharp suit but perhaps a little tidier?

So I ask my lovely daughter, Ellie, to teach me how to put my hair in a bun. I have found this new skill very hard to learn. I feel clumsy and awkward. My mind kicks into action telling me, ‘Why are you wasting time learning something so silly when you could be learning something useful and important like Relational Frame Theory‘. The bun falls out halfway through the day and my mind says, ‘Told you this was ridiculous’.  I start to wear a little more make up and my mind tells me ‘It is so superficial to focus on your appearance’ and ‘Everyone is judging you‘. I feel like a fraud. But part of me is excited about the possibility of who I could become.

In the presence of these conflicting thoughts and feelings I remind myself that the best values and actions are freely chosen. It is okay for something as small as learning how to put my hair in a bun to matter to me. I ask Ellie to help me again..and again. I write down her instructions and follow them carefully.Notes on how to make a french roll I am still rubbish at buns but I persist. One day I will be a lady who weaves beautiful buns, knots and french rolls. Hopefully, as a result, I will look a little less dotty and a little more competent and I will ‘be myself – more – with skill’.

If you were to ‘be yourself – more – with skill’ what would be different about how the world experiences you? Is there a change that you want to make but it feels awkward?Would the change be a move towards your values? If so, are you willing to persist with the change and have the feelings of awkwardness?

I hope so! Because:

‘It is never too late to be who you might have been’

George Elliot

I am going to be the lady who both knows Relational Frame Theory and wears a beautiful bun.

How about you? Who will you be?