Using the ACT Matrix to Help You to Be The Person You Want to Be…More Often

I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.

I have made a video explaining how I use it:

 

You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.

Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.

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.

Creating Nurturing Environments

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

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

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

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

His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.

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

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

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

How Mindfulness And Compassion Could Help You Do What Really Matters

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

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

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

To give you an example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just notice.

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

Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.

Be mindful and curious.

Turn towards yourself with compassion.

And then notice what happens next.

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

Could you notice that with compassion and curiosity?

How Science Can Help You to Use Words to Weave Magic

Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals
Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals

It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.

As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up.  You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.

And he was doing something more than that.

Something I didn’t understand.

When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.

That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.

It was hard.

I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.

Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).

A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.

I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.

Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)

The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.

Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.

I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.

‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000

What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)

For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!

In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!

Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!

I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.

Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic

Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?

When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?

Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?

Now pause and ask yourself, what do you care about deeply in this? Kelly Wilson says that suffering and values are poured from the same vessel. It is likely that this issue is causing you pain because it links to something you really care about. What is it?

Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?

Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:

Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?

What would that look like?

And how would it feel?

I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.

———————————————————————————————————————————
If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)

If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.

And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.

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?

ACT and conscious evolution Part A: Why cant we get our act together to respond to global change?

We live on a planet completely transformed by humanity.  Our impacts upon the planet are so great that scientists have now coined a term for a new geological age – the Anthropocene.   We are changing the climate, the chemical balance of the oceans and soils, biodiversity and even the physical structure of the planet –humans move more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined.  Together this is referred to as ‘global change’.  Whether we like it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are designing the future of not just our species, but every other species on the planet.

In this blog and the next I argue that Contextual Behavioural Science is not just a tool for individual wellbeing, it is a tool for global transformation.  For future generations to live meaningfully, happily and sustainably, we must master our thinking and feeling at least as much as we have learned to master the physical world. We need to more consciously evolve our behaviour, choosing our evolutionary path instead of reacting unconsciously.

Getting better at choosing is critical for many of our most pressing problems, but nowhere is it more important than the choices we make about our treatment of the natural world. The natural world is the context for everything else: It is the cradle of our development as a species, the support system for our thriving today and the legacy we leave our children.

Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.  In this blog, I outline some of the reasons we seem to be so ineffective at collectively responding to anthropogenic changes to the natural world.  Next week I will explore some ways contextual behavioural science can help us to respond more effectively to such wicked problems.

Why cant we get our act together?

From a contextual behavioural perspective, human beings have at least six characteristics that get in the way of successfully responding to complex problems [1].   These characteristics served us well in old contexts, but might just be big problems for our ongoing survival.

Responding to reinforcement

a)      Immediate consequences outweigh delayed consequences – we might be concerned about the fate of our children, but we tend to act on our desire for that new car or second helping of food right now.

b)      Strongly unpleasant stimuli presented abruptly prompt action, but gradually increasing unpleasant stimuli do notThis is the story of the boiled frog. So long as global conditions worsen gradually, we will tolerate bad air, foul water, and species loss that would once have been considered intolerable.

Complexity and Accuracy of Thinking

c)       Simple, familiar ideas are often preferred over complex, alien ideas that are more correct. It is estimated that evolution, about as well-established a fact as it is possible to obtain in science, is rejected by 46% of the American population, one of the best educated populations on earth.  This figure doesn’t appear to be changing – there is a limit to the power of science and education, in part because…

d)      Coincidental events often strengthen ineffective behavior –  Short term weather events lead to claims that climate change isn’t happening. Our cognitive systems are tuned to use even random patterns as evidence supporting our beliefs.

e)      Thinking more complexly puts us in contact with uncertainty and paradox which can both feel aversive – As we learn language we are repeatedly rewarded for being coherent [2]: Parents discourage children for saying they like spinach one day and not the next.  Uncertainty, ignorance and inconsistent beliefs feel deeply aversive for most of us and thinking about complex environmental issues inevitably exposes us to these states.

Our relationships

f)       Consequences for the individual usually outweigh consequences for others although we can and do act altruistically, our primary concern is usually to protect ourselves and satisfy our own needs.

So what can we do about it?

This is a pretty depressing list. But actually these characteristics are just the products of human evolution.  Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.

But what makes human beings really interesting are the times when we act differently to the basic tendencies outlined above.  Next week I will explore how ACT and contextual behavioural science help us to make sense of what happens when we are at our best as a species – when we plan well for the future and act beyond our own self-interest.

Between now and then, you might like to see if you can notice examples of these evolved tendencies in action.  How do they serve you and how do they get in the way of living the life you want to live?  I would love to read about what you notice.

1. Chance, P. (2007). The ultimate challenge: prove B. F. Skinner wrong. The Behavior analyst, 30(2), 153-160.  Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2203635/

2. Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Vahey, N. (2012). Holding On to Our Functional Roots When Exploring New Intellectual Islands: A Voyage through Implicit Cognition Research. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 17-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.003. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144712000075

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?

Closing the intention-behaviour gap

Over Christmas I put on an additional 3kg. I have been getting rid of it ever since and I have realised that losing weight is a fantastic practice in psychological flexibility.  Just about every minute of the day there are opportunities to be mindful of bodily sensations associated with hunger or satiety, and each day there are dozens of opportunities to reconnect with why losing weight is important to me.

This experience also got me thinking about why weight is such an enormous problem. Obesity rates doubled globally between 1980 and 2008.  In 2008, the total annual cost of obesity in Australia, including health system costs, productivity declines and carers’ costs, was estimated at around $58 billion.  In Australia 68% of men and 55% of women were overweight or obese in 2008. Part of the problem here is diminishing physical activity. The World Health Organisation reports “Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28% and women 34%). Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.”  Nobody wants to be obese but people are getting fatter, and everybody knows that they should exercise more than they do.   Clearly there is a disconnect between intentions and actual behaviour. 

We don’t do what we say we will do

Many studies have examined the relationship between intentions and behaviour and, somewhat surprisingly, the correlation between the two is not all that high.  Have you ever had the experience of setting strong goals to exercise or eat well and then not followed through?  Timothy Wilson wrote a fascinating book called “Strangers to Ourselves” outlining all the evidence for unconscious, automatic influences upon our behaviour.  Meta-analyses have revealed:

“… intentions account for a weighted average of only 30% of the variance in social behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001; Hagger et al., 2002), mainly because people with strong intentions fail to act on them (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998).”  (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).

Why might this be the case?  One reason people fail to act on strong intentions is because they simply forget to start the behaviour.  Have you ever said something like “This week I will exercise three times” and then before you know it, the week is over and you haven’t exercised at all?  This is why setting specific goals and thinking about contextual reminders is so important.  In the literature, this sort of planning is called “implementation intentions”.

But another reason why people fail to act on their intentions is because their responding has become habitual and automatic.  When we don’t reflect on our moment to moment behaviour we are very likely to do what we have always done in the past.

Mindfulness helps us act on our intentions

From one point of view, this might be a bit of a problem for the ACT model.  If our behaviour is relatively independent of our intentions, then what is the point on getting clear on our values when we might just act out of our habits and unreflected impulses anyway?  This is where mindfulness becomes really important.  Values clarification on its own is of little use unless we bring awareness to what we are doing and we have the self-regulatory skills to enact new behaviours.

But is there any evidence that mindfulness can help us do what we want to do?  Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) explored how mindfulness affects the relationship between people’s intentions to engage in vigorous physical exercise and their actual behaviour.

First they confirmed that people’s intentions to exercise didn’t actually predict whether people exercised or not. But the really interesting finding was that more mindful people were more likely to act on their intentions than those who are less mindful, even controlling for the physical exercise was already a habit for the participant.  So mindful people, but not non-mindful people, were more likely to do what they said they would do!  Isn’t that just the coolest reason for learning to be mindful?  “Learn mindfulness and you will do what you say you will do!”

Why does mindfulness help us act on our intentions?

The authors then went on to explore reasons why mindfulness might strengthen the relationship between behaviours and intentions. Before we go any further, what do you think? Why might mindfulness increase the tendency to act on intentions?

Got something?

Perhaps mindfulness increases awareness of goals in each moment and therefore reduces the tendency to forget what we said we would do. Or perhaps mindfulness improves our self-regulatory skills so that we are more likely to be able to manage the difficult emotions that arise when we do something new or challenging. Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) tested a third possibility, that mindfulness helps us control counter-intentional behaviours, in this case binge drinking.   They reasoned that binge-drinking probably interferes with doing vigorous physical activity (is it just me or do you too have an image of lying on a couch with a pillow over your head?), and that mindfulness might reduce the extent to which habitual binge-drinking interferes with intentions to exercise.

And this is what they found:

C and H 07 Fig 2b 3

Let me step you through this diagram.  Start with the dotted line first. What this says is that people who are NOT mindful and who habitually engage in binge-drinking are LESS likely to engage in physical exercise. That is, habitual binge-drinking decreases the likelihood of engaging in physical activity. So far so good, this confirms the idea that binge-drinking ain’t great for getting up in the morning and going for a run!  But look at the solid line. For this group, even if they did engage in habitual binge-drinking they were still just as likely to engage in exercise as those who did not habitually binge drink. So some mindful folk still go out on the town, but they don’t let this interfere with their intentions to exercise.  In the words of Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007: 672):

“These results, therefore, corroborate the view that greater awareness of and attention to internal states and behavioral routines helps mindful individuals shield good intentions from unhealthy habits and thus can play a key role in fostering effective self-regulation. In contrast, diminished attention and awareness of counterintentional routines and habits is likely to prevent individuals acting less mindfully from engaging in effective self-regulation, as the negative relationship between habitual binge-drinking and physical exercise suggests (see Figures 2a and 2b).”

So maybe next Christmas I will be better at mindfully saying no to that Christmas pudding!

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.