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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biglan writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

We Can’t Get Rid Of Our Mental Junk – So What Do We Do Instead?

The Big Clear Out

People in my neighborhood are throwing out their junk. They are sorting out their stuff and leaving it on the side of the road. In a few days some lovely people from the council will come and take it all away. Wonderful!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that with the junk in our minds? If we could choose which of the rules about ourselves and the world that we carry around in our minds, no longer work for us and just get rid of them?

Sadly, behaviorism tells us that this isn’t possible. We can’t unlearn something (unless we are willing to suffer brain damage – which seems a little extreme!). We can only add to our learning.

Let me give you an example. When I was a medical student I learnt that it was a very bad thing to make a mistake. When I practiced medicine, this was usually a very good rule to follow. I think my patients were glad I took that approach!

However, I don’t practice medicine anymore. Although doing an excellent job is still very important to me and my clients, generally it isn’t a disaster if I make a mistake. In fact, trying too hard to avoid mistakes can impair my capacity to do a good job. I can end up being too much of a perfectionist.

I can’t unlearn the rule I learnt as a medical student. It will always be with me. But what I can do is learn some new ways of behaving so I have more options. And I can get better at recognising when an old rule like ‘I mustn’t make any mistakes’ isn’t appropriate and 80% is good enough.

What internal rules do you have that are no longer useful for you?

How Can We Build Others Motivation to Change their Behaviour?

At work, we often need to encourage others to change their behaviour. It might be the co-worker who repeatedly misses deadlines; the direct report who is irritable with stakeholders, or, our boss who isn’t delegating well to us.

Our instinct is to try asking (or telling!) the person to change. Explaining to them why we want them to change. If we are really good at ‘selling change’ then we might even explain to them the benefits of changing.

A therapeutic technique called Motivational Interviewing suggests a different approach.

William Miller came up with this approach when he discovered that some therapists do a much better job at helping their clients to change compared to others. He then studied the differences between the effective and ineffective therapists and found that the highly effective therapists:

  • Were good at empathic listening and were genuinely interested in understanding the client’s perspective
  • Coached their client’s to explore the pros and cons of change and helped them to make their own decision about whether they wanted to change
  • When the client resisted the idea of change, the effective therapists ‘rolled with that resistance’ rather than arguing with the client
  • Had a respectful stance
    • Honoring the client’s autonomy – the client gets to choose whether they change or not, and as adults, they take responsibility for the consequences of their choice
    • Viewing the client as the expert in their own life. They didn’t talk down to the client but took a collaborative approach where they worked together to figure out what to do next

Miller found that in the sessions that had the best outcomes, it was the clients who were describing the benefits of the change rather than the therapist.  The clients came to their own decision that they wanted to change. It was only at this point (when the client started to say ‘I want to change..’ or ‘I am going to change..’) that effective therapists started to help the person to make a plan for how they would go about changing.

I know that when I apply this to my own life, I am much more likely to commit to change if the other person takes this approach with me – but perhaps I am just a contrary Derbyshire lass!

The collaborative, respectful approach used in motivational interviewing fits well with the approach taken by a good ACT practitioner.

An ACT practitioner helps clients choose their own values rather than values that society or significant others might want the individual to adopt.

ACT practitioners have the stance that we are all dealing with our own difficulties – the ACT practitioner isn’t the expert who has it all sorted.

An ACT practitioner works to help the client see the reality of their situation and then make decisions taking this information into account.

Both ACT and Motivational Interviewing are empirically supported approaches shown to help people make important and often challenging changes in their lives (from giving up drugs to losing weight) and they seem to be saying similar things about the best stance for the practitioner to take.

Perhaps there is something for all of us to learn here?

Perhaps, next time we want some else to change their behaviour, it might be helpful to start by being genuinely interested in their viewpoint. What if we were really curious about understanding how the current approach both is and isn’t working for them? What if we respectfully explored whether the person sees any benefits in changing their behaviour? Perhaps we might discover that they are less likely to dig their heels in and resist us? They might even be more inclined to work collaboratively with us to create a better outcome that meets both of our needs.

How to Evolve a More Vital Life

If you are reading this blog, you are probably the sort of person who wants a life that is vital.  According to Steve Hayes, ACT helps us to evolve more vitality by:

1.Undermining Repertoire Narrowing Processes 

What this means in everyday language is that when we are in the grip of strong emotions or have been hooked by painful thoughts our behaviour tends to narrow down and become inflexible. ACT aims to lessen this tendency so that we can choose our behaviour from a broader range of options. This means we can stop doing what we have always done (which tends to get us what we have always got) and start choosing our behaviour based on the circumstances and our values.

2. Situating action in the conscious present

Instead of our actions being triggered by memories of the past, or fears about the future, or inflexible rules; we observe the world as it is and take action based on this connection to the present moment.

3. Choosing your selection criteria

Rather than accepting the criteria the world has given us for what constitutes success or ‘correct’ behaviour, we choose our own values and use these values to guide our actions.

And so we evolve a more vital life

Flexibly choosing our behaviour based on both our values and what the situation offers, enables us to create more richness and vitality in our lives.

The research is growing that the approaches taken by ACT are successful in achieving these outcomes, which is rather cool for those of us interested in empirically supported interventions.