How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 2!)

I’ve recently been travelling around Europe and the Middle East on a kind of values and defusion tour.  It’s been an amazing experience.

And no matter where I went I saw humans.  Lots of them!  Some in busy cities like Brussels or Munich; others miles from anywhere, in the wilds of Sweden, the deserts of the Middle East or quiet fishing villages in the Med. And everywhere you see how humans have adapted to their environment through different cultures, clothing and lifestyle.  Clever old things.

EMEA tour

But if humans are so good at adapting, why do we sometimes struggle to adapt to what life throws at us?

Funny you should ask, because this is where our second Very Exciting Idea from Behaviour Analysis comes in:

“Fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer”.

And why is this such a big idea?

Because it is useful for clients who struggle to adapt and that turns out to be, erm…

ALL OF US!

So sit back, take the soft top down and put on some rock classics, as we explore why ‘fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer’ is such a useful idea, especially in coaching.

relief

What is Fusion?

In ACT, fusion is a term for when we become fused with, or stuck to, our thoughts.

In a state of fusion it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts. For example, if I am fused to the idea that ‘this is a hopeless blog post’, that is all I can see.   Yikes!

fusion (1)

From this perspective, it is easy to act as if the thought is true. So I might give up writing halfway through and see that the garden needs watering, or that the cat urgently needs stroking.  (And I don’t even have a cat).

If this becomes a pattern I might fuse to a new story: I am hopeless…

Hopeless_TCP_illo_2

Here there is no distance at all between me and the thought.

One recent example I had was with a manager at a construction firm who had received negative reviews about his ability to influence senior execs. His story was that as an ‘I’ on Myers Briggs and someone who hates small talk, there was little he could do to influence others.  He was simply “not cut out for senior management”.

It is easy to see how fusing to stories like this can hinder development. But why do people fuse so readily to such unhelpful stories about themselves?

Meaning as the Brain’s Priority

Klinger (1998) argued that humans survive primarily by being able to respond to their environment. The brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into action”.

Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is therefore the brain’s top priority.  This is why the experience of not understanding something is associated with feelings of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood, we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is much more pleasant (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006).

With language, meaning takes on a wider metaphorical significance, so humans start to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:

meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).

Meaning is constructed in context ,and for humans especially this means it becomes socially constructed:  “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” (Mead and Morris, 1967).  Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.

When someone tells me that I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean’ is often greatly reassuring:

Provided that languaging is reinforced from an early age, coherence is also reinforced. As a result, coherence… becomes a generalized reinforcer for verbally competent human beings.” (Blackledge, Moran, & Ellis, 2008).

Aha! Why Fusion acts as a Reinforcer

One reason why fusion is reinforcing is that it can quickly provide a sense of coherence (i.e. meaning) to otherwise confusing or ambiguous information.

story

For example, if I receive a poor assessment of my influencing skills, I can make sense of this by fusing to a story that I am an introvert, or have never had any training in assertiveness, or am ‘not cut out for senior management’.

Perhaps it is no surprise that people cling to these stories as a means of control over their lives. My life is a mess and this is why.

Meaning trumps everything, including whether the story is helpful or not.

For example I often fuse to a story that certain aspects of my character and upbringing make me unable to hold down relationships, and this can be consoling at times.  The story makes sense of my experience – and relieves me of the responsibility to change.

And this is when fusion becomes truly problematic.

Because when we fuse to language our behaviour tends to ossify, which can reduce our capacity to adapt.

But if we can learn to hold language more lightly we retain our ability to adapt, and the world opens up before us once more.

IMG_1134

Sources:

  • Examining the Reinforcing Properties of Making Sense: A preliminary Investigation. Wray, Dougher, Hamilton & Guinther, The Psychological Record (2012).      
  • The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications, Klinger, from The Human Quest for Meaning edited by Wong & Fry (1998)
  • Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist.  Mead and Morris (1967)

 

For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching please follow The Career Psychologist blog.

What a Country GP Can Teach You About Fame and Fortune

My father was a doctor. When he finished medical school, he planned to pursue a career with some prestige attached to it. He was going to become a surgeon or physician in some teaching hospital. He would work his way up the hierarchy until he was like Sir Lancelot Spratt, with a host of nurses, doctors, medical students and sundry allied health professionals traipsing after him, writing down his pronouncements and doing his bidding.

My mother had a different view of what sort of life would suit them and she persuaded my dad to instead become a country GP in a relatively poor part of Derbyshire. He spent much of his working life visiting patients in their cramped terraced houses or sitting in his surgery looking into the ears of snotty nosed children. He was not followed around by an entourage. His work was not with the rich or the famous and he didn’t become rich or famous himself. On the surface, he might seem like a relatively insignificant figure.

But if you walk into the local newsagent with my father, who has been retired for 14 years now, it is very likely that someone will rush up to him and say something like, ‘Oh Dr Collis, It is my lovely, lovely Dr Collis’.

In his small way, in this small village in the middle of England, my dad is famous. He is famous to these people because he was very, very kind and caring to them at a point in their life when they needed this more than anything. Because he listened to his patients with great interest, even if they were telling him about problems with endless green snotty noses. He started with the assumption that his patients mattered and their worries were important and that meant everything to them.

My mother is also ‘famous’ in this small village in Derbyshire. She is famous for her stalwart support of people through the tough times of life, for her capacity to be with people through the periods of grief, loneliness and overwhelmingly bad odds that visit us all. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without your Mum when…happened.’

My parents remind me of the wonderful poem, ‘Famous’  by Naomi Shihab Nye, here is an excerpt:

The river is famous to the fish
….
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

There is so much written about how to become successful. But the success these articles describe is about fame and fortune rather than the gratitude of a middle aged lady in the local newsagent. And that is a problem.

It is a problem because chasing money and status sucks vitality out of life.

It is a problem because pursuing status is associated with less happiness; less satisfaction with life and also more anxiety.

It is a problem because chasing prestige leads you to focus energy on things that aren’t really important to you:

“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…..Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilised inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule to simply avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.’ Paul Graham

When you are in your late 70’s, as my father is. What will touch you most:

  • That you rose through the corporate ranks?
  • That you earned lots of money and drove a fancy car?
  • That you were, in your own world, a Lancelot Spratt?

Or,

  • That somewhere there is a person; someone who, like you, is insignificant in the scheme of things; and they remember how you treated them?
  • That somewhere there is a piece of work, something that was done really well…by you.

If you were famous in these small ways – what would you choose to be famous for?

Finding Meaning

Meaning in life is an important factor in human well being.

You probably won’t be surprised that research has shown that people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are happier than those without that sense of meaning (Duh!).

However, more than that, people who have a sense of meaning and purpose seem to live longer, cope better with the losses and difficulties of life  and have greater sense of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose even seems to protect against cognitive decline as we age.

So if having a sense of meaning is a good thing. What do you do if you want to live a meaningful life?

The first step is to recognise that:

‘Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of …your affections and loyalties…out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account’ – John Gardner

Meaning doesn’t come from a search for some big sign that says ‘This is meaningful’.  Meaning is instead built gradually through the many small choices you make, through the values you choose to express.

‘Values are intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’ Steve Hayes

(If you are uncertain about your values  – there are some good values clarification activities here.)

You can make a conscious decision to treat whatever you are doing as meaningful. An opportunity to live your values. For example, a hospital cleaner can choose to see themselves as an important part of the process of healing patients (which, of course, they are) and as a result express values of kindness or conscientiousness in their work.

However, if your work really doesn’t align with your values. If it genuinely feels meaningless, then you might want to start to work on a career change. It might just save your life!

If you are feeling a bit uncertain about what is meaningful for you, then I recommend ‘The Photojournalist’ activity described by Steger et al in Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology. It is a great way of unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life.

Here is what you do:
Take 10-12 photos of “What makes (or could make) your life meaningful.” It is okay to take photos of places, people, things, mementos or even other photos. As you take the photos, keep a note of what each photo represents and how it contributes to your life’s meaning currently or how you hope it will contribute to meaning in your life in the future.

When you have done – notice what you photographed and what you wrote under the photographs. Notice what stands out. Notice any recurrent themes. Craft yourself a meaning statement.

I choose to make the following meaningful….

Now as you go through your day, notice when there is an opportunity to treat an event as meaningful and see what happens.

Here is one of my IMG_0159photojournalist images. The photo is of my partner fixing my chicken pen. A small moment but it has deep meaning for me. It is about relationships, caring, family tradition.

 

 

To learn more about the research on meaning, watch Michael Steger’s TEDx talk on What Makes Life Meaningful.

Noticing How Desire Can Pull You Away From Your Values

When does desire pull you away from your values?

It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your  life; make poor choices that change your life forever…

In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.

Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.

When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Last week, Paul suggested that mindfulness helps us to turn our values into action. When desire is moving you away from what really matters, mindfulness can help you to ride out the urges rather than mindlessly chase what you desire .

You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:

1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.

2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose

3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?

Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:

Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.

Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?

[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on  Sun 3rd March.  All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]

Creating Great Mentoring Relationships

 

Last night I spoke at an event held by the QUT Career Mentors Scheme. They were a great group of people – the mentees are students about to finish their degree and the mentors volunteer their time to support the students as they make the transition from study to work.

I shared some ideas on how to create great mentoring relationships, particularly how to avoid mentoring relationships that lack vitality and are….frankly boring.

Here is the handout that goes with the talk: How To Create Great Mentoring Relationships

 

How to Build Engagement and Vitality

Are you willing to invest energy in your work? Do you persist in the face of difficulty and give your full attention to your work when you are at work? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you care about doing a good job? If your answer is ‘yes‘ then you are engaged with your work.

Rob and I are highly engaged with this project – we hope that this comes through in our writing. I believe that applying ACT principles to this project has helped us to maintain our energy and enthusiasm.

In our experience, ACT builds workplace engagement in a number of ways:

  1. When people are connected to their values and are able to live their values in their work they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They experience vitality. Rob describes here what that looks like in practice. Here is the values statement Rob and I wrote when we started working together. We spent time on it because we knew that if we were to persist with this, if we were to give energy to this project when we have so many other competing priorities, then we would need to be clear about why it mattered to us.
  2. When people feel a deep connection between their work and their values they become more willing to persist in the face of difficulty. They care about the outcome. They want to do their best. This week I gave a talk to a group of senior managers and CEO’s (arranged by the lovely people at Arete Executive.) I was frankly terrified. I tried to wriggle out of my fear by minimising the importance.“I don’t need any more work. My consultancy is really busy. It doesn’t matter whether they like my talk” but Rob, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me do that. He reminded me that the purpose of my talk wasn’t to ‘sell’ my consulting services  or the training sessions that Rob and I offer together (although that would be nice!). It was to connect the audience to some information that might genuinely help them (and their employees) to have more vitality in their lives. I felt more anxious after this conversation (Thanks Rob!) but I also had a deep sense that it was worth it.
  3. When people become skilful at ‘defusing’* from their thoughts and accepting** their feelings, they have more energy and attention to give to their work as they aren’t wasting energy trying to get their thoughts and feelings ‘right’.
  4. When people are in contact with the present moment, they make better decisions and tend to respond more flexibly and effectively to their circumstances.

Both the research and our experience is suggesting that ACT will be central to future workplace engagement initiatives. I am excited!

Explaining the jargon:

*Defusion is an ACT term that means having some space between you and your thoughts. Rather than seeing the world through your thoughts, you see your thoughts as just thoughts.

**Acceptance is about the reality that when we take action in line with our values, then often painful emotions (like anxiety) turn up. If we want rich and meaningful lives, sometimes we need to make space for those painful emotions.

Is It a Good Idea to Act Authentically?

Well, it depends how you define authenticity.

Authenticity can be problematic when we define it as freely expressing our thoughts and feelings. I have made this mistake many times in the past. I believed that it was wrong to hide my true feelings, that it was important for me to be ‘honest’ with others. The problems with this approach were:

  • It involved treating my thoughts and feelings as if they were true. I have since come to realise that sometimes they don’t reflect the reality of a situation!
  • It meant that my thoughts and feelings had control of my behaviour.
  • It meant other people had to deal with my ‘stuff’ – sometimes that was helpful, at others, frankly, it wasn’t.

A better definition of authenticity is when:

  • Behaviour, goals and values are aligned.
  • Values are freely chosen rather than imposed by others. They feel like an expression of my best self. The person I really want to be. Working out authentic values can take some time. We have to cut through what we have been taught is good and proper and get to the heart of what is important to us. There are some tips on how to do this here.
  • I am honest with myself about my thoughts and feelings and then choose what to communicate with others. Hiding from thoughts and feelings leads to behaviour that feels inauthentic to others.

This way of behaving is associated with a number of positive outcomes:

  1. I feel like my behaviour is an expression of my true self – which feels important.
  2. Mindfully noticing my thoughts and feelings and then choosing which ones to act upon provides opportunity for growth.
  3. I will tend to put more effort into pursuing self concordant goals that align with my values.
  4. I feel more satisfaction when I achieve self-concordant goals.
  5. Others are more likely to trust someone whose behaviour is both predictable and transparent. Choosing behaviour based on a consistent set of values leads to more consistency than being pushed around by whatever thoughts and feelings show up at any particular moment.
So, yes it is a good idea to act authentically – as long as that means acting in accordance with deeply held values.

For further reading on the research relating to authenticity:
Chapter 11, Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman

Psychological Flexibility and the Miracle of Istanbul

This is a story about what Liverpool Football Club has taught me about happiness, pain and meaning.

I love Liverpool FC, but I am also what’s known as an ‘armchair’ fan. That is, I support Liverpool but don’t go to the match very often.

In 2005, Liverpool staged the most astonishing run to the final of the European Cup that has ever been seen. With a truly average team, and defying huge odds, they beat many superior teams along the way, including incredible comebacks (Olympiakos) and heroic performances (Chelsea).  It was incredible, and now they would play the mighty AC Milan in Istanbul.

In nearly every position AC Milan had the better players than Liverpool – in fact the miracle was they were there at all.

At the time, I remember that I really wanted to go to the final. I thought about it very hard but I worried about the cost involved. I even found a ticket and a convoluted journey that would have got me to Istanbul in time.  I would have loved to have gone, but in the end I narrowly decided against it.

Why?

Because deep down, I thought Liverpool would lose, and I wanted to spare myself the pain of being there when they did.

And as it turned out, I was right. Because at half time in Istanbul Liverpool were 3-0 down. They were outclassed as predicted, and I was gutted, watching on TV.

But I was also a bit relieved I hadn’t gone, because I couldn’t have handled the pain of watching my beloved team humiliated on the biggest stage of all.  Plus what a waste of money!

Beloved….

For some people, their love of Liverpool is so great that they go to every single match. Irrespective of where it is, how they’re feeling, who it’s against, whether Liverpool are likely to win, they will be there. They love Liverpool, and they live that love. They feel the pain when the Reds lose, but they keep turning up, through the wind and rain.  At halftime in Istanbul, these people sang You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Just after half time Liverpool scored a consolation goal.  Relief!  They had avoided humiliation.  But then, they scored again….

What followed is easily the most astonishing match in any sport I have ever witnessed. Liverpool eventually triumphed amid scenes of utter joy, elation and incredulity – which I had witnessed from a bar in Farringdon.

Just imagine what it would have been like to be there.

And there we have it.

Happiness and sadness are not opposites, but twins. They either grow big and strong together, or they stay small and weak together. By being willing to be sad, I grow my capacity for happiness. By accepting pain, I open my life to joy.

For the real fans in Istanbul they will always be able to say; I was there.

For me, I have the satisfaction of having played it safe, lessening my pain.

Not got quite the same ring has it?