How to Pitch an Idea (or, How ‘Dragon’s Den’ Relates to ACT)

Dragon’s Den is a show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a group of successful business people in the hope of winning some investment.

The show fascinates me. I love spotting academic theories about influence and negotiation being played out in real life. The show also demonstrates how more psychologically flexible entrepreneurs tend to be more successful in their pitches. Professor Frank Bond has done some cool research at the BBC to support this idea.

There seem to be a few key principles if you want to get the approval of the investors.

1. Consider the perspective of the investors (Why would they want to invest? What will they gain?); potential customers (Why would they buy?) and competitors (How easy would it be for them to steal my idea?). Perspective taking is a key aspect of psychological flexibility.

2. Hold ideas like ‘This is a brilliant idea and I am going to be incredibly successsful‘ lightlyFusing with these sorts of thoughts seems to increase the risk of throwing good money after bad and doesn’t seem to convince others.

3. Understand the difference between solid, real world facts and what your mind is telling you. Others find facts much more convincing than your opinion. Smart business people consider the facts (Sales figures, profits, awards won) when they make decisions.

4. Learn to perform well even when you are feeling incredibly anxious. This is a great strength of the ACT approach. ACT teaches people how to perform even when they are feeling strong emotions. Rob and I have a course on this.

5. When you are having an important conversation – really listen to what the other person is saying. Get present with them and give them your full attention. Be open to their feedback and also be willing to give them facts that might change their mind.

6. Know your values and live those values in the interaction. You then come across as vital, authentic and trustworthy (assuming those are your values!)

7. Know how this ‘pitch’ fits with what you want your life to be about. Is this a drive to make money or does it connect to something deeper?

7. Demonstrate willingness. What are you prepared to do to make your idea successful? Live on very little money? Work hard? Face rejection? Acknowledge what you don’t know and ask for help?

Here is someone who nailed it – sadly he completely misses the reason he nailed it.

Why Is Taking A Break So Difficult?

I took a ‘sicky’ the other day (is that just an Australian word? In case it is – it means an ‘unplanned absence’). I wasn’t sick. I was just tired. Normally I am full of energy and enthusiasm for my life. I feel that each moment drips with meaning and purpose. From writing the speech I am giving next week on goal setting to attending my daughter’s commencement ceremony at school, it all matters so much. And this is wonderful, but now and again I get very, very tired.

A pot of green tea on my deck

So I made myself a pot of green tea, downloaded a Georgian Historical Romance onto my ipad and spent a few hours on the day bed on my deck, snoozing and reading.

Now I feel better.

You would think that taking a few hours off would be an easy thing to do… but not for me. My mind alternates between reminding me of all I have to do and busily problem solving (‘I need an activity to illustrate that point about goal setting, what would work? I must remember to ring the plumber. That balustrade needs painting…’). Of course, if I had decided to carry on working, my mind would have gone on and on about how tired I was (‘I am sooo tired. I need to rest. I can’t concentrate. I wonder if I am getting sick?’).

A few years ago, Russ Harris taught me, ‘Your mind is not your friend’. I find it is helpful to know this. Whatever I do, part of my mind will chatter away in an unhelpful fashion. This is part of being human. The trick is to do what is right in that moment – whether it is to rest or work or play – and take my chattery mind along with me.

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

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

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

So what do I do?

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

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

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

Self Compassion and Stress at Work

Next week I am giving a speech at the Queensland Nurse Leaders Conference on the topic of ‘Stressed Organisations, Distressed Staff’. One of the ideas I will be exploring is self-compassion. The evidence suggests that self-compassion can help when we are experiencing difficulty. Here is a table summarising some of the research on self-compassion and comparing it to self-esteem:

High Self Esteem but Low Self Compassion High Self Compassion
Lower depression and anxiety c.f. low self esteem Less painful emotions when distressing events occur
Defensive in the face of negative feedback React to negative feedback with more acceptance and with an orientation towards growth and the development of mastery
Fail to learn from mistakes More willing to make needed changes
May not always take responsibility for their actions Take more responsibility for their actions
Can be narcissistic More compassionate to others
Associated with more wisdom, more curiosity, more initiative, higher scores on agreeableness

One approach to increasing self-compassion is to imagine someone who is very compassionate – it could be someone you know, someone famous or an imaginary person – and then consider what they would want to communicate to you when you make mistakes or feel disappointed in yourself.

Influencing our Thoughts and Feelings

We all have times when we want to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings. It would be odd if we didn’t – pain is unpleasant and wanting it to go away is sensible.

What strategies have you tried to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

You might have tried:

  • Distracting yourself (focussing on something else or doing something useful);
  • Soothing yourself  (taking some slow, deep breaths; eating some chocolate; finding someone to reassure you)
  • Challenging the thoughts (Is it really true that I am lazy?)
  • Problem solving the issue that caused the pain (I am anxious because I am running late delivering this project so I will come up with a workable plan to get it finished on time).

Often these strategies are helpful BUT (yes, it is a big but!) they don’t work all the time and the times when they don’t work are often when we are most distressed. At those times nothing seems to stop our mind thrashing about. When we engage with those thoughts and try to make our mind see sense, we often actually increase how hooked we are. When we try to hold back or change the direction of the waves of emotional pain that are buffeting us, we just get exhausted.

The A in ACT stands for Acceptance. One of the things we may need to accept is that although we may be able to influence our thoughts and feelings, we can’t control them and sometimes in trying to control them we get actually get more hooked.

So what could we do instead? The best option seems to be to use mindfulness:

  • Observing our thoughts and feelings with curiosity and compassion
  • Allowing our feelings to rise and fall
  • Letting our thoughts come and go
  • Bringing our attention to this moment now – what we are experiencing through our five senses
  • Connecting with our valuesWho do I really want to be? And then,
  • Taking action based on our values.

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

ACT in the Workplace

So many leadership courses are based on the idea that to improve performance we must firstly sort our thinking out.  So we focus on motivation, confidence, self-belief or ways of controlling or removing anxiety and stress.  Sounds logical enough.

The problem is whilst this approach makes such intuitive sense, the evidence does not support it.  Our minds are expert problem solving machines which evolved to scan the environment for threat, propose hypotheses, and then prompt action to avoid, control or get rid of any threats. But when we try to apply the same techniques to our own thoughts, beliefs and emotional states, the evidence is that we make the problem worse, not better.

As Paul Flaxman said at a recent BABCP event, what works outside the skin does not always work inside the skin.

This may sound like a small distinction, but it has profound implications for the way we learn, teach and improve performance  in the workplace.  In short, the evidence suggests that focusing on trying to alter, control or avoid emotional and cognitive states as the means to improving performance is flawed.

From workplace stress to task concentration, innovation, learning, anxiety and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.

In contrast, the alternative – psychological flexibility – gives people control over their lives, ironically by letting go of the struggle of trying to control their emotional states.  It is the ability to focus on task-relevant stimuli whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008).

One recent participant said to me that defusing from his thoughts – treating them with a degree of distance – had been the single most effective change he has made in attempting to build a safety culture in his team.

Rather than more rules and regulations to live by, ACT can help people get unstuck from where they are, and take control of their working lives.  If ACT can reach more people in organisations, it could benefit us all.

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?