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.

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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.

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?

Tackling Our Culture of Cruelty

A recent Panorama investigation found systematic abuse of elderly residents going on in a UK care home.  Some of the most vulnerable people in our society were being ritually abused by their so-called carers:

On the top floor of a special hospital, locked away from their families and friends, a group of men and women are subjected to a regime of physical assaults, systematic brutality, and torture by the very people supposed to be caring for them.  The victims are some of the most vulnerable in society – the learning disabled, the autistic, and the suicidal.

Sadly, this may be merely the tip of the iceberg.  In this week’s Sunday Times Minette Marin wrote of the terrible neglect of nurses that she witnessed first hand.  Similarly, the MP Ann Clwyd has told of her husband’s inhumane treatment at the hands of the NHS and asked whether cruelty is now normal in the NHS.  Today I listened to a phone in programme where one man described a ward of vulnerable geriatrics and simply said:

“Nobody seemed to care”.

How does this happen?  Presumably no nurse goes into that profession for any other reason than to care for others?  So what happens?

Organisational culture is clearly a factor and a number of systemic problems contribute –  poor job control, lack of autonomy, lack of a proper leadership.  But at some level cruelty is an individual choice.  We create our cultures, then they create us.  So what can we do about that?

I think this is a problem of experiential avoidance.  I propose that nurses dealing with ‘difficult’ or elderly patients are brought into contact with their own fears and insecurities about becoming old, infirm, or mentally impaired.  These fears – being intolerable – can only be dealt with by distancing themselves from the patients and dissociating from them.  And we don’t have to go far back in history to see the terrible, shaping effects of dissociation on human behaviour.

So what can be done?  Plenty, and we could start by not dissociating ourselves from the nurses.  The problem is that the alternative – empathy – is not the simple panacea that most people assume.  It takes real effort and psychological skill.  It is not something we can just do, any more than we can suddenly start sticking to diets or going to the gym five times a week.

The key to empathy is reducing experiential avoidance.  And we know how to do that.  Firstly train people – help them – to gently reconnect with what they care about.  Then help them to defuse empathy & experiential avoidancefrom the difficult thoughts and emotions that will arise from taking valued action.  We know we can’t get rid of those fears and demons, but we can respond to them differently, and in so doing shift the context for our behaviour.

People often talk about practicing empathy and practicing compassion.  That’s good, because these things do take practice.  But in order to practice we need to understand what prevents us from practicing.

In most cases, it is our own demons.  And we have been running from them for too long.

warning, this is a harrowing clip:

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

 

On Holding Our Feelings Gently

This post is based on some writing by Dr Hank Robb. Hank is a deeply wise psychologist based in Oregon. You can see a video of him here.

Sometimes, when we act to make something important in our lives, we experience painful emotions. And, we can choose to feel them willingly.

There are, really, two important aspects to that willingness. There is “willingness with your feet” and also “willingness with your heart.” If you think about “flight phobics” you see
 both kinds. Some won’t get on the airplane – they lack “willingness with their feet.” However, many who do get on the plane are then “white knuckleflyers” – they lack “willingness with their heart.” Both kinds of willingness are choices.

To give you a sense of “willingness with your heart”. Cup your hands. Imagine holding a feather in your cupped hands, it will be gentle. And, you can hold it gently. Now imagine putting the fruit of a prickly pear cactus in your cupped hands. It will not be gentle. And, you can still hold it gently. Willingness with your heart is holding gently whatever is there to be held.

Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetatio...
Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetation found in the hills of Balaghat Range (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever feelings turn up, you can choose to treat them with compassion and gentleness.

What would that be like? Which are the emotions that are hardest for you to hold with gentleness? For me anger is really tricky.

Can you catch yourself when you harden your heart against your pain…and soften?

Successful People Often Feel Bad Too

For most of my adult life I have worked in roles where people told me the truth about how they felt. This privilege has meant that I know an important secret. The secret is that most of us have good days and bad days; good weeks and bad weeks, sometimes even good days and bad months. When I worked as a psychiatrist I thought that only my clients and I felt like this. But then I moved into executive coaching and discovered it was also true of people who, on the outside, look very successful.

Most of us know that we have times when we feel happy and times when we feel sad, anxious or angry. However, we can tend to assume this isn’t true about other people. Other people look like they have got it together and so we assume that they have. Which leads me to the second secret – most of us hide it when we are feeling bad. We spend a miserable evening feeling like s*#t and the next day we do our best to act like everything is okay.

So when all of our efforts to become happy, secure and confident seem to only work in the short term. When over and over again our confidence disappears and we feel scared, sad or anxious, we assume that there is something wrong with us. That we are some how more broken than other people.

A woman dries her tears as she says goodbye to friends emigrating to New Zealand, 1953 (We can all relate to the pain of loss) (Flickr http://flic.kr/p/5uBE8s)

So we hide our pain. And what is worse than feeling heartbroken, sad or frightened? It is the feeling of being alone in that suffering. The feeling that everyone else is out having a good time – happy and successful – whilst Rachel, the loser, stays home alone feeling overwhelmed and scared.

Next time that you feel like howling into the wilderness (or even just feel a bit sad and forlorn) remember that you are not alone. Somewhere out there in the seething mass of humanity will be someone who, at this very moment, is feeling a very similar emotion. And, likely, just like you, they will get up tomorrow and go out into the world and when someone says ‘How are you’ they will smile and say, ‘I’m fine’.

It is a myth that most of us are happy most of the time and it is a cruel myth. The nature of being human is that we have a tendency to suffer. We suffer often and sometimes we suffer deeply. However, if, when emotional pain turns up, we choose to take an open, curious, compassionate approach to our pain; we then seem to get less hooked by the pain. This means that in the very next second, we might just find ourselves feeling content… at least for a moment.

If we stop seeing emotional pain as something to avoid then we can get our life moving. We can take bold and courageous emotional risks and give ourselves a chance to experience joy too.

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.

ACT for The Squeeze-Machine

This guest post was written by Maarten Aalberse.

We may have been asked to lead an in-company training for stress-reduction and performance-enhancement.

We may have checked as best as we can the ‘spirit’/ culture/ values of the company, and it doesn’t look bad at all. So we decide to agree.

And then… at some moment during the training we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Participants seem to be more reluctant to share their experience of the exercises we propose, there are hardly any questions after a short presentation, the work in small groups appears to be very ‘careful’, or something similar may make us uneasy, and we suspect that something in the company just isn’t right.

If we are lucky, we might hear something more in a break.

But maybe we just have to do with this nagging feeling.

What to do, then? In most cases, any direct questioning may lead nowhere, or even bring in more problems, as we observe people shutting down even more.

One option might be, after having introduced the ACT perspective on values, to invite the group to brainstorm on the values of the company. It would be really helpful if not only the ‘official’ values get mentioned, but also the more implicit ones. But again, this is most likely not something to aim for too openly. But we might pick up some clues…

Then – or at a later time, if it seems better to play safe, we ask the participants to clarify their own values, and explore if there appear to be any conflicting values, and explore some ways how such conflicts can be responded to.

Then the time may come to explore if there are any conflicts between the personal values and the values of the company, clarified earlier on. It might be useful to mention too, that this is a far from uncommon experience.

Now how can such conflicts be dealt with? The most helpful responses would probably be those that emerge from the group.

But some suggestions can be given, and even explored :

1)    Sensing how this conflict affects the particpants : which bodily tensions manifest when ‘staying with’ this conflict ? Which feelings emerge, and where in their bodies can these be felt ? What thoughts pop up, when staying with this conflict ? All the mindfulness skills explored earlier on can be most useful, here. It may be that new alternatives emerge. Or it may that this exercise has prepared the ground for another exploration :

2)    It may be useful to clarify the ‘value in the value’. If the company values (too much) the productivity of the team, we maight ask something along the lines of ‘And when, for your company, productivity is so important, what does it want to have happen through this productivity that is even more important ?’ The same can be asked about the personal values that appear to be in conflict with the company’s values.

Often, when these 2 ‘deeper’ values become clearer, it is easier to find ways in which they can become compatible. Or at least, better lived with. That is, in a way that the employees experience themselves less in an either-or situation that is inherently stressing, and that will bothr reduce the productivity of the company and the quality of life of the employees. 

I would love to read other suggestions for handling this very delicate and often quite important situation.

Maarten Aalberse is a clinical psychologist, living in France and conducting trainings throughout Europe about his integration of ACT, client-generated metaphors and emotion-regulation.

He has co-written two books : « L’intelligence du Stress » (Eyrolles, 2008) and : « Bi-Fokale Aufmerksamkeit » (= Bi-Focal Mindfulness), DKVT-Verlaf, in press.

Contact : m.aalberse@gmail.com ; site under construction.

ACT for The Squeeze-Machine

This guest post was written by Maarten Aalberse.

We may have been asked to lead an in-company training for stress-reduction and performance-enhancement.

We may have checked as best as we can the ‘spirit’/ culture/ values of the company, and it doesn’t look bad at all. So we decide to agree.

And then… at some moment during the training we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Participants seem to be more reluctant to share their experience of the exercises we propose, there are hardly any questions after a short presentation, the work in small groups appears to be very ‘careful’, or something similar may make us uneasy, and we suspect that something in the company just isn’t right.

If we are lucky, we might hear something more in a break.

But maybe we just have to do with this nagging feeling.

What to do, then? In most cases, any direct questioning may lead nowhere, or even bring in more problems, as we observe people shutting down even more.

One option might be, after having introduced the ACT perspective on values, to invite the group to brainstorm on the values of the company. It would be really helpful if not only the ‘official’ values get mentioned, but also the more implicit ones. But again, this is most likely not something to aim for too openly. But we might pick up some clues…

Then – or at a later time, if it seems better to play safe, we ask the participants to clarify their own values, and explore if there appear to be any conflicting values, and explore some ways how such conflicts can be responded to.

Then the time may come to explore if there are any conflicts between the personal values and the values of the company, clarified earlier on. It might be useful to mention too, that this is a far from uncommon experience.

Now how can such conflicts be dealt with? The most helpful responses would probably be those that emerge from the group.

But some suggestions can be given, and even explored :

1)    Sensing how this conflict affects the particpants : which bodily tensions manifest when ‘staying with’ this conflict ? Which feelings emerge, and where in their bodies can these be felt ? What thoughts pop up, when staying with this conflict ? All the mindfulness skills explored earlier on can be most useful, here. It may be that new alternatives emerge. Or it may that this exercise has prepared the ground for another exploration :

2)    It may be useful to clarify the ‘value in the value’. If the company values (too much) the productivity of the team, we maight ask something along the lines of ‘And when, for your company, productivity is so important, what does it want to have happen through this productivity that is even more important ?’ The same can be asked about the personal values that appear to be in conflict with the company’s values.

Often, when these 2 ‘deeper’ values become clearer, it is easier to find ways in which they can become compatible. Or at least, better lived with. That is, in a way that the employees experience themselves less in an either-or situation that is inherently stressing, and that will bothr reduce the productivity of the company and the quality of life of the employees. 

I would love to read other suggestions for handling this very delicate and often quite important situation.

Maarten Aalberse is a clinical psychologist, living in France and conducting trainings throughout Europe about his integration of ACT, client-generated metaphors and emotion-regulation.

He has co-written two books : « L’intelligence du Stress » (Eyrolles, 2008) and : « Bi-Fokale Aufmerksamkeit » (= Bi-Focal Mindfulness), DKVT-Verlaf, in press.

Contact : m.aalberse@gmail.com ; site under construction.

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.