Monday, 23 November 2009

Why Regret?

"Non, je ne regrette rien" (No, I do not regret anything) as legendary French singer Edith Piaf sang many years ago. "Why regret a life lived in full, good and bad?" as the song goes and also the mantra of many living under the banner of positive thinking. It is true, that a life lived well is inevitably a life with mistakes, however to completely deny regret is to ignore the chance to stop repeating the same mistakes. It can also become a phantom that never leaves but is never properly dealt with. Without regret and empathy for the impact we have on others then a narcissistc personality can be an unpleasant side effect.

Where some critical errors have been made, regret can be a time of reflection, learning and growth. At times in my life, confronted with the consequences of my decisions and actions, I have wished I'd done things differently and felt deep regret. "If only.." is one of the most painful thoughts that can then trigger a whole litany of thoughts that create psychological pain. How then does one turn regret into a positive?

Cherie (name changed), a woman in her late fifties and mother to a grown-up son, came to see me due to suffering from high levels of anxiety, including debilitating and daily panic attacks. Cherie was no longer able to venture very far from her door and had become extremely isolated. This was an extreme case of someone regretting far too much. It became clear that her biggest problem was her inability to accept many of the decisions she had made throughout her adult life, as well as some of the unfortunate life events that had tripped her up along the way. She was literally consumed by regret. This, coupled with her extremely active inner critic (her self-condemnatory thinking), had frozen Cherie in a place where she could not move forwards, nor create a better life for herself. After eight sessions, Cherie was able to live with a more realistic level of responsibility to the point that she no longer needed to be in therapy, with the tools at her disposal to better manage her emotions and recognise where she might be vulnerable to a relapse. Her panic attacks had stopped, she was doing voluntary work and was taking holidays once more, something she had been highly uncertain about just two months previously.

If you find yourself regretting the events of the past it can indeed increase your ability to face the present and also to create a more fulfilling future. Getting stuck in regret is not the same as learning from past mistakes however. Here are the basic steps for putting regret to good use:

1. Allow yourself to feel sad.

2. Recognise a realistic level of responsibility - not necessarily totally and completely responsible, nor completely removed!

3. Understand why, what and how: Why did this happen? What are your triggers or vulnerabilities? How will you respond differently?

4. Remind yourself that you are fallible.

5. Remind yourself that a life lived well is a life with mistakes.

6. Figure out what else you have learned about yourself.

7. Apologise if you think this helps and is appropriate - it is never too late and a simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way.

8. Accept that you can make mistakes and decide to move on without the fear of making more.

"The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all - doing nothing" -Benjamin Franklin.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Do what you love, love what you do

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High-ee) is an eminent psychology professor in California and has written some interesting stuff on the psychology of humans, in particular our happiness as well as what it is to be truly successful (not just financially well-off, highly thought of, famous etc.). For ease in referring to him in this blog I'll call him "MC". MC coined the term "flow" to describe the state of being immersed in an activity for its own sake, feeling totally energised by the act rather than the rewards that may follow afterwards. He grew up in Europe during World War II and first began thinking about flow after witnessing so many people unable to find any joy once they had lost the security of their job, home and status, and yet some did.

Having clear goals, being immersed in the activity where time passes unnoticed (time is distorted), losing any self-consciousness, having a perception of high personal control, the activity earning direct and immediate feedback, with little to no disparity between the level of challenge and ability, all contribute to flow. In relation to learning new skills or knowledge, flow is extremely important. He recognises that for children to want to master something and overcome fear or boredom, as any good teacher already knows, they must experience moments of flow, where challenge matches the level of ability, and regular goals and opportunities for direct feedback are provided (Motivating People to Learn, Edutopia, Oct 2008, MC). I can think of moments like this recently with my French tutor, me desperate to improve my ability and he generally chivvying, congratulating, advancing and reinforcing (thanks Gerard!).

Importantly MC emphasises that older people who consider themselves to be truly successful don't think so because of the amount of money they earn nor are they too worried about the opinions of others. What they report as being key is the internal state of feeling good about themselves, being respected and valued for what they do and having peace of mind. It is above all else, how we live now that determines how satisfying our lives become later on.

The real key to achieving flow, according to MC, is having the ability to direct one's attention, to control and organise it, and ignore distractions whilst pursuing what you enjoy doing. We cannot process very much at all if constantly being distracted by too many goals, objectives or interests. Most important is to do the things that truly matter to you personally, to focus on this and this alone, at the expense of other distractions. Those who cannot do this, live with what MC refers to as "psychic entropy" which means there is too much interference in the mind to allow any one thing to be done well. Flow is the exact opposite of psychic entropy. This is not about doing something grand or important either. MC notes that many of the examples of people in flow are doing fairly mundane or routine work rather than being Professors or esteemed Politicians. It is how this person feels about what they are doing, how much control they have over it and how immersed they are in doing it that matters. Being a Janitor in flow is about viewing this as meaningful and experiencing intrinsic reward more than it is about being recognised by others or being paid well. A highly ambitious individual might not really be that focused on the job at hand, rather more concerned about what the future holds, how much he / she will be paid or what prestige is attached to the job. This person runs the risk of doing this for his / her entire career before being presented with the gold watch and being asked to retire still never having been truly fulfilled (a less obvious example of psychic entropy).

A hopeful message that I take from the idea of living in flow is that it is never too late to experience a "second adolescence" and discover something that gives us this experience. We can change fairly dramatically from being highly competitve to being concerned about others (think of ruthless politicians or business-men becoming philanthropists in their later years), or from being concerned only with financial security to being financially secure doing something that holds meaning as an individual. These things might indeed become more possible once freed from the pressures of providing for a family or repaying financial commitments.

Here are some pertinent questions to ask to explore being in flow:

- when am I unconsciously good at something? (MC reports it takes c.10 years of practice to be able to be in flow for activities such as sport, music or art);

- what is it I really like to do, that I would happily do if it weren't for my obligations?

- who do I know living like this?

- would I happily put in the hours (years) of practice i.e. you feel good when engaged in this activity rather than what rewards the future offers?

- when I am older will I be at peace with having lived like this?

- how do I rate my overall ability to concentrate, block out distractions and pursue a goal single-mindedly?

- what are the main things that distract me from living more purposefully? (MC gives the examples of TV, extrinsic motivators, family, internet, friends, computer games, the media in general)

In an age where we are constantly bombarded with attention-robbing information, hopefully these questions trigger some ideas on achieving more flow, and satisfaction in your life. They certainly have for me, as someone who runs the risk of finding new and interesting projects which distract me from my bigger, more important goals. When I project myself forwards in life, suddenly my choices become much clearer and I am reminded of what I must do more of now (at the expense of these others)!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Excitement Seekers

Last year a couple came to see me who were hooked on excitement but since starting a family were now struggling with all the changes that this had brought to their relationship. The couple, Jenny and Steve (names changed), had enjoyed a liberated sex-life, with risk-taking and spontaneity important to both of them. Of course, this had changed after conceiving their first child, and since then, for the past 2 years, they had seen a steady decline in their sex life as well as intimacy as a couple. For couples with new babies this can be a common observation but not necessary a problem for all. For Jenny and Steve it had become a problem.

At the beginning of therapy, Jenny and Steve showed confusion, resentment and some anger towards each other. The real issues had clearly become mixed up with added misunderstandings and stresses of current everyday life and they did not know where to start to unravel the problem. One of my first tasks was to help them separate the current events from the underlying issues. I explained to Jenny and Steve that if they could resolve the real issue, then much of the current resentment, confusion and anger would dissipate. Also, in practicing truly listening to each other and in dealing with the changes as they arise, they would gain new depths of intimacy together.

As with all expectations about what it is to be a couple, I explored firstly their learned beliefs about what is important to them in a relationship and what important qualities are needed from their partner. These are the beliefs that we hold that are unique to us as individuals and have been learned from our own unique life experiences. Jenny had grown up in a very authoritarian household, with a submissive, stay-at-home mother and overly dominant father. This was something that Jenny despised and had vowed would not happen to her. It would be fair to say that this was one of Jenny's "triggers" for the anxiety she was now experiencing in her own relationship, paralysing her from being able to talk openly about it. Steve had grown up in a religious family, and feared that because his parents were quite sexually repressed, with his father absent and highly critical, that he would be too. Needless to say, their current situation was triggering considerable anxiety for them both, more so than it would for another couple without these triggers.

Exploring their learned fears, we began to challenge their perspective from something along the lines of "we are going to be just like my parents, I can't bear it" to "at times it's ok to be passive, not have sex. If we can talk about it, rather than get anxious about it, then we can create something better together. We are not a sum total of our parents' experiences, rather something different entirely". They also explored what they still loved and appreciated about each other. After this, Steve and Jenny seemed calmer, more connected and at times held hands as they opened up. They were realising that their choices were much wider than either ending up just like their parents or in being the exact opposite. In over-compensating by doing the exact opposite to their parents, couples are still reacting to the past rather than dealing with the present. Finding their own equilibrium point became more possible when their fears were aired and put into the past. Jenny had also been repressing her anger, unknowingly responding in a similar way to her mother. Jenny worked specifically on learning how to deal with anger through not denying her feelings, nor letting them get on top of her either to the point where she would just lose it.

Task 1: - Jenny and Steve, individually in therapy, explored, balanced and reshaped the expectations of their relationship. In order to do this, they put to bed some of the learned fears about passivity, mundane life and a relationship that wasn't 100% sexually-charged. Rather than fearing their current situation, they explored understanding it in the context of everything else happening in their lives.

Task 2: - Jenny and Steve listened to each other's story and fears and confessed that they had never talked about their need for thrill-seeking lovemaking in this context. They also acknowledged the enjoyment they received in lovemaking, touching, kissing and holding, and did not necessarily need the thrill-seeking. In doing so they were taking a wider perspective of their sexuality that gave them meaningful lovemaking and contact through many avenues. If couples have difficulty with this stage, keeping a pleasure diary while going back to the basics of touching, holding, caressing and appreciating can help provide added insight.

Task 3: - reintroduce some spontaneity into the relationship, within the context of now being a family of 3. Jenny in particular craved more spontaneity and so Steve listened to this and found that this was something he could easily do. Hiring a baby-sitter and booking a restaurant, coming home with flowers or just sending a text to tell her he was thinking of her, became things that Steve would happily arrange to give his wife a break, surprise her and give her more one:one attention.

Task 4: - Jenny and Steve practiced "good" anger in therapy and then outside at home. This involved recognising it early and expressing it clearly in terms of how they were feeling. They were able to talk about specific aspects of each other's behaviour that irritated or angered them without judging or condemning the other.

Over the weeks Steve and Jenny discussed accepting and appreciating some of the more mundane aspects of being a family, and creatively found new ways of being spontaneous, loving, physical and exciting. The insecurity and confusion lifted releasing much of the tension, and instead of pent-up resentment, they were talking and listening.

This was a particularly satisfying case as here were two people willing to take on and face their problems, as well as make the changes. Jenny began to see that at times she could be passive and it was OK for Steve to take the lead without it meaning that she was headed down the same road as her mother. Steve could see that both he and Jenny had some differences in their sexuality and just because they were not always connecting sexually, this did not need to mean they would become like his own parents, but that he could let Jenny know how he was feeling rather than panic. They both learned to see their problems in the context of here-and-now and realised how much of their interpretations had been tied up in their own history, which was really no longer relevant.

Having a baby will usually introduce many changes into a couple's life, not just sexually. It can highlight the more hidden, learned fears and unrealistic expectations that as adults we can hold. Through exposing them, Jenny and Steve were able to change how they viewed the "crisis" and move on from it. Jenny and Steve reported that going through such a test had allowed them to now experience an even deeper level of intimacy, growing even closer together as a family as well as a couple. This is lovely to see but even lovelier to experience!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Recognising the dirty tricks that trip you up!

I have just finished loading up a training sample on assertiveness to my LinkedIn page (that's free assertiveness training by the way). Having added a few tips in at the end I have decided to expand on these. Specifically for dealing effectively with what can put us off track when we are doing our level best to be assertive (and effective!). Without being specific, I have been tested many times, where asking for something to be done differently, and experienced the other person try at least some of these. I may even have used some myself in the dim and distant past! It wasn't pleasant, to be sure, but by being prepared and in recognising them as the strategies of more passive or aggressive people, we can rise above them and still achieve something constructive.

So what are the common dirty tricks played by others when we are trying to sort out a problem or just do our jobs?

Here are some of the more common ones:

- nagging (if I have to tell you one more time..)

- exaggerating (you're always / never ..)

- vague answers (this might be possible ..)

- blaming (it's your fault, if you hadn't..)

- unwanted advice (if I were you ..)

- undermining (you don't seem to be able to ..)

- boxing you in (well, what are you doing right now? Oh you're busy, well, in that case come to my place this evening ..)

- put-downs and insults (you're useless, what a loser, a hopeless case..)

The best and only way to handle these dirty tricks is to get really angry.. um no, that's not it! Don't get mad, get even and do the same back!! Not that either unfortunately. No, it's to confront it with logic. Here are some pretty good reality checkers to combat dirty tricks:

• Am I worse than others? (if so how much?)
• Is this the case all of the time? (if not, when?)
• Would most people agree with this? (who would disagree with this?)
• Is there evidence to the contrary? (what about times when ..)

Constantly striving to live up to your own or others' unattainable ideal will only make you feel inadequate, and get in the way of working towards your goals. Real success takes many forms and is never just about excelling at work, nor being the perfect parent, friend or lover. If, as a child, you were regularly criticised at home or at school, you may doubt your value as a human being and hold an exaggerated, overly negative perspective. Women in particular are vulnerable to a negative self-image because of media pressures on them to be perfect: have the perfect weight, perfect skin, perfect hair, career; be the perfect mother, cook, hostess, etc. It can be harder to recognise and deal with dirty tricks when you have been receiving them in one form or another for a long time!

If you recognise some of those dirty tricks as your own, then consider that this is far more an aggressive or passive, rather than assertive, style. It will likely wind up other people rather than build good relationships or get the job done. Kick start learning to think in more balanced ways by using these reality checkers on yourself and the assumptions that you make about others.

Constructive criticism is only useful when it aims to help you, not undermine you. To be constructive, it needs to be specific, rather than commenting about how you are in general. Recognise constructive criticism and use it to grow. Recognise dirty tricks and don't let them trip you up!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Can Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Be Learned?

The words "emotional" and "leader" together in the same breath could conjur up some pretty negative images, mostly because the word emotional is often used to describe someone overly emotional, and at least slightly out of control. The truth is that we all possess a range of emotions and knowing how these feel, what some of our triggers are for some of the less desirable ones, and being able to show appropriate emotion are all the attributes required of great leaders. This blog explores whether Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be learned or is it more an inate skill? Also, what sort of qualifications should we look for when wanting to hire a professional to assist in developing our EI?

Working With Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman Ph.D, visiting Harvard lecturer, author, pyschologist and science journalist, has written extensively on the subject of EI starting in 1995 with his book, aptly entitled "Emotional Intelligence". He argues that emotional maturity is a more important factor than IQ for determining workplace success, ("Working with Emotional Intelligence", 1998). Goleman draws heavily on the landmark work of Salovey and Meyer, psychologists who previously defined EI as: “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (1990, p.189). Goleman is one in a long line of thinkers and writers who have proposed that we must first be able to empathise with others in order to help them and lead them. As early as around 300BC , Sun T'zu (if he existed) wrote in "The Art of War" that victory starts with empathy.

Inate EI?
Goleman's most recent best-seller is "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships" (2006). Goleman explores a person's individual attachment style, shaped as an infant, this having a critical impact on EI abilities in adulthood. Attachment styles are due in part to individual temperament and also largely shaped by social and parental influences in infancy and early childhood. "Our childhood leaves its stamp on our adult ardor nowhere more clearly than in our "attachment system" ... As we have seen, children who are well nurtured and feel their caretakers empathize with them become secure in their attachments, neither overly clingy nor pushing away. But those whose parents neglect their feelings and who feel ignored become avoidant, as though they have given up hope of achieving a caring connection. And children whose parents are ambivalent, unpredictably flipping from rage to tenderness, become anxious and insecure." So these attachment styles of anxious, secure and avoidant usually follow us into adulthood and impact upon our ability to be emotionally intelligent. The "secure" attachment style (centered and grounded) is the more effective of the three when it comes to EI. The two extremes of clinginess (anxious) and aloofness (avoidant), are large hurdles for some to overcome and in extreme cases, will likely not be overcome. The secure attachment style allows enjoyment of both intimacy and solitude. The anxious person as an adult might continue to be overly dependent upon others, try too hard to please others and not cope well alone; or even overcompensate by showing traits of arrogance and narcissism; while the avoidant person is unable to fully experience intimacy; has difficulty with empathy; does not allow others to get close; is probably much more of a loner; and does not demonstrate high levels of emotion, even where warranted. The secure person embraces both intimacy and solitude because he/she has little investment in self-protection or mistrust. Authentic emotional expression is fundamentally important to being a good leader; without the mixed messages that come from someone overly people-pleasing or emotionally redundant. In other words, when those around us see us over or under-reacting emotionally, they do not feel the same level of trust in our abilities to lead, and probably rightly so. It is clear then that those with an inate secure foundation, are more equipped for EI than others.

Security and Social Awareness
"Social awareness" is a key skill of the emotionally intelligent and encompasses abilities such as being a good judge of people, having developed an emotional literacy, generally holding a positive regard towards others and possessing a healthy "trust radius". These are fairly esoteric criteria and also internally determined to each and every one of us. Clearly if someone is preoccupied with protecting himself from the evil intentions of others then he will not be predisposed to being highly socially aware. The same applies to someone with a strong dependency upon others for self-worth. "For leadership positions, emotional intelligence abilities account for up to 85% of what sets outstanding managers apart from the average” – Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998).

EI Assessments and Development
It is with this in mind that various EI assessment tools have been developed in order to determine the areas of improvement for our leaders; given very few people in the world are perfectly secure! These tools are available for pretty much anyone to administer, once undergoing a few days of EI training, usually under the broad label of "coaching". Of much more importance than administering the test and getting the EI result however is what can be done once the tests have been administered. Is this an area that will respond well to some training, coaching or is something altogether deeper and more psychotherapeutic needed?

Craig (identity changed) is a high ranking director working in an extremely dynamic and competitive industry in the city of London. Craig approached me on Harley St to work with him privately to achieve improved EI. He was finding that all his appraisals were coming back with the same feedback - Craig delivers extremely well on his deadlines and organisational objectives but his soft skills are below average. He is liked by his superiors but not by many of his subordinates. The area that most people would like Craig to improve on is being less arrogant and more empathic. During our first session together, Craig admitted that he found this feedback overwhelming. This is usually the case when feedback is about something that is fundamental to the person. How could he possibly adjust these habits of a lifetime, particularly when most of his reactions were unconscious, automatic and seemed to get the job done? This is a valid concern and if left unaddressed, the individual is caught between wanting to deliver against objectives and wanting to please others, resulting in neither being done, with stress mounting for the person in question. Craig needed safe ways to test letting go of some of his more competitive traits in order to rehearse more empathic ones, and so a plan was put in place for him to begin to gather new evidence to support new ways of behaving. Upon deeper exploration with Craig, we also uncovered that Craig was "predisposed" to being competitive, having been encouraged to do so from a very early age, beginning with competing to be heard in an extremely noisy household! Under the bold exterior, Craig also experienced high levels of anxiety and insecurity about himself in relation to others. He could attribute this to various factors such as growing up feeling like a square peg in a round hole at school, with parents who were themselves frequently shouting and stressed, and generally not receiving sufficient attention other than when achieving remarkable results.

In examining Craig's main complaint against him, that of being too arrogant, an underlying fear of incompetence emerged. This fear was something that drove Craig to excellence in almost everything he did. Again, this was one of the reasons that Craig had been promoted so quickly and was viewed as a bright, young star. He agreed that this was a main "pro" to him holding on to this fear. It was important however that we unearthed the "cons" of this fear and in doing so, it brought to light the fact that Craig's personal relationships as well as those with subordinates who relied upon Craig for guidance and knowledge generally suffered. He admitted to being more intent on achieving than listening, on teaching others how to do things his way rather than attempting to understand others' points of view (frequently putting other people's backs up!) as well as not being sufficiently tolerant with those less experienced than he. At worst, when Craig's fear of incompetence was fully activated, Craig found it extremely difficult to control his temper and unsurprisingly this really worked against him, both at home and at work. Craig and I worked on modifying his existing beliefs about what he needed to do to be truly successful, and not just in work. In order for these to become automatic, he needed to rehearse them in session, role-playing situations in order to then go out and practice them, and to receive fair and helpful feedback from those around him who support him. His underlying feelings of anxiety and insecurity reduced through balancing his views of what would make him a great boss as well as a husband and father; and importantly, practicing a set of relaxation and stress management techniques helped address when he was likely vulnerable to triggers. In working with hypnotherapy Craig modified his mental image - to that of someone more mature and empathic rather than arrogant and anxious, strengthening the links between positive outcomes and the traits of EI being rehearsed.

Having used these tools and worked with some fairly high-profile individuals with these sort of challenges, my opinion is that it is not an area that one should be expecting a coach with fairly limited psychological training to assist with, as areas such as the client's learned expectations about him/herself in relation to others; his/her abilities to trust others; and automatic, learned responses, particularly when under stress, need to be adapted. This requires a coach with a breadth of training and experience in psychotherapeutic methods as well as simply holding a coaching certificate and EI assessment certification. Exploring someone's inner world, their belief system and also modifying behaviours - perhaps overly passive or overly aggressive - which have in fact served the individual very well, are not changes to be attempted lightly nor can they be worked on superficially.

What Are The Qualifications Needed to Coach EI?
Modifying the areas of a person relating to their self-worth, attachment style and ability to trust and then rebuilding them in a way that does not threaten the individual's hard won successes; will not likely be achieved in just a few sessions, nor with a coach trained in applying goal theory (the standard coaching cetification which teaches coaches to hold the view that one must identify the goals and coach a client in accordance with them, in order to motivate the client to learn new skills) and a bit of NLP (neurolinguistic programming, a poorly validated and misused collection of behavioural techniques that make some quite extravagant claims to deliver swift behavioural modification). EI is a term to cover a variety of skills deriving from very fundamental beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world as we have learned it to be, from our earliest moments onwards: it is not just about developing emotional self-control, nor in learning more about the skills of motivating and managing others. For a highly successful leader wishing to further develop their EI skills, psychotherapeutic experience in the EI Coach is essential, in my opinion. The case study of Craig sounds pretty straightforward but it is precisely the steps highlighted there that are the most problematic for a coach with insufficient training and experience: what are the predisposing factors to the problems being demonstrated - and how entrenched are they?; how can risk be managed in adapting some of the maladaptive behaviours that have served the individual very well, in the organisation that they operate?; what is a realistic improvement for this individual?; and even more importantly, how can tolerance to trial and error learning be improved, usually in someone used to learning new things and getting results extremely quickly? The skills required of a coach with this calibre of leader are complex, psychotherapeutic but also requiring strong organisational experience, particularly in appreciating the influence of the organisation and group on the individual. My advise to any leader seeking EI coaching is to avoid coaches who do not have an organisational development background coupled with formal training and experience in psychotherapy. Specifically find a coach trained in administering EI assessments and also Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the most effective therapy for linking behaviour with emotional development. Without this blend of experience in handling the organisational influences as well as changing the individual ones, coaching could be highly damaging to a leader's chances of survival and improvement, particularly in the complicated environment that he or she likely exists.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Heading off Crisis At The Pass

Let's face it, relationships can be problematic at least some of the time. Sometimes other people's motivations and intentions are not clear and at other times, our own problems or motivations can cloud our abilities to come to the right conclusions. As I probably say in every other blog, it's useful to remember that it is impossible to expect that relationships be problem-free. In fact, problems and differences are healthy - less healthy is where these are ignored. That's when they grow extra heads, arms and legs! Here are my top 10 tips for reducing conflict, either at home or work.

A common path to conflict looks something like this (from low conflict to high conflict):

Discomfort - Incident - Misunderstandings - Tension - Crisis

Discomfort: This niggles more than shows up overtly. Things just don't feel right; it isn't necessarily that anything has been said, but there is a less safety or security felt on either or both sides. Think of a situation you have been in which escalated into a crisis or fall-out. It's likely that in hindsight you had picked up on this at a much earlier stage. Often people will say things like, "my instincts were telling me that this would happen"; "I've seen this coming for a while"; and so on.

Incident: An unsettling exchange occurs, without much real problem solving. This is sometimes just bickering but at times it suggests that bigger problems are being left unresolved. The incident can often be a sign that there is more to this than just this isolated incident. A throw away remark about one-half not doing the dishes with a return volley that this is just nagging is an example of my own that comes to mind! In the workplace it could be about just about anything, time-keeping, the way in which reports are written, how people interact in meetings, how emails are handled as a form of communication, and so on.

Misunderstandings: Motives and facts become confused or misinterpreted. Intentions are interpreted without checking that this is the case. There is little checking of what was heard versus what was intended. Take the bickering couple for example; rather than asking how the other feels (a stressful day contributing to dishes not being done? tiredness contributing to getting snappy at not having the dishes done?) each heads off to their separate corner to stew with the misinterpretation that clearly he/she doesn't respect me; listen to me; care about me - if they did, they would surely listen!

Tension: The relationship is becoming entangled with negative attitudes and more black:white opinions. Is the relationship becoming a regular source of worry or concern? Is the bickering increasing and even less problem-solving about what could be done about it?

Crisis: The relationship is buckling under the strain of misunderstandings and little to no cooperative problem solving. Are you dealing with a major event like a possible rupture in a relationship; leaving a job; violence or destructive acts?

So here are my top 10 tips for heading off crisis at the pass:

1. Address Conflict Early
The best time to fix problems is at the earliest stage. In times of crisis, positions have likely become very entrenched and people involved less disposed to feeling kindly to the other party. Becoming aware of conflict at the earlier stages of discomfort and minor incidents is a useful skill, and this involves recognising early how you are feeling. Feeling irritated at being told what to do but continuing to allow someone to talk to you in a way you dislike will not alleviate your irritation and likely polarise your positions even more.

2. Question Your Interpretations
If feelings of discomfort, irritation or upset are there, try to focus on them and figure out what intentions you are interpreting with the other person. Are these completely true and fact? Because you feel irritation is it true that this person is trying to annoy you? Would other people interpret them in the same way? What other factors personal to you are contributing to your interpretation? Separating another's behaviour from intention is a very important skill in managing conflict and reducing the likelihood of conflict. We can only read what we see, not necessarily what the other person(s) intend. Having empathy for another can be difficult when in a crisis but it is fundamentally important if the relationship is to be rescued.

3. Focus on Needs
Usually conflict arises where needs are not being met. These might be about money, or territory, or internal drives such as independence, autonomy, status, respect or self-esteem. Think about international conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Palestine or Iraq - they likely cover all of them. Aggression does nothing to address needs and usually just inflames them. Remember that offering solutions is not the same as uncovering needs and needs are usually not immediately apparent, otherwise the conflict or disagreement would not be happening. When asked what they need, some people reply with solutions that they think are needs, such as "I need him to ring me when he's going to be late”. The need is to know he is safe. There can be a variety of ways to meet that need. Phoning in when late is only one.

4. Keep it simple
If the need is quite complex, about "lifestyle" for example, then break it down in to smaller, more specific parts. This can be done by asking the person what this comprises; what are the most important parts that are not being addressed (prioritising); what it would mean to the person if they were met; how these parts can be met - what does that look like to the person?

5. Identify Common Ground
Disagreements and conflict can be overwhelming and suddenly it can appear as though nothing is working! Reminding each other of the things that are working well is crucial. In a crisis situation such as Palestine, some of you might be thinking "how on earth could that be possible?". Well, a creative Mediator would be equipped with some times where both sides have agreed to a cease-fire; where agreements have been made, even if adhered to only for a short-while; and importantly, where needs and concerns are common to both sides. These are the building blocks for conciliation and ultimately peace. If the examples really are too inadequate, then this can be part of the creative process - brainstorming around "what might common issues be?"; "how would you both like situation x to have been handled differently?"; "you both dislike the threat to your national security and trade"; etc. No matter how complex a crisis situation has become, there is always an opportunity for establishing some common ground.

6. Identify Consequences
If either or both parties are unwilling to find solutions once needs are on the table, painting the picture of what the future looks like will help focus each on finding new ways of thinking and behaving. Highlight the costs of not resolving this.

7. Wave a Magic Wand
If needs are still not clear, asking the question "if I could wave a magic wand, what would improve this for you" might do the trick in identifying more internal needs, such as respect or security.

8. New Perspectives, Assumptions and Insights
What hadn't been considered before? What now seems clearer? Rather than labelling the other as a bigheaded, MCP, might it be now something entirely different - a tired, confused and unintentionally annoying partner - a bit like you?! Accepting a broader perspective will diffuse tension and head off a crisis.

9. Dealing with Deeper Needs
Is there reluctance to express exactly what the less apparent needs are? In cases where someone has a hidden agenda, it might not always be possible to find a solution. If one party is not willing to share then a solution will not necessarily be found. Problems cannot always be solved in the first instance. Remember the other person might be getting more out of having the problem than in solving it e.g. having a high investment in being right; having the final say; taking the credit; financial gain in the form of performance bonuses; fearing making a commitment; etc. Consider ''stepping back'' emotionally, or even physically distancing yourself to more clearly see the part of the problem that belongs to the other person.Work towards your own resolution, knowing that you have done all that you can. This often involves some practical steps to be taken so consider what these are and how best you can prioritise them.

10. Respond not React
Remain centered and manage your emotions. Let some accusations, attacks, threats or ultimatums pass. Make it possible for the other party to back down without feeling small by reinforcing changed circumstances, making their change in position possible. This is particularly useful with teenagers where it is less likely that they have yet mastered this skill!

If you find that the crisis has gone too far, independent counselling and mediation provide a valuable, impartial resource. Find someone accredited as a mediator or counsellor and engage the other side in choosing this path. If there are already recurring incidences, do not wait.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reducing Stress At Work

A few days ago the press sadly ran the story of the 24th suicide, in 18 months, of a France Telecom worker; this being a 51 year old father of 2 who leapt to his death from a motorway overpass after leaving a note blaming “the atmosphere at work". In accordance with France Telecom's 3 year on-the-move programme, he had been moved to a different region and to work in a Call Centre renowned for high stress. Another possible contributing factor was that France Telecom had laid off 22,000 staff from 2006 - 2008 with many employees left feeling threatened. In being moved every 3 years, crucially there is less support available from colleagues or friends - regular moving simply alienates people, particularly during vulnerable times. The number of suicides at France Telecom, and in such a short space of time, is truly frightening and a serious indicator of how stress is able to distort someone's sense of self-worth and ability to reason rationally. To note, France Telecom suspended their 3-year move programme on the 29th September of this year.

Our own workplaces in the UK are prone to stress, hopefully protected more than France Telecom's however, thanks to the UK Government's HSE Stress Management Standard and tools to help employers and employees work together to prevent excessive work-related stress (launched on 3rd November 2004).

The HSE defines stress as, 'An adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them' and says "Given an excess of pressure, stress can therefore happen to anyone, and should not be seen as a weakness. Instead, an individual needs to be helped to deal with these pressures." (Making the Stress Management Standards work: How to apply the Standards in your workplace, HSE). So what should employers do and how readily has there been uptake?

It entails an employer assessing roles for potential of stress - for example there is higher stress when working in a call centre versus working in a more autonomous role. It also requires employers assessing employees for vulnerability to stress. The HSE has developed an assessment tool which employers can use to assess the workplace for potential to stress. It is a 6-factor assessment, covering the primary stressors in the workplace, likely to adversely affect most people, as follows:

1. Demands - this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.

2. Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

3. Support - this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

4. Relationships - this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

5. Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.

6. Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

This is now accompanied by updated recommendations for management competencies to be assessed and improved in order to better manage the people who work for them, even if the environment is highly stressful. This requires employers and particularly HR professionals building a system for not only developing the skills amongst line managers; but also demonstrating that these skills have been evaluated and corrective actions taken or improvements made accordingly. Also, employers or HR departments must adequately possess these skills to begin with, before they can then pass them on or assess them in others. (This becomes even more challenging where the organisation has outsourced their HR function.)

The skills required of managers for managing stress are considered to be the skills that makes any manager competent (i.e. they are one and the same). These are skills that I have promoted and trained many in and I have to say, I am a more than a little pleased that this is being validated as invaluable for better management of stress, particularly at a time like now, where it is estimated that 1 in 6 employees on long-term absenteeism are suffering from chronic stress. Here is a summary of the competencies being outlined by the HSE, devised in collaboration with organisational psychologists for managers to show competence in:

1. Respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity; having a considerate approach - must not be unpredictable in mood; pass on stress to employees; panic about deadlines; create unrealistic deadlines; give more negative than positive feedback; nor take suggestions about improvements as a personal attack.

2. Managing and communicating existing and future work - deals rationally with problems; deals with problems as soon as they arise; has a participative and delegating style - must not give too little direction to employees; be indecisive in making decisions.

3. Reasoning/managing difficult situations - acts as mediator in conflict situations; deals with squabbles before they become arguments - must not try to keep the peace rather than resolve issues; must not avoid addressing bullying.

4. Managing the individual within the team - speaks personally rather than uses email; is empathetic and sociable - must not simply assume rather than checking that employees are okay.

Empathy is fairly problematic for a stressed out manager however. Consider the definitions provided by the HSE:
  • encourages employee input in discussions
  • listens when employees ask for help
  • makes an effort to find out what motivates employees at work
  • tries to see team member’s point of view
  • takes an interest in team’s life outside work
  • regularly asks ‘how are you?’
  • treats all team members with equal importance
My colleagues and I are trained to assess the individual as well as the organisation, to provide an assessment in line with the HSE Management Standard, as well as providing the training and coaching some managers require in areas such as mediation skills and the soft skills such as listening, empathy and emotional self-control and stress reduction. Additionally, a wealth of information can be found at

Monday, 21 September 2009

Laying the foundations for healthy relationships

Last week I wrote about one aspect of building healthy attachment in a new infant, the way in which parents respond to the individual needs of their children, at the earliest stage, when they cry.

This week I explore further how healthy adult relationships can depend upon the attachment built early on as a child with the parents. Relationship patterns that follow people throughout life are claimed by many psychologists to be established largely between the ages of 0 - 18 months. Of interest to this blog is how early attachment then defines our abilities to build relationships and assess "reality" when encountering differences with others (thus the amount of conflict one experiences in one's own emotional life), in later life. It is generally accepted that early experiences with caregivers gradually give rise to a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and behaviours about the self and about others, including what one should expect of love and intimacy from others. This system is called the "internal working model of social relationships", and continues to develop with time and experience. It enables the child to a greater or lesser extent handle new and different types of social interactions as it develops through adolescence and into adulthood. An adult's internal working model continues to develop and to help cope with friendships, marriage, and parenthood, all of which involve different behaviours and feelings. This is also the reason that different styles of relationships work for different people, rather than there simply being one blueprint for all. Some couples need and give more space than others; why one wife is happiest when her husband is around all the time, whereas another prefers to have time apart as well as time together, for example.

The main claim of Attachment Theory is that a young child needs a secure relationship to at least one primary adult caregiver for normal social and emotional development to take place. Indeed, significant separation from a familiar caregiver, or frequent changes of caregiver in a young infant, may result in psychopathology at some point in later life. Much has been written about attachment, including how an infant learns expectations and styles of attachment, from the earliest responses to its cries (at 0 - 2 months); to discriminating amongst various possible caregivers (from 6 months - 2 to 3 years, this being described by psychologists as the "critical period"). The theory originated from psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and has been developed further since. The key word for healthy attachment is secure. Feeling secure however is not a one-size-fits-all, with some infants appearing to be more temperamentally secure than others. The claim cannot be nature over nurture (that we are genetically predisposed, our temperaments are all set at birth and that is that), nor nurture over nature (that our environment, parents etc. will be totally responsible, disregarding individual temperament, more complex family systems, genetics, etc.), rather that the outcome for any individual is a more complicated blend of both.

There are however some parental givens in encouraging healthy attachment in one's infant, and these are defined quite clearly within Attachment Theory. Developmental Psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, introduced the concept of the "secure base" and developed a theory of how attachment patterns are developed in infants, through interaction between them and their primary caregiver (usually their mother), attachments defined as follows:

1. Secure attachment
2. Avoidant attachment
3. Anxious attachment
4. Disorganised attachment

She and her colleagues developed the "Strange Situation Procedure" in the 1960s, which is a widely used, well researched (tested in Scotland and Canada) and is a validated method of assessing an infant's pattern and style of attachment to a caregiver. This is administered as follows:

1. Parent and infant are introduced to the experimental room.
2. Parent and infant are alone. Parent does not participate while infant explores.
3. Stranger enters, converses with parent, then approaches infant. Parent leaves inconspicuously.
4. First separation episode: Stranger's behaviour is geared to that of infant.
5. First reunion episode: Parent greets and comforts infant, then leaves again.
6. Second separation episode: Infant is alone.
7. Continuation of second separation episode: Stranger enters and gears behavior to that of infant.
8. Second reunion episode: Parent enters, greets infant, and picks up infant; stranger leaves inconspicuously.

Two important aspects of the child's behaviour are observed:

1. The amount of exploration (e.g. playing with new toys) the child engages in throughout.
2. The child's reactions to the departure and return of its caregiver.

On the basis of their behaviours, the children are categorised into the four groups, listed above.

Our ability to hold mature, intimate and loving relationships depends largely upon our internal working model of social relationships, how evolved it is, and how capable we are of further evolution emotionally and cognitively. The optimistic view (and mine) is that we continue to evolve cognitively and emotionally as adults. There are some provisos of course, such as a need to be self-aware of some of the flaws in one's existing internal working model of social relationships. With someone experiencing a full-blown psychopathology, this self-awareness is extremely difficult to elicit, as perceptions have become fractured and dissociated. For most people however, learning to have even more fulfilling relationships includes having the ability to learn about one's own internal model. Here are some key questions to explore with yourself, keeping in mind the overall question "would someone else agree with my perceptions"?

1. What beliefs do I hold about my likelihood to be loved and to give love in return?
2. Are my expectations of others too low or too high (note: expectations could be high for some yet not others, e.g. high for work colleagues, yet too low for family members; etc.)?
3. How do I sense-check my perceptions, needs and expectations?
4. How do I recognise where I am being emotionally triggered by past events rather than the realities of the present e.g. my emotional reaction is likely to be considered by most others as inappropriate or out of proportion for the given situation (usually a triggering event, upsetting more to me than others)?

So what if there are some learned automatic responses such as insufficient reaction (lack of affect), distorted perceptions (misinterpretations) or over-reactions that need to change? If this is the case, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), cognitive behaviour analysis, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and hypnotherapy are effective approaches to consider. They provide the pathways, or bridges to new, more adaptive internal models through providing opportunities for social learning, bringing more adaptive ways of responding and thinking. As with learning any new skill however, this involves being out of one's comfort zone, feeling uncomfortable, experiencing a higher level of uncertainty, accepting that with learning comes error and mistakes, and all of this can be incredibly hard for some who has developed disorganised, anxious or avoidant attachment styles. If you suspect you have or your partner has any of these attachment styles, my guidance is to find a therapist that you can trust, who can give you professional insight into your internal working model of relationships and also offer you the bridges to learning and experiencing new and more fulfilling intimate relationships. Many people can see in later life, years of wasted experiences that have repeated the same pattern time and time again, even with very different people. Changing or even avoiding partners will not change the patterns unfortunately.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Why do I get so stressed out on holiday?

When I'm writing this little blog I'm usually feeling calm, analytic and have my therapists hat firmly on, so it's easy to write about how to manage one's emotions, how to improve relationships and be a happier person. However, in my more tired and stressed-out moments I am reminded very quickly that I still have the ability to become a little obsessed about, and more than a little irritated by, "the small stuff". For me, this is never more in evidence than when I am on holiday. Like a lot of other people, my holidays are when my relationship is most vulnerable to disagreement and discord. This might seem a little contradictory, admitting this as someone who advocates the merits of taking a break, however, it has to be said that one woman's meat is another woman's poison! My idea of a break, and my partner's for example, are somewhat different. While he loves to do nothing more than to lie by the side of the pool under a baking sun, dipping in and out of the pool from time to time, I am lurking in the shade fidgeting, reading, writing or thinking (a little obsessionally I am going to admit) about what I am going to do with this down-time.

As a child, I grew up as a dancer from the age of 3 onwards and I suspect my perfectionist tendencies were molded there, ballet being notorious for shaping this kind of thinking. During any long spells of time spent at home, I'd mooch around, offering my long-suffering family large dollops of bad humour interspersed with bouts of introspection, dancing in my mind and in my bedroom. As a developing adolescent I realised that this propensity towards bad humour when inactive would have to be channelled towards doing something physical and thus I became very sporty as well as becoming moderately successful in my academic and then my professional life. I was, I reasoned, channelling my energy in to some very productive habits. In my twenties I found myself working extremely hard, studying and keeping myself in good shape with quite a disciplined regime going. By the time I hit my late twenties, I realised that I was quite bored with this, with not much to remind me that there was a bigger world out there. For a time, I gave up work, travelled, examined my own values, learned another language, took some vocational studies and generally became more relaxed through broadening my own horizons rather than just "keeping busy".

As someone who now openly acknowledges her perfectionist tendencies, I can see that my idea of being more relaxed is not necessarily my partner's! Throughout my adult life I've shared holidays with friends and family that have nearly driven me to despair through boredom of doing what many consider to be the perfect break of lying on a beach or by a pool. I usually curb this by seeking out something that I can become gainfully occupied in learning, doing or creating. During the past holidays this has manifested itself in taking sailing lessons, salsa lessons, Spanish lessons, touring nearby historic sites and so on.

With my partner, he shares his holiday between doing what he loves and doing things that we can love doing together. We are happy sailing together, we are in sunshine, on the water and whipping up a bit of speed! I have realised that I don't particularly enjoy strong sunshine and that I do not get my kick from baking to a crisp on dry land! Thankfully as a couple, we are able to find plenty of commonalities even if on a holiday that isn't my first preference. I am also able to pre-empt discord by knowing why I am feeling this way and how I can accept the down-time (my biggest challenge).

Now that I'm in my forties, I'm aware that the sort of holiday that most advertising gurus encourage us to dream of (the deserted sandy beach being fanned by palm fronds, facing an azure blue lagoon of ocean, with a limitless supply of cocktails waiting in reserve) could be guaranteed boredom for me. It will surely activate my perfectionist tendencies and before I know it I will be in the grip of one of my darker moods. As a therapist used to working with others seeking to modify their own perfectionist tendencies, I know that this is not so strange nor uncommon. We often hear about high achieving business people, academics or celebrities who do not switch off while vacationing; who do not interact particularly well with their families on holiday; and are generally happiest when busy or achieving. The upside is that for this type of person achieving feels better than relaxing, the downside is that personal relationships can be ignored and worse still damaged.

It's therefore not too hard to understand when I have a totally stressed-out client who is adamant that going on a holiday or simply taking a longer break from work will not help, in fact it could make them worse. Some might say that there is the potential for some collusion of the therapist in the client's problem. Well, yes there is, although my experience is that as someone who has struggled with this, I can also empathise; having had to work on this myself, I can help others to become aware of the less conscious thinking that is the more likely source of stress; as well as develop the potential areas for shared enjoyment with their family or partner.

My point this week is that it is not any given situation that stresses us out, or relaxes us for that matter, but rather the view that as individuals we take of it. If you and your partner share an opinion on what makes a fantastic holiday then this is great news for ensuring you have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, as I have experienced from time-to-time in my own life, if not, then it can become a recipe for disagreement and further stress. For my part, I have stopped feeling as though there is something wrong with me that I cannot bear to spend more than an hour lying on even a beautiful caribbean beach. I have been known to hate beaches, to loathe the intense heat of lying under the midday sun and I admit that I get a little mean when having someone else's holiday for too long. At times I realise that the disagreeable child my family knew and loved so well lives on! What I have managed to get to grips with however is that thankfully I really can choose to have a holiday that might be some people's idea of hard work, but is my idea of utter bliss! Being happy as a couple needn't be doing the same things on holiday. In fact, for couples like myself and my partner, the answer is often is to find out what we can share and enjoy together and to accept the things that we cannot.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Finding safety in the face of fear

Harry reappeared for counselling, having seen me for developing his coping skills while going through a painful divorce a number years ago. Unfortunately, he had been finding himself faced with very similar problems in his new relationship. On one level he was conscious that this was a pattern which had prevailed long before he met this woman, however during our first session together he was too preoccupied with blaming this woman for the flaws and defects that he felt were too important to ignore, yet he could not leave nor seem to resolve them. He also reported that he could not "bear" the feeling of being out of control that being in a relationship brings. Harry's dilemma was that in order to become a father, he needed to decide whether to stay and commit or to leave and find someone he felt more compatible with.

Vanessa, another client, had been married three times; she insisted that she continued to believe in the benefits of marriage but could not bear the experience of being "controlled" once in the marriage. Her problems in relationships she noted, appeared in a similar pattern, time after time.

What becomes apparent for such people is that their fear of being controlled in relationships (and of losing control) have come to dominate their life choices; and as with most powerful fears, what we focus on will unfortunately come to pass. If we focus on our hearts' desires and life goals, we can achieve something pretty close. If however, we focus on the things that we fear or really do not wish to happen, then unfortunately these will come to pass. As the ancient chinese proverbe says, "the dog that barks loudest is the one that gets fed". If our fears are louder than our hearts' desires then our goals and dreams become lost over time, as we "feed" the fear.

For Vanessa and Harry, because of their fear of being controlled, they have become hyper-sensitive to it, continually scanning the relationship for problems, over-reacting to the signs of any, and over-compensating by becoming both overly controlling themselves and then letting go completely. Sadly, this creates an ideal environment for a controlling pattern to grow. In highly controlling relationships, the major problem is a fluctuation between too much and too little control, creating erratic swings in decision-making and moods. Additionally, because they value independence and a high locus of control, they likely gravitate towards partners with similar preferences or problems. Pop psychology articles might refer to these individuals as "commitment-phobic", however this label is extremely unhelpful in helping these individuals sustain a mature, loving relationship.

Finding Safety
Cognitive Therapists will work with their clients to identify their "safety behaviours" during the diagnostic phase of therapy. This is because clients experiencing undesirable patterns in their relationships have likely developed some maladaptive safety behaviours. In order to break the undesirable cycle in the relationship, so must these safety behaviours be identified and broken, as these maintain the problem. During therapy, the safety behaviours for Harry and Vanessa to work on adapting were as follows:

1. Serial withdrawal: breaking up and making up was a regular occurrence; as was threatening to split in order to get their partner to "back off" or to change their behaviour;

2. Keeping the escape exit clear - for Harry this meant refusing to be in a relationship where having children or making a bigger commitment were on the agenda; for Vanessa this entailed her keeping her social life completely separate from her partner;

3. Being hyper-vigilant to the early warning signs of losing control; fighting to regain control.

These 3 safety behaviours are good examples of what someone "commitment phobic" might do. Another very common one is to pick a partner who themself cannot become an intimate partner or make demands of true intimacy. In order to "protect" themselves from their fears, Harry and Vanessa were responding in a way that meant a mature, loving and adaptive relationship was untenable. What they both agreed to do was develop new and healthier ways of responding to their fears and the real problems experienced in their relationships. This involved both of them being able to take each situation on its own merits, solve problems early rather than allowing them to fester; to negotiate the differences rather than withdraw or fight; to reduce their tendencies to over-compensate to the point where control became the issue once more (i.e. fluctuating between abdicating control and then grabbing it back).

For this fear to dissipate, focus was also shifted towards Harry's and Vanessa's most positive desires, their life goals and their achievements. For Harry, this was becoming a father and for Vanessa, this was experiencing the happiness in her third marriage that she felt had been lost after the early years.

Exercises were introduced for increasing their tolerance to giving up some of the control in the relationship and in trusting their partner. They learned with their partners to become alert to the early warning signs and found ways to better communicate how they were feeling rather than becoming emotional and ineffective. Harry realised that he was remaining in an unsatisfactory relationship simply because it permitted him to have more control. Having control is important in life, having too much control is like tightening the sail on your sailboat to the extent that you are no longer moving. Releasing their sail and learning better navigational skills allowed movement towards their goals, for both Harry and Vanessa.

As illustrated in this short blog, moving towards healthier, happier relationships might involve breaking unhelpful "safety behaviours" and learning the more adaptive skills which allow a loving and intimate relationship to flourish. I am pleased to say that Vanessa is now much happier in her third marriage and Harry finding a woman he is more compatible with, with whom he is now the proud father of 2 beautiful girls. If you find you are responding more to the things you do not want in life rather than the things that you do want, think about how you are protecting yourself. How could you otherwise solve the problems; what is the evidence supporting the problem - what is the evidence to the contrary (develop your balanced thinking); what is the impact of your protective responses on others close to you? Bringing back your focus onto the things that you dream about; the things that you want in this life will increase your chances of realising them; focusing on your fears will unfortunately smother them.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Impact of Emotional Role Models

As a child, you probably learned patterns from others by watching how they dealt with their emotions, expressing them or denying them, or even being overly reactive themselves. These people were most likely your parents or other care-givers.

Making a list of the major emotional role models from your family, or from your childhood and adolescence can help give insight into your preferred emotional reactions and preferred style now. Begin by listing your parents, guardians, uncles, aunts, siblings, grandparents, carers, teachers, clergy, etc.

My emotional role models were:





Now, comprise your list below of the top 3 people that you think were the most influential in your life. If your list is shorter than this, then work with that. In the space provided below each person’s name, list their dominant emotional style (their general emotional trait), then write a brief summary about how you remember these people. Think through if you remember them as angry, peaceful, balanced, imbalanced, depressed, anxious, etc. Finally, summarise what you think you may have learned from each of these individuals. How did you learn to manage your emotions? How easily do you recognise your emotions? Did you learn emotional balance? Did you learn to take your emotions seriously? Did you learn to be out of control or chronically angry; or how to judge others for displaying their emotions? And so on. Remember that if this person is someone you decided that you did not wish to emulate, have you over-compensated in the opposite direction e.g. if they were argumentative, have you become conflict-avoidant or vice versa?

You may include in this summary your opinion about whether these models and their lessons have been effective or detrimental to you.

Emotional role model #1:

Emotional style:

What I learned from this person:

Emotional role model #2:

Emotional style:

What I learned from this person:

Emotional role model #3:

Emotional style:

What I learned from this person:

After doing this exercise, can you think of any emotional reactions that you would like to modify or even let go? If so, list the pros and cons of this emotional reaction (the pros might be that it has become a familiar friend to you - a habit; or that it gets you the desired attention from others; you might feel good in the short-term but not so good in the longer-term; etc.).

Looking at the list of cons, write down possible alternative ways of responding that will give you more positive and sustainable outcomes. Giving consideration to the effects of your reactions on those you love or work with will help you decide how to modify these reactions. Give equal attention to those which are not visibly reactive such as simply witholding approval or communication; remaining quiet in the face of someone's bullying (avoidant); being overly-compliant (people pleasing). These are passive but will not be as productive for you in ensuring you are treated fairly. Make sure that you list all the emotional reactions that you have which are productive and are helpful in sustaining the healthy relationships that you have.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Making changes in how you relate

I have recently been dipping into my Relate's guide to better relationships. Although no longer in print it is full of useful little exercises to discover what's going on in your close relationships.

Here's one to try.

Recognising Patterns

Divide a piece of A4 paper in two. On the top half draw circles to represent yourself, members of your family and friends who are important to you. Make the circles any size you want. Put the initials or name of each person in the circles and place them as near or as far away from you as you feel they are. Consider their relation to each other. Put up to five pluses and minuses in each circle to show how supportive each person is to you (someone who is physically far away can still be very supportive).

Use the diagram to focus on the way you life is presently and how rewarding your current relationships are. Do you like this pattern? Is there anything you would like to change? Use the bottom half of the page to draw these relationships as you would like them to be.

Looking at your desired pattern, consider the following:

- what needs to happen for these changes to be possible?

- what would be the impact on your life if these changes occurred?

- how would this other person rate you in their pattern, with their own pluses and minuses?

- what is realistically possible from your side in making the change?

To Change Or Not To Change..

Making changes is a matter of choice and unless these are being forced upon you, it can be very hard to do. Breaking out of old, entrenched habits takes time and can be a painful experience if handled badly. There is also often the fear of breaking up anyway, if issues are looked at too closely. In reality, communicating properly and making adjustments keeps you on course, much as it would if driving a car, flying a plane or sailing a boat.

How this is handled is the key and professional counselling is a valuable resource. It need only be short-term and gives the added insight, tools and support to make the changes possible. Unfortunately, most couples wait 6 years (on average) to seek out support and many more fall apart without ever seeking this support. The Gottman Institute is set up to provide research and understanding to couples experiencing problems and making changes and a good reading resource also. Check them out at:

Thursday, 16 July 2009

I Want!!

This week I am talking about how to ask for what you want, at the time when it matters most, and in a way that increases your chances of getting it. If you follow these guidelines, you will feel much happier about how you behaved as well as more resolved if it still does not deliver what you want. Often what holds us back in moving on is feeling unresolved, or downright guilty about how have we behaved. This is as relevant at work as at home and requires a certain amount of trial and error learning to perfect. They are pretty guaranteed methods for increasing your chances of getting what you want, although not necessarily delivering it!

There are many ways of being assertive but this week I am looking at 2 key areas of assertiveness:

1. Making a simple request assertive

2. Expressing your "I want"!

Making a simple request assertive

There are 4 components to making a simple, brief request:

1. A brief explanation (optional). Explain what your problem is in one sentence. "I'm very hot in here ... I am very thirsty ... I have had a tiring day". Not every situation needs an explanation, but when you think it will help, give one, but keep it brief!

2. Make a softening statement. This is important as it establishes you as a reasonable person who's mature and balanced. Some softening statements sound like:

- "would you mind if..?"

- "It would be helpful if .."

- "I'd appreciate it if .."

- "Could I have .." (said with a smile)

- "Hi, I was wondering if .."

These openers are disarming and so less likely to activate resistance and resentment than a hard-nosed request. They are as important with loved ones (big and small!) as they are with strangers or colleauges.

3. Ask direct, specific questions. Say what you would like to happen clearly and be exact. Leave out emotion or heat from your request. Ask for what you want in as flat and matter-of-fact a tone as possible and present it as normal and reasonable. This makes the assumption that of course anyone who is reasonable themself would be happy to accomodate it. Keep your question to one sentence. The more you elaborate and explain, the more opportunity for resistance you provide.

4. Make an appreciation statement. This reinforces the other party saying "yes" or going along with your request:

- "This would be really helpful"

- "Thank you for making the effort"

- "This will make a big difference"

- "I'd like to know if you have a problem with this"

Recently at my home here in France, I saw a gang of children, of 10 years and less, shooting air rifles at anything that moved next to my house (guns are a national past-time in France). I explained to them that as I have domestic pets I would prefer them to shoot somewhere farther away from the houses, deeper into the vineyard. I was assertive, and the children ran off giggling, only to return within minutes and begin shooting at some birds in my tree. Fuming, I marched in to the vineyard to talk to them face-to-face whereupon they scarpered once more. Weighed down by their commando gear and rifles (about the same height as they were), they could barely outwalk me. I kept following (hoping I would not receive a pellet or two in the process) but determined to discuss this with either them or some responsible adult. Eventually, I discovered that they lived not very far away from my house in an area assigned to "social housing" - the French equivalent to our council houses, but far nicer I must say. Seeing a couple of cheeky faces streaked with green-brown warpaint poking out of the gardens, I knocked on the front door to chat to the parents about my concerns (I am fairly ignorant of the laws relating to children bearing arms). If the kids have guns might the parents too? I was greeted by 2 women and 1 man and many children inside, with lots of shouting and lots of aggression. The children paraded in the background with their guns and I suddenly realised what a stupid thing I'd done. In the face of such aggression, I kept all emotion out of my face apart from the occasional friendly smile as I spoke, making as much eye contact with the woman who seemed most sympathetic, who was standing apart from the other 2. I made my request about the children, brief and specific i.e. being farther away from the house and not shooting at domestic pets. I also provided consequences that if I saw them near houses again with guns I would report it to to the authorities. At this stage a barage of yelling from one of the women ensued. I waited until she had run out of steam and then asked her if she thought I was being unreasonable. She then paused, asked me if I had children or pets that I was concerned about and I replied that I did. She calmed down a little more and then pointed out that she has little ones too that she is not concerned about at all. I pointed out that although an airgun is not likely to cause a fatality, eyes can be lost and damage can be done. I asked her what was making her the most angry (a direct, specific question) and she said it was my threat of going to the police (I later learned that these people are likely what the French refer to as "les gitanes" - gypsies - and they hate the police with a passion). I explained that I did not want to do that but that I was very concerned about having children with guns next to my house. I remained friendly, appreciative and interested about their position but very specific about what I wanted. My question "why can they not shoot farther from the houses, into the vineyard?" was both very specific but also appreciative about their reasons for not wanting this. We did not part as the best of friends, however this happened a long time ago and I have only seen this gang once since, and minus the rifles. I certainly feel happier knowing that I have at least talked to the parents, that the children know I have talked to their parents and also that I know where they live!

"I Want"!

This is the whole point of assertiveness but it needs to be thought through very carefully. The following are some guidelines to follow (paraphrased from The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook, McKay, Wood & Brantley):

Ask for behavioural, not attitudinal change. Telling someone they have a "bad attitude" is not helpful nor likely to change very much. It is also unreasonable to expect someone to change what they believe or feel simply because you don't like it. You can ask for them to change what they are doing / how they are acting however.

Ask for one change at a time. Do not give a shopping list of things to be changed. This is overwhelming and pressuring. Pick the thing that needs to improve the most, that will make the biggest change and stick to that.

Ask for the thing that can be changed now. "in a year and a half we can make a commitment to each other .." is a very poor response to "I would like us to have a more committed relationship" because nothing changes here-and-now, and by the time this rolls around, it will likely have been pushed under the carpet and be difficult to instigate. Address here-and-now making the change, making the commitment, starting the family, etc. If it cannot begin to be prioritised now, it is very unlikely that it will magically happen later on. What's stopping it now? Is not doing it now truly a valid reason? What might other reasons be? How well are your needs and wants being considered / incorporated now? Do not be fobbed off by the promise to address this at some point in the future.

Be specific and firm. Vague requests such as "be more loving" is not particularly useful as we all have a different impression of how this looks and feels. If you feel more loved when your partner holds your hand in public, watching t.v., at the movies, etc. then say that. You need to know first of all what it is you want / need too! Asking your partner to prioritise having a family, for example, is a huge want / need and also one of the hardest to articulate specifically, firmly as well as appreciatively. I emphasise this need the most as it is one of the riskiest between couples. When agreeing to wait, there is a risk that this time reduces the overall chances of it happening in the future. This can be devastating, not just to the couple, but to the party who is then left feeling bitterly unresolved about not having more clearly asserted their need earlier.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Be Happy!

Your Basic Human Rights

I recently ran a Maximising Happiness evening in the South of France for some expat friends (it began as workshops about having happier relationships but that quickly changed to all things happiness). We began with some exploration of the impact of assertiveness on happiness, and in particular knowing what our basic rights are. I ran through a list of basic human rights and we identified the ones that we have most difficulty in accepting, either in ourselves or in others. It proved to be an interesting exercise and led to quite a few of us talking further about the difficulties for some in saying no, for some in accepting unfounded opinions and for others to permit their loved ones to say no too!

Here's the list. See if there are any that you have difficulty with:

1. ___ to be treated as an equal, regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation or disability

2. ___ to be treated with respect as a capable human being

3. ___ to decide how to spend my time

4. ___ to ask for what I want

5. ___ to ask for feedback on things such as my performance, behaviour and image

6. ___ to be listened to and taken seriously

7. ___ to hold political beliefs

8. ___ to cry

9. ___ to make mistakes

10. ___ to say ‘No’ without feeling guilty

11. ___ to state my needs

12. ___ to set my own priorities

13. ___ to express my feelings

14. ___ to say ‘Yes’ for myself without feeling selfish

15. ___ to change my mind

16. ___ to fail occasionally

17. ___ to have an opinion

18. ___ to say “I don’t understand”

19. ___ to make statements with no logical basis and which I do not have to justify

20. ___ to ask for information

21. ___ to be successful

22. ___ to adhere to my own set of values

23. ___ to take time to make decisions

24. ___ to express my beliefs

25. ___ to take responsibility for my own decisions

26. ___ to have privacy

27. ___ to admit “I don’t know”

28. ___ to change / develop as a human being

29. ___ to choose whether or not to get involved in other people’s problems

30. ___ to decline to be responsible for someone else’s problems

31. ___ to look after my own needs

32. ___ to have space and time to be alone

33. ___ to be an individual

34. ___ to ask for information from professionals

35. ___ not to be dependent on others’ approval

36. ___ to be the judge of my own worth

37. ___ to choose how to behave / respond in a given situation

38. ___ to be independent

39. ___ to be me; not the person others want me to be

40. ___ not to assert myself

(adapted from the list provided in Assertiveness Training – A Sourcebook of Activities, by Sue Bishop (1995) Kogan Page)

Try to identify areas where you are not asserting your rights; or where you are being held back; or maybe even manipulated by others. This will be more difficult than you think and maybe you assert your rights with some but not with others. Equally if you find yourself pushing others to give up some of their basic rights then it might be time to take a step back and figure out other ways of coming to agreement. It is an important aide memoire for establishing where you need to concentrate on developing new and improved happiness skills!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Being Patient

Last week I was lucky enough to share a flight with a practicing Buddhist on her way to a Buddhist retreat in London. After talking throughout our flight she sent me a book produced by her Buddhism Centre, called the 16 Guidelines for Life. Last week I wrote about how the worst of times can lead to the best of times, if we manage to ride the wave of immediate crisis. This blog carries forward the idea of dealing with crises with patience and less fear, taking the lead from her chapter on Patience.

"Patience starts with each one of us. Imagine never getting irritated or angry again. Of not feeling your buttons pushed and your mind going dark and closed. Never again feeling your body tense up, your fists clench and your face contort. Or not obsessing in the middle of the night about what someone did or didn't say...

..Often we learn the most from uncomfortable situations, providing we are willing to stay the course. It takes a special kind of patience to allow events to come to maturity and to be fulfilled. To be open to the unexpected outcome, rather than the one we might originally have pushed for...

.. The real work of patience happens in the quiet moments when we have removed ourselves from the person or the situation that upsets us; when it's possible to take a deep breath and let go of tangled feelings; when we can find the space and honesty to admit that we may have acted unskilfully ourselves.

An eighth century Indian teacher called Shantideva commented that since there will always be things that irritate and annoy us, it's better to cover our own feet with leather rather than attempt to make the whole world smooth and comfortable for ourselves...

.. To expect life to go smoothly is to miss the point."

"Do you have patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?" - Lao Tzu, China

Thanks to Marian who so kindly sent me this book (extracted from 16 Guidelines for Life: The Basics, Alison Murdoch & Deyki-Lee Oldershaw).

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Seeking cohesion at all costs

In my last posting I wrote about the pitfalls of group cohesion, including the risks of groupthink. This post is looking at what happens in our intimate or personal relationships when we attempt to keep agreement there, at all costs.

The key point I would like to make is about the merits of arguments and disagreements. I can think of plenty of occasions where I have heard the words "we get on so well, we never argue!", usually in fairly new relationships. Of course, when I hear this I begin to wonder whether there will be a gradual erosion of one of the party's identity if that continues or even whether there is an underlying aversion to conflict. For relationships to thrive as well as survive, conflict must be permissible, coupled with the skills to then sort out an acceptable solution of course. The healthiest relationships are those who think "we get on so well, it's ok to disagree".

A reluctance to permit disagreement can stem from a number of problems, some of the ones which perpetuate conflict-avoidance being:

1. One or both parties holding an aversion to arguing, perhaps being guided by the underlying unhelpful belief "it's better to keep quiet and keep the peace". Perhaps this was learned from parents who themselves reacted to every little problem with difficulty, either by avoidance or aggression. Mirroring parents' own problematic behaviour or over-compensating by doing the converse are opposite sides of the same coin.

2. Where disagreement occurs it is coupled with anxiety, anger, shouting, stress, tears, and so on, making it virtually impossible to find acceptable solutions.

3. If disagreement is incurred, one party feels threatened, must be right at all costs, incurring learned helplessness in the other or "tit-for-tat" battling.

4. A lack of self-confidence that one has the skills to find mutually acceptable solutions. I have frequently heard one party say things like "it's no use, he/she talks rings around me and afterwards I just feel worse".

5. A fear of abandonment, typical thoughts being "if I assert my wishes, then he/she will leave me; stop loving me; think less of me; our relationship will be over; we will no longer be soulmates; etc."

6. Disengagement and apathy. The thinking here might be along the lines of "it doesn't matter what I want, nothing ever changes; I don't know what I want anymore; what I want doesn't matter; it is more important that everyone else is happy". The most usual emotional reaction here is depression.

Of course the reality is in fact, if you cannot permit disagreement then your relationship cannot grow and be a mutually fulfilling and happy one. More destructive, "secondary" problems usually emerge.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there are of course major problems where relationships are based upon constant disagreements, usually due to unequal power sharing or continual power-struggles. In these relationships there is often one party who has "final say", creating an unhealthy and extremely volatile equilibrium point. The power might be attributed to whomever is earning the most money, or to the one who shouts the loudest, cries the hardest, etc. One of my guilty pleasures on television has been watching the Katie Price (a.k.a glamour model Jordan) and Peter Andre reality show (from time to time). It makes interesting viewing from a relationship therapist's perspective, because if ever there was a couple who have an impoverished ability to consider the impact of their words and actions on each other's feelings, it appears to be them. The power-sharing battles seemed to peak just prior to their announced split, evidenced by the words calmly uttered by Katie Price, along the lines of "I earn most of the money, why can't I have it how I want it?". At this point, Peter Andre lost control of his composure, resorted to name calling his wife and being hustled away from her by all the people they surround themselves with. The intimacy between them is grossly threatened already with cameras and staff ever-present, the extremely blurred lines between what is surely for entertainment and what is real, and now the seeming very real power-struggle regarding whomever earns the most money gets to have final say. Extremely poor intimacy-building, emotional control and problem-solving skills coupled with sacrificing emotional privacy have all eroded the love that must have been there between them at one time. What is being demonstrated very clearly is negative tit-for-tat interactions, pushing them into a pretty irreversible, downward spiral of negative exchanges. Without the skills to take a deep breath and calm down, to find solutions and press pause upon one's own overwhelming need to take charge, relationships like these do not recover. It helps if one party is able to guide the other, however in this (extreme) example, neither party have particularly good skills nor, it seems, the realisation that there is a different way to behave.

I currently run relationship-building group work, both in France and London (Harley St and Chiswick). Together, as part of a supportive and confidential group, and guided by me, individuals have the opportunity to learn these powerful life skills as well as uncover some of the unconscious patterns that threaten healthy, happy relationships. More intensive weekend workshops in France will continue later on in the year.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Accepting Differences

Being different is all part of being human and makes life the rich tapestry that it is rather than a pretty dull monochromatic print. In our relationships, be they at work or at home, it is fundamentally important that we learn how to accept differences, as just that. Different is how it is, not good, not bad, just different. From here we can find better solutions, rather than shoe-horning each other or events into any one agenda. This week's blog is looking more at the organisational effects of not accepting differences however.

So what if you work with someone who finds it hard to accept differences or even in an organisation where conformity is a strongly held value? This is a fairly typical symptom of teams which are stuck and in organisations not performing particularly well. One important dimension of a healthy team and organisation is its ability to invite and incorporate differences of opinion, different perspectives and disagreement even, in order to achieve balanced decision-making. Not any one person can possibly anticipate all eventualities, however where challenge or objection is not permitted, then the decision-making becomes stunted and the group extremely vulnerable to being left behind in the marketplace, to losing good staff members or even to catastrophic events. There are many good examples of how this lack of open challenge has contributed to some unfortunate events, including disasters. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, for example, occurred on January 28, 1986, when the US Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, including the civilian female teacher, Christa McAuliffe. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by US President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found that NASA's organisational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident.

To cut a long story short, NASA managers had known since 1977 that engineering contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings, but failed to address it adequately. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching on such a cold day and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors. This could be explained as a certain arrogance attached to holding more influential positions in the hierarchy and eliminating voices from down below (and external to NASA) or it could even be attributed to flawed decision-making processes. The report mentioned here made a much more general observation, that it was the culture of the organisation to make these "top-down" and closed decisions, irrespective of plenty of evidence being supplied to the contrary.

An entire area of psychology has been devoted to studying this phenomena of "filtering out" by the group the inconvenient truths or differences of opinion and has been called "Groupthink". Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimise conflict and reach consensus by shutting down or simply not inviting critical testing, analysing, and evaluating of all ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. Irving Janis, the researcher who coined the term, provides seven pointers on how organisations can overcome the natural but potentially limiting or fatal tendencies for groups to seek agreement:

1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.

2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.

3. The organisation should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.

4. All effective alternatives should be examined.

5. Each member should discuss the group's ideas with trusted people outside of the group.

6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.

7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil's advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

By following these guidelines, the risk of groupthink can be minimised. After the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During meetings, he invited outside experts to share their viewpoints, and allowed group members to question them carefully. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments, and he even divided the group up into various sub-groups, to partially break the group cohesion. JFK was deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid pressing his own opinion. Ultimately, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved peacefully, thanks in part to these measures. (this example has been extracted from Wikipedia).

Clearly in organisational settings, we are all vulnerable to groupthink, a point that continues to be demonstrated to this day in groups and organisations across the world, including some of those I have worked with.

I haven't discussed how seeking cohesion at all costs affects intimate relationships but clearly there is a downside here, where cohesion is more important than solving real problems. I will try to write more about this in next week's blog.

Here are a few references on the effects of groupthink on organisational decision-making, including what sorts of environments make groups particularly vulnerable:

McCauley, Clark. "The Nature of Social Influence in Groupthink: Compliance and Internalization." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 57-2 (1989). 250-260.

Schafer, M. and Crichlow, S. (1996). Antecedents of groupthink: a quantitative study. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 415-435.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago. University of and Chicago Press, 1996.