‘Sticks and stones can break your bones’ and words can really hurt you!

Weeks of lockdown have had a negative impact on most of us and I’m aiming to be especially tolerant of everyone – myself included! I’m pleased to say that seems to be true more generally, but if you’ve had an especially bad time of it you might find yourself more irritable than usual. On average, our levels of anxiety are up and we’ve suffered months of reduced social contact.

Most of our communications these days are via social media and it’s well known that we tend to say things online that we never would face to face. In online therapy this is called the disinhibition effect. The term comes from a 2014 article by psychologist John Suler. He explored several aspects of this effect but the takeaway is that the virtual world is somehow less real than face to face. Maybe you’re anonymous, so think ‘You don’t know me, so why should I care?‘ In many cases you’re invisible to the person you send a message to: ‘You can’t see me so I can say what I like‘. Sometimes there can even be a sense that there isn’t a real person about to get this message. At some level we aren’t quite aware of we can think ‘It’s all in my head’ or ‘It’s just a game’. Suler also noted that there’s a tendency to minimize the status of the other person or to ignore normal social guidelines: In the virtual world those rules don’t apply.

The disinhibition effect can influence any of us and the consequences can be dire. You might like to think of yourself a a fearless keyboard warrior but how will you feel when your online victim comes up to you in the pub after lockdown?

So what do we do about it?

The Persian poet Rumi has a 13th century solution for our very modern dilemma. He wisely advised that before we say something we ask three questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?

That might seem like a tough rule to apply to all your online communications and I’m not suggesting that you apply it to every single message. But you’ll know when you need to apply this check list. Are you riled up, tired, snappy or triggered by something someone has written? Go ahead and write you reply – get it out on the page! And then take a breath and check with Rumi’s wisdom before you press that button.

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Know Thyself

I’d guess that the admonition to ‘Know Thyself’ was ancient even before it was inscribed above the entrance to Apollo’s Temple at Delphi. The benefits of understanding yourself better are myriad because personality influences how you perceive the world, what motivates you, your emotional responses and behaviours. What’s more, when you gain understanding of yourself you also deepen your understanding of others.

We might naively think that we all live in the same reality, but in fact people with “different personalities actually experience and perceive the world differently” (Dr. Jordan B. Peterson). That’s pretty extraordinary! It’s not just that we have different tastes or opinions; it’s almost as if we live in different realities.

I recently completed Jordan Peterson’s Discovering Personality course. That’s pretty typical of me; I almost always have at least one training course on the go. But because I completed a Big 5 personality test as part of the course, I now have a richer understanding of why I’m like that. I score very high in openness to experience which means I’m “strikingly interested in learning, and are constantly acquiring new abilities and skills”. As you’d guess, I already knew that, but I now have an independent measure of just how unusual it is.

I’m not going to share my full set of scores – even though my high level of extroversion inclines me to do that! But I will say I found them to be very revealing. I now have a much clearer idea of:

  • why I behave the way I do;
  • why other people respond to me in the way that they do;
  • what my strengths and weaknesses are.

I’ve completed both the Big 5 (B5) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests, and have found the former to be the most useful. I’m not going to go into a blow by blow comparison – I’m far too agreeable for that! – but some key points are relevant. First, they measure different things. The MBTI result tells you which one of 16 possible personality types you are, whereas the B5 identifies your key traits as compared with everyone else. So MBTI will give you a summary of your type in a few sentences, whereas B5 will provide an analysis of five key traits and 10 aspects of those traits.

If you and a colleague have both completed the MBTI you can compare your personality types. MBTI works on an either/or model to identify your type: you’ll be an Introvert or an Extrovert. But this is awkward if you don’t fit neatly into either. For example, one free MBTI test I tried gave me a 50/50 blend of Thinking and Feeling, so it’s not clear which type I’d be. I think this is the main problem with MBTI: it claims to sort people into one of 16 types by flipping you into one category or the other. B5 on the other hand will tell you how extrovert you are compared with everyone else. You’ll know, for example, that if there were 100 people in a room, you would be more extroverted than 65 of them.

Because I’ve found it to be so valuable, I suggest to my new Coaching clients that they take the Big 5 personality test. How much of the results they choose to share with me is up to them, but they’ll have got a head start in the quest to ‘Know Thyself’.

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How to keep your New Year Resolutions

Every year people make New Year resolutions but 92% of them will fail (Journal of Clinical Psychology). Maybe it’s time for a different approach. Forget ‘I should’ and embrace ‘I want!’

New Year resolutions are typically something like “I’m going to lose weight”, “I’ll get more organized” or “I’ll save more”. If you’re thinking along those lines, I suggest you take a moment to reflect on why you’ve chosen that goal. Is it because you think you should or because you actually want it? If your resolution is prompted by a ‘should’, then I doubt it’ll last long after the midnight celebrations.

But if you focus on what you want to do rather than on what you think you should do, your chances of success improve hugely. Those with a more Puritan perspective might argue that if you want to do something, then it hardly counts as making a ‘resolution’. Perhaps, but how many of us have seriously considered what we want from life and then done something about getting it?

Aoraki  Mount Cook at sunset


Aoraki (‘Mount Cook’) at sunset

So, what do you really love doing? Grab a piece of paper and write a list of activities that make your life richer. It’s even better if you can use post-it notes, but paper is fine. Keep to three rules:

  1. be concise;
  2. describe activities;
  3. make sure every one is something you really love.

The acid test for this last rule is to imagine you life without it. Check how that thought feels in you body, the felt sense that arises. If you get a sinking feeling in your body, then it qualifies. You might find that what you’ve written isn’t quite ‘it’, so be prepared to dig around. Is there something else behind what you’ve written? Again, let your gut feeling, your felt sense, guide you. If you have listed something that isn’t an activity, modify it. If you want to list something about your love for nature or your kids, think of a related activity. ‘Nature’ might become ‘spending time in nature’; ‘my kids’ could be ‘playing with my kids’.

Once you’re happy with your list, stick the post-it notes or piece of paper somewhere where you’ll see them everyday. Now ask yourself: Are you devoting as much time and energy to each of those activities as they – and you – deserve? The chances are that at least one or two are getting short changed and frankly you’re cheating yourself. So, how can you get to do more of what you love? Use that question to come up with a New Year’s resolution. It may be your best ever!

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Can ‘Power Posing’ change your life?

Can simply standing in a powerful pose boost your confidence? Back in 2010 psychologist Amy Cuddy, along with colleagues Dana Carney and Andy Yap, claimed that it could (Carney, 2010). There was considerable media excitement, especially after Cuddy delivered a hugely popular TED talk. But subsequent research didn’t replicate the original findings, and suddenly power posing didn’t look cool any more. Dana Carney, the lead author of the original article, abandoned the theory in 2016, announcing that “the evidence against the existence of power poses is undeniable“.

But Cuddy came back with updated research claiming that power posing does have a significant positive impact on “mood and evaluations, attitudes, and feelings about the self” (Cuddy et. al. 2018).

All this is important for several reasons. First, it’s a classic example of how scientific research should work: There’s a claim, it’s tested, refuted and then further research revisits the data. More interesting is how the original research impacted on the public. The media loved Cuddy’s TED talk, with big players like CBS and the New York Times making much of her claims: Sexy science sells. There was much less public reporting when the scientific backlash came and of course now the story is even more complicated!

The author conducts an early Power Posing experiment (c. 1980)

So does power posing work? It probably doesn’t have an impact on behavior: Doing a power pose before you go in for that scary interview won’t enhance your confidence. But a power pose will, on current evidence at least, have a positive influence on your emotional state. To that extent, a power pose can be helpful.

Power posing is closely related to the work of embodiment trainers I’ve worked with – people like Mark Walsh and Francis Briers. It’s also in line with the kind of embodied approach that I use: How a client is sitting, standing, moving or walking says a lot about how they are experiencing their place in the world. The take-away here is that your body and your mind are part of one unified system: Working with your bodymind makes all the difference.

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The Power of Intention

Take your mind back to a time when you’ve been at a social gathering. Imagine you’re chatting intently to someone, filtering out the background noise of the many conversations around you. But when someone within earshot says your name, your attention catches it in a flash. Have you ever had that experience? It’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS) at work, scanning incoming sensory data for anything important. The RAS filters your sensory world. There’s a massive amount of data coming in through your senses: Your skin has about a million sensory nerve cells and your eye captures more than 300 megapixels of information every second. Your conscious awareness can only process a fraction of that, so almost everything your senses pick up gets ignored. Anything novel, potentially threatening or otherwise flagged as significant is prioritized. If something is very familiar – like that ‘Post-It’ note reminder you put on the door a month ago – it gets filtered out. That’s old news!

Let’s try a little experiment. I want you to take a quick look around you and count how many patches of green you can see. Just take a moment to do a quick 360 degree scan. Done that? Note you score. Now, without looking, guess how many patches of red there are there around you. You just did a 360 degree scan, so your eyes ‘saw’ the red, but your RAS filtered for green so your conscious mind didn’t register it. Now take another look and notice just how much you missed last time!

Because the RAS constantly scans for what you think is important, it plays a key role in motivation and goal setting. Whatever you decide to focus on will be added to the short list of things the RAS will bring to you attention. So if, for example, you’re looking for a new job or relationship, you’ll start spotting opportunities to make that happen. The RAS can work a bit like a GPS; you set the destination you want to get to and the RAS gets to work. Intention is the key here. First, you need to get clear about exactly what you want. That can be easier said than done, but is crucial to success. Once you have real clarity about your aim, write it down, preferably by hand: Research suggests that hand writing engages the mind more deeply than typing does. Then spend a few minutes thinking though the intention you’ve set. Why is it important to you? How will it feel when you’ve achieved this goal? What difference will it make to your life? This process primes your subconscious mind to look out for anything that might help.

Success won’t magically drop into you lap just because your wrote down what you want! When the RAS brings your attention to something you need to assess it and decide what to do next. If it’s an opportunity that’s worth pursuing you have to take action; speak to that person, make that call, write that blog post or whatever else it is. You might also find that useful ideas start to pop up in your mind, so be ready to note them down for action later.

This might all sound somewhat familiar. The so-called ‘Law of Attraction’ was doing the rounds a few years ago., claiming that you magnetically attract whatever you focus on. A few savvy people made a lot of money promoting this idea and to be fair there is something in it. The principles I’ve set out here are the Law of Attraction without the hype and based on solid neuroscience research. Science is all about experimentation, so try it for yourself: Invest some time in defining a simple goal, set your intention and watch what happens next. I’d be delighted to hear how you get on!

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Visualization for success – or failure!

Imagine for a moment that your holding half a cut lemon in you hand. Feel the weight of the fruit, see the citrus yellow of the textured skin. Now imagine bringing the lemon up to your nose and smelling it. Now imagine putting it in your mouth and sucking the sharp, bitter juice. Most people will be salivating by now because the unconscious mind doesn’t recognize the difference between an actual event and a strongly visualized one. That’s why visualization works; visualizing doing something activates the same neural pathways as when you actually perform that action.

There’s solid research showing that visualization is valuable for developing practical skills and it’s widely used in sport psychology. Visualization is a valuable tool in coaching and used correctly it can significantly enhance performance. Public speaking is classic example of a situation where visualization can help. Once you’ve done all the preparation – edited the Power Point slides and crafted a brilliant presentation – visualizing yourself successfully giving the talk can give you the edge.

It’s commonly assumed that because visualization is such a powerful tool we should use it in every situation. Simply visualize yourself passing your exams, and ‘hey presto!’, you pass. This is a myth and a dangerous one at that, because it can lead to failure. Research shows that simply visualizing success may be counter productive. Why? What if you were to consistently visualize exam success? You see the pass mark you want written next to your name; you imagine how good that feels and hear your friends congratulating you on your success. You’re telling your unconscious mind that you’ve already passed the exam with flying colours. That may be great for alleviating your exam anxiety, but it isn’t going to motivate you to do any studying! The research shows that these kinds of positive fantasies are de-energising, so are are likely to lead to worse outcomes overall. The bottom line:

“Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like” (Kappes and Oettingen).

There’s a crucial lesson here. Visualization can significantly enhance your chances of success, but if you choose the wrong context, visualization can just as certainly lead to failure. When should you practice visualization and when not?

  • Visualization can help reduce stress and anxiety, so ideal if that’s your short-term goal.
  • Visualization is great for mentally preparing for a practical task as part of a broader training programme. In my public speaking example, I emphasized that you need to have done all the preparation before you start visualizing success.
  • Visualization is not magic and you will not pass the exam, get a partner or a better job just by fantasizing about it. Sad, but true!

Using the power of intention is a different but related skill. There’s a lot to be said about that, so I’ll explore it in my next post. Meanwhile, if you’d like to experience the power of visualization, get in touch.

References:

Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729

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Welcome to the adventure!

Sure I’m a Life Coach, but above all I’m an explorer. That’s how I got interested in coaching, psychology, neuroscience and a seemingly endless list of subjects I can’t get enough of. This blog journals my journey across the landscape of coaching. You’ll learn mind hacks to make your life more rewarding and coaching tools that’ll help you discover and navigate your own path. I’ll challenge some of the accepted wisdom about coaching and highlight the latest research to open your eyes to the future. Welcome to the adventure!

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