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Power struggles: the illusion of control

I’ve been thinking about manipulation, which as it turns out children are remarkably good at. A couple of weeks ago we’d had an exhausting day (involving an all-day visit to Universal Studios in Singapore, including literally running through downpours), and I had no energy or patience left when one of the kids was reading in his high bunk well past bedtime, having ignored my clear instruction to go to sleep. I asked that he stop – “two more pages!” came the cry, which I agreed to before going to brush my teeth.

When I returned he was still reading, so I told him in no uncertain terms to hand me the book. He groaned and eventually extended it, but when I held out my hand, he deliberately withdrew it just out of my reach. And smiled.

I suspect you won’t be surprised that I rather saw red, although I regretted it as soon as I’d left the room, and promptly spent some time thinking about how easily he’d made me lose my temper.

Except he didn’t.

Come again?

In cognitive behavioural coaching, we explain that it’s not events that cause our emotions, but how we interpret those events – in other words, how we think about or what meaning we give to the events*. He hadn’t made me angry; I was angry because his behaviour had triggered something in me that demanded control of the situation, and compliance from him. What kinds of things had been going through my mind? Perhaps You’ll do as I say. Children should listen to their parents. How dare you cheek me in that way. I think there was, too, spillover from some work frustrations that I’ve been experiencing lately, most notably a feeling of being ineffectual and not being able to enact necessary change.

The link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours is the cognitive triangle, and it can lead to a pretty vicious cycle. If my thoughts are anger-inducing, and lead me to fury, then I’m very likely to do something that, if unchallenged, will reinforce those thoughts and emotions.

We can look at this triangle alongside another way of conceptualising the thoughts we think: the cognitive pyramid. In a situation of stress, the negative thoughts that may surface automatically are underpinned by other, deeper thoughts that we may not hold quite as consciously. These comprise our mental rules, assumptions and attitudes, and our underlying core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world, which are often formed as part of our cognitive ‘blueprint’ early in life. When we’re stressed and tired, negative core beliefs can be activated – and they can present themselves, in that moment, as absolute truths.

The learning that we can take from this extends well beyond parenting; it’s a valuable lesson in all relationships, including the ones we cultivate at work. It’s also highly relevant in how we can choose to respond to situations.

We’ve all had that ‘difficult’ (choose your preferred adjective) colleague, boss or senior manager, where encounters have become something to endure. How much of them can you change? You might have various degrees of agency in the form of power, influence, negotiation or persuasion, all of which certainly help in getting people to behave in the ways you’d like them to, but fundamentally the answer to that question is, not a lot. If you lead in any capacity, do you lead by force and exertion of control (how’s that going in terms of getting the best out of your people)? Or have you learnt to take a step back and empower those who report to you by giving them the space and resource to fulfil their commitment and potential?

And as for situations? Well, let’s take an example beloved of British rail travellers everywhere – delays and replacement rail services. You’re late for your appointment, and it’s out of your control. Or maybe you’d like to put yourself into the shoes of a man I encountered over the weekend at my local gym, whose frustration had got the better of him over lack of parking and who was now swearing loudly at the staff about being a paying customer.

How would you like to respond, knowing that you can choose at any point to change your experience of this moment? As we become aware of our default reactions to situations of stress, we also have the ability to discard them in favour of new ways of responding when we find ourselves at the edge. Real change comes when we control the only things we have true control over – our own behaviours.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

*I last wrote about CBC in July last year – how time flies! If you’re interested you can check out that article here: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/2018/07/16/taking-psychological-responsibility/

Through the eyes of a child

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

I grew up in Singapore but have now spent more than half my life in the UK. When I go back to see my family, the place is simultaneously familiar and strange. I’ve learnt that the best way to appreciate things is to look at them not just as a visitor but like a child, valuing the wonder of it all.

This world is waiting for you to see it from ever-new perspectives and to keep discovering it, as if for the first time.

Look up and pay attention

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How much do you actually look at the things around you when you’re walking? I’ve been watching people going about their lives today – all so focused, eyes dead ahead, intent on getting somewhere else, absorbed in their phones or inhabiting some other world while plugged into headphones.

We all do it, but you know, it’s so much more satisfying to notice the clack and echo of your heel on the ground, the ebb and flow of sound as it sifts its way around you, and the patterns of light and shadow.

Also, when you look up and pay attention, you see gems like this cow on a yellow wall that I saw in Digbeth on Saturday while admiring the graffiti.

Self-care isn’t selfish

I’ve always loved Scott Adams’ funny and astute observations about the working world in Dilbert and these delectable strips on work-life balance are no exception.

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Those of you who have come to one of my talks on this theme may remember me saying that I don’t really like calling it ‘work-life balance’. I think the trouble with the word ‘balance’ is that it seems to imply some sort of tradeoff between work and not-work, whereas life and work is usually much more tightly knitted than that. I prefer thinking of it in terms of integration instead. How do your work and the rest of your life fit and flex together in response to any given set of circumstances?

I often find that clients will come to coaching with a particular conundrum like ‘help me get a new job’ or ‘I want to make a career change’. Once we start exploring their situation, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the approach that needs to be taken is far more holistic in nature. Work may be the presenting challenge, but there are often issues relating to confidence and self-doubt, identity, relationships and clarity of focus all tied up in that. The nature of lots of work these days is that you can take it with you – which of course is a huge part of the problem, because thanks to mobile and cloud technology, you can now not only work from home, but everyone else’s home as well. Hurrah!

There will always be times in which you’ll actually need to work through an intense, demanding and stressful period at work. But many of us get into the habit of always being ‘on’, which never gives the mind and body a chance to recover. And typically what happens, because burnout builds slowly, is that the continual pressure goes unacknowledged until you experience some sort of crisis.

There are always signs that point the way to impending burnout – exhaustion, irritability and impatience, loss of perspective, emotional volatility, and a decline in physical health. The key thing is catching these well before you get to the tipping point.

When someone talks about ‘self-care’, what do you think about?

“Cancelling plans is ok. Staying home to cook is ok. Disappearing for a bit to get your life together is ok. Resurfacing in a foreign country with a new name 10 years later is ok. It’s called self-care.”
– A meme all over the Internet  

It seems to be a bit of a health buzzword these days, but I want to encourage you to look at it as something sustainable for the long haul, not some wellbeing fad, and especially not something that is intrinsically self-centred. I’ll tell you now – if you’re the kind of person to worry that self-care is selfish, it’s a fair bet that you probably aren’t selfish. And, funnily enough, you’re probably also not taking care of yourself.

It’s time to change that.

Get a paper and pen now, because we’re going to do a bit of work. Do you know what’s in your self-care recipe? By which I mean, do you know all the things that re-energise you and bring you peace? Take a moment now to reflect on that, and then make a list of ten of those things.

Done? Let’s take a look. Here’s my list.

  1. Solitude and quiet
  2. Allowing myself to not achieve
  3. Plenty of sleep
  4. Books, music and headphones
  5. Exercise
  6. Saying no
  7. Massage
  8. Remembering that not everyone has to like me
  9. Deep one-on-one conversations
  10. Not sweating the small stuff

What’s on your list? What are you doing well, and what are you not doing enough of? What changes are you going to make to rebalance your life?

Self-care isn’t selfish; it allows you to recalibrate and replenish yourself so that you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s later. You can say no (and still be a good and kind person), and it is absolutely fine to not always ‘live up to’ the expectations placed on you (both by yourself and by other people). Allow yourself the breathing space – you will find that you come back all the stronger for the rest.     

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd