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/

Managing negative emotions

How’s your week going? My life feels a little like this right now – constant motion and somewhat sick-inducing. (Coaches are human too; we don’t have it all sorted all of the time!)

It’s important to recognise that negative emotions are a natural part of life. But that doesn’t mean you have to let yourself get swept away by it all. You may not be able to control all the situations you find yourself in, but you can absolutely control the way you think about those situations. And the way you think affects the way you feel.

If you’re finding negative thoughts and emotions a challenge, it doesn’t have to be this way. Get in touch and let’s talk about changing that.

Letting go

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Hello, 3am. I’ve been sleeping like a baby these past few weeks – waking up every two hours, that is. There’s a lot that’s been going on in one of the places that I work which is having a considerable impact on me and my team.

Many of you won’t share my faith (I’m a practising Catholic). Goodness knows I’ve been neglecting it myself. But it’s part and parcel of my blueprint, at 3am as much as it is any other time.

So I’m thinking about a few things that I talked about yesterday with a friend of mine. We find meaning in hindsight, even if we don’t like or completely understand what we’re going through in the present. I’m reminded of what I often discuss with coaching clients – finding the locus of what we can control and doing what we can with that, and realising that what we can’t control, we need to learn to respond to in a way that is constructive. My anxiety about things at 3am helps no one. I’m keeping in mind the saying “let go and let God”. We can’t always see the bigger picture. Pre-living potential futures through worrying what might happen is unhelpful. Do the best you can, and leave the rest to unfold as it will. Respond by making the best choices you can in the present. That is all any of us can do.

Whatever you find most helpful for you – prayer, meditation, running, yoga, getting outdoors – I hope that it will give you some peace this weekend. Take care of yourselves.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Coaching for introverts

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A bit of light-hearted relief as we head towards the end of the working week – this is for all you grumpy introverts. There appear to be rather a lot of you out there – hello!

Now, I do appreciate the irony in this, but if you’re feeling like this and if you’re fed up with your work – well, I’d love to talk to you. Coaching can be hugely helpful in managing communication, relationships, performance under pressure, and career transitions. I’ll even stick my neck out to promise you’ll feel better after talking to me.

Drop me a message, and feel free to share this flowchart!

Big I/Little i

Have you come across the big I/little i? The big ‘I’ stands for the self, and the little ‘i’s are everything about you that you could potentially rate (your looks, career, relationship status, level of fitness, how well-read you are, your education level, your weight, etc.).

The key mistake lots of people make is to equate the little ‘i’s with their complex self – “I failed that test; I’m the stupidest one in the class”, or “I can’t hold down a relationship; I am unlovable”, or “I put on 5 pounds; I’m disgusting”.

You start to see the absurdity of this if you flip the situation around and say “I came first in the test; I am superior to everyone else”, or saying that giving money to the homeless makes you a virtuous person (even if the next day you cheat on your partner).

You don’t rate yourself globally based on your ‘good’ behaviour, so why do it on the basis of your ‘bad’? When you focus on the big ‘I’, you are often in attack mode. When you focus on the little ‘i’s, knowing that none of them in themselves define you, self-acceptance is teaching you how to recognise and improve upon your shortcomings without labelling yourself and that label becoming your identity.

That inner critic? That label? That thing you think you did badly yesterday? That’s not you.

Big I/little i diagram from Neenan and Dryden, Life Coaching: A cognitive behavioural approach.

Card from the ACT deck, Timothy Gordon.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Healthy and unhealthy negative emotions

IMG_8563Are you carrying unhealthy negative emotions?

Negative emotions aren’t necessarily bad – it is natural to experience concern, sadness, anger, remorse, regret, disappointment, healthy jealousy and healthy envy. Life is, after all, complex and difficult. What matters is how we respond to and channel these emotions into actions that help ourselves and others. Learning to accept these types of negative emotions is part of healthy psychological functioning.

This is not the same for unhealthy negative emotions like anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, hurt, unhealthy jealousy and unhealthy envy. These types of emotions interfere with our ability to take positive and constructive action and can result in destructive (and often self-sabotaging) behaviour.

The first step is awareness. How are you going to choose to respond?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Resilience

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I bend, I don’t break.
I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

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It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity.  Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.1,2

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

3-factor model of resilience

What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Ann Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. I love this because it marks it out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about these factors:

  1. Finding meaning
    I’ve written before about purpose as a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause. Purpose gives us direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?
  2. Flexibility
    Fixed patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. How can I widen my perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can I learn from this setback?(For more on this, I recommend Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.)
  3. Support
    What company am I keeping? Resilience is not developed in social isolation. What positive and mutually supportive relationships can I build?
  4. Mindfulness
    Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.
  5. Proactivity
    What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to get ourselves out of a pit is to take back control – by taking one small step at a time.
  6. Perspective and taking responsibility
    Ask yourself these questions: What can you control about this situation? What contribution are you making to it?

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd


1I’ve previously written about how it’s not events in life that affect you, it’s the personal meaning that you attach to those events (typically because they’ve destabilised or taken away some core aspect of your sense of identity). It’s a little out of the scope of this article, though.

2It’s important to know that the loss of resilience is something that happens in response to normal life experiences. It is typically temporary. This needs to be distinguished from abnormal physical or psychological trauma, such as childhood abuse or involvement in a major road traffic accident. These kinds of traumatic life events are not part of our normal life experience, and any inability to cope with them is never any reflection on your capability. If this has happened to you, there is help out there. You may wish to read about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) here.

 

 

Thoughts become things – cognitive behavioural coaching and taking psychological responsibility

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of themLast week I wrote about learning more about cognitive behavioural psychology as part of my ongoing professional development – often encountered in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but also increasingly employed in the coaching domain. This post also links to my previous post on freedom where I wrote about making active choices.

I think the quote above, from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, sums up the core of CBT very pithily. The origins of modern psychotherapy can legitimately be traced to classical philosophical schools like Stoicism, which is, if you will, the original cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis, who founded the first form of CBT, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), has acknowledged the lineage from Stoic philosophy).

There is a great deal of synergy between the cognitive behavioural approach and coaching, particularly from a constructivist perspective. People can fall into the trap of being a passive participant in their own lives, and it’s very easy to tip over into becoming a victim of your circumstances. I often talk to clients about becoming actively involved in constructing their own realities (note: which is not the same as ignoring objective facts!) rather than playing a part in a story someone else has written for them. Learning and growing occurs when you are actively involved in a process of making meaning in your life, understanding the thoughts and beliefs that you hold and then taking conscious control of them.

The concept of mental control, heavily distilled, might look somewhat like this.

 

 

In a nutshell, there are things we can control, things we can influence, and things we can’t really do anything about. Although we might have legitimate concerns about what other people do and what’s happening in the world, very often we have little to no control over these things. What we do have control over are what we choose to think and feel, and how we choose to behave. And the kinds of thoughts and beliefs and feelings that we hold, and our subsequent behaviour, can make our realities happy or miserable. This is at the core of the cognitive behavioural approach. CBT and its coaching counterpart, CBC, teach that it is the meaning that we attach to events that causes our emotional reactions, not the events themselves, and that we can learn to choose different behaviours through retraining our thoughts and beliefs.

A key word here is ‘choice’. Everything that we do is a choice. Sometimes we may think that we have no choice but to respond or react in a certain manner – we say things like “she made me angry”, “I was forced into a corner”, “he is the reason I am in this predicament”. The trouble with this is that it opens up the door to everyone else being the cause of your problems, and us discounting or forgetting the part we have played in any given situation (often also the part that we continue to play, if we’ve fallen into the role of victim).

What’s the alternative? Accepting responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Viktor E. Frankl said that “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I very much like this quote because I think taking psychological responsibility – responsibility for our thoughts and feelings – is fundamental to our psychological wellbeing. This is a world away from a damaging  blame game – it moves us right across into the empowerment of realising that you do not have to rely on changing others, or your situation, before you can feel better or act differently.

Your thoughts don’t have to become your reality. They’re opinions, not facts. (Opinions welcome in comments below!)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Cognitive behavioural coaching

Continuing professional development is vital in order to ensure that you’re keeping your knowledge and skills up to date and fit for purpose. I’m studying coaching psychology at the moment and it’s been very interesting to discover how much my coaching practice already aligns with cognitive behavioural principles.

The essence of cognitive behavioural psychology is that you feel as you think. It is the meaning we attach to events that causes our emotional reactions, not the events themselves. I very much like this proposition because I think taking emotional responsibility is fundamental to our psychological wellbeing. I’ll be posting a longer article on this very soon – keep an eye out for it.

Looking forward to learning more so that I can work with clients even more effectively!

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd