Friday 29 January 2021

What shall I blog about this week?

 Hmm... What shall I blog about this week?  What shall I blog about this week? Ah I know.  I have recently come across the Genos app for Journaling: the Mindful Leader Journaling App.

It offers both an introduction to journaling, including the many benefits, and some tips. For example, once you start writing, keep going, even if you don't know what to write: something will come.  (See the start of this blog post, where I took that advice. It worked this time!)

It also invites you to choose between Personal Vision, Self Awareness, and Gratitude as the subject for your journaling, and then to choose a time for the exercise: 3, 5, or 10 minutes, or unlimited. Then it offers you a prompt sentence (or half sentence to be more accurate) to get you started.  For example: 'When I see my ideal future it looks like...' and off you go - and keep your pen on the paper, keep writing, until the timer tells you that your time is up.  If you don't like the prompt you can choose another, of course; it has hundreds in each category. 

The benefits claimed - and referenced - are many, including reducing stress, increasing self awareness and so on. 

It is best done with pen and paper, of course. In fact Genos advocate buying a nice quality Journal to make the whole process more pleasurable.

So now we get to that part of the blog post where I should share my personal experience, evaluate the pros and cons, say what I have learned both through journaling and about journaling, and so on.

And yet, I can't. For the truth is I haven't got started.  There are a few reasons for that. Until yesterday, I had forgotten about the app, and I only downloaded it yesterday afternoon. Also, I am embarrassed about my handwriting, which is lamentable. Further, I am trying to go paperless, so have no ready supply of nice books to write in. And so on. 

So, knowing what I do about myself, and how to turn intention into reality, I hereby commit to you, my readers (both of you) that I will try journaling on a regular, daily basis, using this app, for the next few weeks, and I will then report back to you, my accountability buddies, on my learning.  And if I don't I expect you to be very severe with me.


With thanks to Eugene Chystiakov and Andrey Zvyagintsev for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 22 January 2021

Some Neuro (though not, I hope, neurotic) reflections

The other day I attended a fascinating webinar on the neuropsychology of resilience, put on by the Association for Coaching. Having read quite a lot about neuropsychology and coaching for my ILM 7, I found there was

not a lot that was new to me; but there was a lot I had known and forgotten, so it was a very valuable refresher.  And later, by coincidence (if one believes in coincidence) I saw this flowchart posted by @nathanfiler on Twitter, along with the description: I've been interviewing some of the world's leading experts on the neuroscience and psychology of emotion. I've distilled their main findings into this handy flowchart. You're welcome.  That made me laugh.

And I laughed because of recognition: for myself, this rings true. And also because of the puncturing of the overblown nature of some of the stuff out there that labels itself neuro- this that and the other. (Another twitter feed I enjoy is @Neuro_Skeptic).

And before everyone tells me, of course the flowchart is inadequate - that's part of the joke. But that raises another question: should we joke about such matters? My temptation is to say an unequivocal yes; I am a strong believer in the value of humour, not least with regard to resilience. At the cognitive level, humour offers us a change of perspective (that is almost a definition of how it works) that is often very healthy; at a social level, it can strengthen connections between people; and at a neuropsychological level, it is said to cause a release of endorphins (as explained by David Brent, memorably...). All of these are valuable in the context of resilience. 

But of course, a more nuanced answer is: it depends. If one has reason to believe that the joke will not strengthen connections, but rather irritate, alienate and so on, then it is better left untold. 

But given that the flowchart is inadequate, what else did I learn, or re-learn, on my recent webinar?  One of the things that came home to me most forcibly, and has had me reflecting since, is the instantaneous (or as near as makes no difference) reaction of the amygdala to any stimulus. The evaluation: Threat? Yes/no? and in the event of Yes, the stimulation of the fight/flight/freeze response. 

Yet I have long been a great believer in Frankl's work, and his observation (hard-won in the concentration camps) 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.' How does one (how do I) reconcile that with this over-riding of the conscious will by the amygdala, that pumps the system full of aderenaline, and partially shuts down the pre-frontal cortex in order to divert energy for the predicted fight or flight?

My current tentative answer lies in a few other things that we know about resilience and stress. Stress is sometimes defined as our reaction when the perceived challenge is greater than our perceived ability to cope. The issue of perception is key here: and that is something we can work on. By managing that, we can reduce the likelihood of the amygdala hijack, as Goleman calls it. 

Secondly, and related, there is growing evidence for the value of meditation in reducing stress responses. One of the reasons for that may be the calming of the amygdala; we know that when one is in a state of high arousal, a stress response is more likely, so it seems plausible that the reverse may also apply. Also, if one's meditation is not content-free, but rather on some transcendent truth or being (for myself, I am a Christian), then that will also work on the issue of perception.

We also know about the value of exercise in this context; both the physiological benefits, and the psychological ones (that when we exercise we feel better about ourselves and have a greater sense of agency).

And finally, we know the importance of human connection: and again that probably works on many levels. At the level of perception, we may be more likely to fall victim to catastrophising when we are on our own, particularly if we feel isolated; and also, spending time with those we love has positive effects on the mix of neurotransmitters sloshing around in our brain (oxytocin and all that...).

So my work-in-progress solution to the question I raised earlier in this post is that whilst one is not, in the instant, in control of the amygdala's response, there is a lot that one can do over time to reduce the frequency and the impact of it, by attending with some discipline to one's wellbeing with regard to all of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual/existential aspects.

And, of course, though one may be subject to an amygdala hijack, one need not be victim to it. Noticing what is going on for oneself, and then, as my late, wise mother counselled*, counting to ten, is a very valuable discipline, too.

* I am told she was not the only person to have divined this wisdom.


Photo by Spikeball on Unsplash

Friday 15 January 2021

On the value of not understanding…

Oh Lord, Please don’t let me be misunderstood…  sang Nina Simone, and it’s a sentiment we all share, I think. (And what a great performance it is!)

It was brought home to me particularly forcefully this week, in a thinking session with a colleague.  She thought, throughout, in Hindi, a language I do not understand.

It was, amongst other things, an experiment. She wanted to see what difference it made to her thinking, if she were to think in the language of her childhood and home upbringing, though not her schooling and education (which were in English). 

It proved a very rich experiment.  She reported that she thought more freely in my presence, knowing that I could not understand; and there were several reasons for that. One was that there was no need to supply context, or to be careful that her sentences were clear.  Another was that there was no risk of my misunderstanding her (or, of course, judging her).  She also reported that the session was very valuable: that she had done good thinking.

It was also fascinating from my point of view.  I had been concerned about whether I would be able to give that full, generative attention that is at the heart of a Thinking Environment (see other posts tagged with that label for more context) for thirty minutes, when listening to a language I did not understand. But fascinatingly, I was able to follow her thinking journey remarkably well. I could tell - from her tone of voice, pace, intonation and facial expressions when she was struggling for ideas, when she was making new links, when she was surprising herself, when she was pleased or amused at her thoughts and so on. And periodically she would pause to write down (in English, she confided to me) particularly important insights. 

But that’s bonkers!, you may be thinking, as my estimable wife did when I described the experience. What were you doing if you couldn’t understand a word?

An understandable reaction, but, I think a misplaced one. I was striving to do what I always do on these occasions: hold the space, provide exquisite attention, and embody the other components of a Thinking Environment.  Also, I asked questions to help her to continue to think, when she reached the end of a wave of thinking. So occasionally she would come to a stop; and I’d wait to see if a new wave of thinking was coming; and sometimes it did, but at other times she asked me, in English, to ask her another question.

How did I know what to ask her?  The first couple of times, I simply asked ‘What more do you think or feel or want to say?’ a fabulous question crafted by Nancy Kline. And the third time I asked if that question was still the most helpful one, and she suggested a different question, so I asked that: and that was all it took.

When it was my turn to think, I was tempted to think in French, to try to replicate the experiment.  I did not, in fact do so, not least as I am not confident that I have enough French to keep it going for 30 minutes. But I think I will try that at some stage, possibly for a shorter thinking session. I’ll be interested to see both whether I find it more liberating when my thinking partner can’t understand; but also how working with a much more limited vocabulary affects my thinking: does it clarify or over-simplify it?  And are there other differences: will my background framework of cultural references be less Shakespeare and Stoppard, and more Racine and Anouilh?

If I conduct that experiment (and if I remember to do so) I shall report back here in due course.

And in the meantime, here's a treat...


With thanks to Kerensa Pickett for sharing her photo on Unsplash

Friday 1 January 2021

About Those New Year Resolutions

Happy New Year to all my friends, clients, colleagues, and indeed any other readers!

It being January, I thought it might be good to share some reflections on turning New Year Resolutions into reality. As is my wont, I will throw out a few ideas: keep the ones that you deem valuable and discard the rest. So here are eight things to try.

1: Check that you really mean it. I call this the Viktor Frankl question: how does this resolution sit with your fundamental understanding of the meaning of your life?  If it doesn't, then why is it a resolution? If it does, that immediately gives it more importance; and reminding yourself of this may give it more traction. (Memo to self: blog about Viktor Frankl: I have mentioned him in passing a few times, but he is worthy of a proper post).

2: Write a Context Goal. A Context Goal is written like this. First, you write what it is you want to accomplish (and express this in positive, not negative language - eg to be free of nicotine addiction, rather than to stop smoking). Then write down all the reasons that this is a good idea. Be as creative as you can here: you are looking to generate a long list. So as well as the health benefits (for example) of being free of nicotine addiction, you might list the social benefits, the good example you wish to set to younger people, the fact that you want to prove to yourself that you can conquer this addiction, the monetary savings, and so on and so on.  The idea is to make the goal so self-evidently worthwhile that even in your most recalcitrant state, you can only see it as a good and worthwhile thing to do.

3: Consider occasions on which you have successfully achieved something similar. We are often prone to assume that we can't change (particularly if we have failed at this particular resolution in the past). Therefore it is important to recall that we can in fact change, and that we have plenty of evidence to support that belief. Re-writing our story about this may be an important support for such desired change (my book Shifting Stories refers...)

4: Consider what structures you can put in place to support the resolution. I have posted before on questions about will power (here for example) and the importance of environmental cues in stimulating our behaviour. So a simple thing to do might be to put your list of context goals by your alarm clock or phone, so that it is the first thing you see every day. You will have to devise other environmental cues for yourself...

5: Recruit an 'external conscience.' Most of us find it much easier to honour the commitments we make to others than those we make only to ourselves. So if your resolution is to run or go to the gym, you will be far more likely to do so if you agree to meet someone to run or train with you. If it is to free yourself of an addiction, consider who would be good to hold you to account on a regular basis, and recruit them to the project, explaining precisely what you need of them.

6: Consider the use of an affirmation to strengthen your resolve and your belief in you ability to deliver it.

7: Keep a learning diary: every day record your progress (or lack thereof) and consider what you need to do next to stay on course or get back on the tracks (as appropriate).

8: Celebrate progress and success. Set yourself milestones and rewards, to keep you motivated, ensure you recognise progress, and reward yourself (and others, where possible!)

With thanks to Nagatoshi Shimamura, Marcos Paulo Prado, and  Xan Griffin for sharing their work on Unsplash