Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as narcissistic managers who micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of acky24 on Pixabay

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Action Learning and Mindfulness: Admitting What We Do Not Know

In the previous post, I  explained how action learning and mindfulness shared the goal of building self-awareness – drawing on the work of Professor Reg Revans and Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn.

On the surface, mindfulness and action learning would appear antithetical – mindfulness involves being still, present in the moment and internally focused; action learning involves taking action to create future improvements in an external situation.   The more you explore the nature of mindfulness and action learning, the more you realise how much they have in common and how they are complementary, interdependent and mutually beneficial for workplace mental health.

Both action learning and mindfulness develop trust in the workplace, enable agency, build personal capacity, value honesty, engender confidence and build resilience.  A key aspect that they have in common is encouraging us to admit what we do not know – an admission that is the foundation for acquiring new knowledge.

Action learning and admitting what we do not know

Reg Revans , the father of action learning, in an interview in Brisbane in 1990, spoke about the need to develop “questioning insight” to be able to deal with the complexity of reality.  He maintained that we cannot rely on what we know, nor the knowledge of experts, but we need to admit what we do not know and ask fresh questions.  Of course, this stance attracted the ire of university professors because it questioned their position of being the fountains of knowledge.

Reg recalled his days working as a physicist in the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University, before he became a Professor of Management.  At the time, they had 10 Nobel Prize winners at Cavendish.  Reg stated that these great intellectuals had a weekly seminar that you could participate in only on the condition that you were willing to share what you did not know.  Lord Rutherford, for example, would turn up and state how impressed he was with his own ignorance.

Reg suggested that admitting what you do not know, rather than trying to convince others of how much you do know, is the beginning of learning and the road to wisdom.  He argued that “expert knowledge is necessary but insufficient” and does not equip us with how to deal with new conditions that are complex, uncertain and/or ambiguous.

Reg also pointed out that action learning puts the first emphasis on “what you do not know” and then explores how to address this ignorance.  He maintained very strongly that:

If I run away with the idea that I understand everything there is because I am expertly qualified, I’m not only going to get into trouble, but people around me too.

Action learning, then, is about framing the right questions to explore arenas of new knowledge and understanding, when confronted with conditions of uncertainty.  It is about exploring ignorance, not boasting about how much we know.

Mindfulness and admitting what we do not know

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in an interview with Krista Tippett, explained that much of our learning at school is about “thinking” and ways to understand things with our minds.  Education at school often does not equip us to tap into our creative capacities because creativity requires stillness and silence, not the ferment of mental exertion- argument and counter-argument.

Jon stated that we need to balance out thinking with other capacities such as imagination and that creativity comes out of heightened awareness – preceded by not knowing or understanding.  He argued that thinking can get in the road of creativity:

So rather than just sort of keeping tabs of what we know, it’s really helpful to be aware of how much we don’t know. And when we know what we don’t know, well, then that’s the cutting edge of which all science unfolds.

Jon considered that scientists (like Reg Revans and his scientific colleagues) make great meditators because “they’re comfortable with that idea of wanting to know what they don’t know”.   He maintains that the history of science is a story of remarkable insights, ‘Eureka moments‘.

Jon stated that it is not as if these moments of insight arise by banging your head against a wall to force the insight.  It is when “you have gone as far as thought can take you” and you “rest in awareness” that the insight comes to you – it may even be that you have fallen asleep and then you wake up with the insight or solution.

When I was writing up my doctorate, I took a holiday break with my wife and children and we visited Brown Lake on Stradbroke Island one day.  I was not thinking about my doctoral study but as I watched my children playing in the water and took in the beauty of the surroundings, a theoretical model came to me that summarised the contribution of my thesis – I was able to develop this later and incorporate it in my thesis.

There were many times when I wrote a thesis chapter that I had difficulty summarising the chapter in a conclusion.  I would invariably “sleep on it” and the conclusion would be fully formed in my head the next morning.   It seems that as you stop trying to work out something from what you know already at a conscious level, your sub-conscious mind is freed to make new connections and generate insights from connecting thoughts that you have not seen as connected before.  It also seems that you have to provide the sub-conscious with some focus – what Revans describe as a “fresh question” or what Kabat-Zinn discusses as seemingly insolvable problems.

As we grow in mindfulness and action learning and acknowledge what we do not know, we become more open to the creative power that lies within us and to powerful new insights.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of americhter1975 on Pixabay

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Creativity Lies in Stillness and Silence

In 2015, GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland) displayed 200 visual works of David Lynch including lithographs, photos, paintings, video art and photo collages.   David epitomises creativity – he is an American  filmmaker, artist, actor, musician and photographer and is considered by The Guardian to be “the most important Director of this era”.

The creative power of silence

In an interview on ABC Radio National in March 2015, David spoke about creative control and in the course of his interview, he stated that “the silence within has infinite dynamism”.   In his view, creative ideas come from within.   You start with an intention to develop an idea and then, if you are patient and focused, you suddenly see it and feel it as it reaches full consciousness.  He discusses open awareness (for instance, focusing attention on the beauty of a cherry tree) that stimulates wonder and the incessant desire to understand your world.

Jane Dawson in an article on reflection and creativity, contends that creative expression is thwarted by the busyness of life, especially in educational institutions.  She argues for the need for  “space for silence” to cultivate and pursue creativity and suggests that meditation provides that space.

The creative power of stillness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his 2011 interview with Krista Tippett, maintains that “spaciousness is already in the mind”.  The way to access this spaciousness that is the fountain of creativity is to develop intimacy with it – to be open to its power through the stillness of meditation.

Jon argues that one of the real barriers to developing creativity is our lack of training in the “deep interior capacities” of attention and awareness.  He argues that all our training is focused on thinking, so that we cut ourselves off from imagination and creativity by focusing on only one aspect of the mind’s capacities.   Whereas the real gateway to creativity is “the stillness of awareness of not knowing” – of being aware of what we do not know and what we do not understand.  Creativity is not achieved by being contented with the knowledge that we already hold.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and openness to our life and our world, we can cultivate the power of silence and stillness to access our innate imagination and creativity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of jplenio on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Levels of Meditation

Noah Levine, discussed different levels of meditation during his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit.  His topic was, Breaking the Addiction to Our Minds.

Noah identified three levels of meditation – (1) foundational – focus on breathing and grounding in the body, (2) second level – awareness of pain/suffering/attachment, (3) third level – overcoming the addiction to our minds.

He led listeners through a 10-minute meditation practice that was focused on the foundational level – mindful breathing.   This was an excellent meditation with skilful guidance.

Noah made the point that while there is no ideal amount of time for a meditation practice, starting somewhere in terms of time allocation is really important. He suggested that twenty minutes could be a starting point to realise some of the reinforcing benefits of meditation.  However, his strong recommendation is to aim for 45 minutes as a goal to attain because, in his experience, significant shifts/movements can occur in the last 10 minutes of this extended meditation period.

He cautions against expecting quick results and major shifts in the early stages:

Mindfulness is a gradual, systematic training that through our own efforts lead to these insights [about the impermanence of everything] and transformative wisdom [that recognises our addiction to our minds].

Noah points out too that addiction to our minds is different from other addictions such as addiction to smoking, drugs or food.  As he explained from his own experience, many addictions can be overcome through abstinence – but this is not true of addiction to the mind and thinking.  Like breathing, thinking occurs independent of us and is an essential part of our human existence.  The problem arises when we allow our mind, our thoughts, to control our lives without the highly developed skill of discernment.

A particular insight that Noah offered is that reflection – reviewing, evaluating, planning – is not mindfulness.  For me, as an action learning practitioner and teacher, reflection is integral to my daily way of life, whether it is concerning how I play tennis, conduct a workshop or engage another person in conversation.  Reflection is still an act of (critical) thinking, which – though necessary to life and professional practice – is not mindfulness.

I think a key learning from Noah’s presentation is that we grow in mindfulness gradually as we develop our meditation practice to the point where we are able to overcome addiction to our minds and the process of thinking.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Mindful Breathing – Being, not Thinking

Western society is strong on thinking and we have developed so many words to describe the act of thinking.  Here’s just a few:

  • analyze
  • summarize
  • categorize
  • synthesize
  • realize

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we have become so engrossed in thinking all the time that we have lost the art of just being.  We have lost touch with the present moment with all its potential for creativity, calm and clarity. He strongly recommends developing the art of mindful breathing and offers a 3 minute meditation exercise based on conscious breathing:

One of the challenges of mindful breathing is to stop the distraction of thinking and to remain focused in a non-judgmental way – clearing our thoughts as they occur without judging ourselves for their occurrence.

Isabel Allende in her book, Maya’s Notebook, describes Maya talking to her host Manuel and, in the process, identifies the difficulty of staying focused on breathing – on being, not thinking:

I found him watching the sunset from the big front window, and I asked him what he was doing.

“Breathing.”

“I’m breathing too.  That is not what I was referring to.”

“Until you interrupted me, Maya, I was breathing, nothing more.  You should see how difficult it is to breathe without thinking.”   [Maya’s Notebook, p.69]

And therein lies the challenge of mindful breathing – not only do you have to fend off distractions caused by your own thoughts, but also the interruptions unwittingly caused by others who need to share their thoughts or want you to do so.  Thinking has become our substitute mode of being – we live in our minds not in the reality of everyday life and the present moment.

Psychologists point out that this disconnection from the present has resulted in much of the mental illness that is prevalent today – we suffer depression because we are living in the past or suffer anxiety because we are living in the future. Mental health and well-being reside in mindfulness and mindful breathing that are accessible to us at any moment.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Living in the Present – Not the Future

 

Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s book, Eleven Minutes, records in her diary:

I spend all day …longing for work to begin, and, when I’m working, longing to get back to the boarding house.  In other words, I’m living the future not the present. (p.34, emphasis added)

Recent neuroscience research shows that we spend more than 50% of our time either in the past or in the future – we spend so little time in the present.

The downside of spending so much time “living the future” is that we can develop anxiety because we are constantly concerned about future events that may never happen.  We are also missing the opportunity to fully experience the present – to enjoy the beauty, relationships and positive experiences that surround us.

We also miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and be grateful for the many things that make our life enjoyable.

Living in the future can be precipitated by envy – we “want to have what they have got” and so we look to the future in the hope that we too will be like them.

One way to check whether you are living the future is to monitor your words:

  • I wish it was Friday
  • I can’t wait for the weekend
  • Summer holidays can’t come soon enough

If we find ourselves constantly expressing desire for the future rather than experiencing and enjoying the present, then we can stop talking this way – we have the power to shape our reality by choosing our words consciously.

The present moment is the only true reality.  If we miss it, we miss so much that life has to offer and potentially harm ourselves and our wellbeing.

Image Source: Copyright R. Passfield