If you were facing a swinging sledgehammer, would you prefer to be a brick wall or a trampoline?
If a sledgehammer hits a brick wall hard enough, or enough times, it breaks.
A trampoline, on the other hand, absorbs the energy and bounces back.
And we all face events that feel like sledgehammers at times.
Some we get to choose, some are imposed, some we know are coming and some just come out of the blue.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favourite authors, wrote about these kinds of events in his books The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable and Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder.
I’ve written in previous articles about situations that have felt like sledgehammers – cognitively, emotionally, physiologically – to me:
- my Olympic campaign and transition from water polo to starting my first business,
- resigning from businesses I’ve started
- my brain tumour diagnosis (that turned out to be a mistake)
Even since I started writing this article two weeks ago, I’ve had a house full of tummy bug, a child with an infected eye and two trips to emergency with my 2 year old screaming for twenty minute blocks every hour.
It was terrifying at times but thankfully, on this occasion, it all ended well.
Exhausted yes, the work and weekend plans discarded yes, but everyone intact and immensely grateful for it.
But there’s never a guarantee of that, even when I’m fortunate enough to live in a city with some of the best health care in the world.
Then of course there are the everyday, smaller, unexpected moments that still require immediate attention:
- The call from school to say my child is sick
- Challenging feedback or difficult conversations at work
- The first moments of stepping into a cold bath
- Or the Dune 2 movie trailer that pops up as I’m writing this that I just can’t resist 🙂
In a work context, these sledgehammers can play out in lots of ways, but one recurring theme I’ve seen over the last 12 months centres on “exit”:
- Founders and owners in various stages of leaving or selling their businesses
- Senior executives stepping out of major roles
- Elite military leaving the armed services
- Partners in professional services firms hitting the transition milestone dictated by their agreements
- Pro athletes forging a new path post career
Nearly all of these are after decades of commitment to their careers and organisations at the highest levels.
For many people these are intensely personal, challenging situations. I’ve felt this myself.
All of a sudden the diary is empty, the structure is gone, the daily, weekly, monthly rituals and practices of an organisation and team have vanished. The shared context and relevance begins to erode immediately.
The person leaving is peppered with questions at the BBQ about what they’re going to do next and feel forced to churn out half baked answers or switch topics.
Alongside this is often a component of reestablishing energy to help manage themselves for whatever does come next.
But the opportunity is not just to survive the transition.
The much bigger play is to reinvent.
To take the absolute best of the skills, experience, networks and other tangible and intangible assets and apply them for maximum impact in service of the people, causes and opportunities that matter most.
These are extremely high leverage periods.
What’s also interesting has been understanding the value of positive exits to the organisations they have served.
By managing the process well, organisations fulfil their duty of care, minimize reputation risk, retain connections with deep organizational knowledge and experience and empower people as advocates into the future.
And this is just one narrow focus in a work setting.
There are many others from family, relationships, health, finances… the list goes on.
And while these events all vary enormously in degrees of predictability, timing, intensity and impact, the certainty is that they have happened and will continue to happen to me and others.
So how can we deal with them if they’ve already happened?
How can we prepare for them if we know they’re coming?
And can we actually prepare for the true Black Swans, the unknown unknowns?
The science suggests we can.
Enter Psychological Flexibility.
What is Psychological Flexibility?
The role of Psychological Flexibility is not to stop the sledgehammers or to control our reaction to them. It’s not to remove the tough experiences.
It’s to help us absorb the hits and bounce back.
Its formal definition is:
Psychological flexibility refers to an individual’s ability to cope with, accept, and adjust to difficult situations. (Burton & Bonanno, 2016; Kashdan, Barrios, Forsyth, & Steger, 2006; Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010; Kashdan et al., 2006)
The beauty of Psychological Flexibility is that, if you’re willing to put in the reps, it is absolutely trainable.
Is it simple? Yes.
Do you get a certificate and consider it done? Nope. It’s a never ending practice.
BUT, you can make progress very quickly.
The core training framework I use for myself and my clients to build Psychological Flexibility is called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training). And it comes with some simple, evidence-based tools (you can download my version of the toolkit here).
Let’s take a look at it.
A brief history of ACT
In 1982, Dr Steven Hayes began to put together the core framework of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in order to help people develop Psychological Flexibility.
Since then, in over a thousand randomised controlled trials worldwide, ACT has been shown to be effective in clinical settings to help people work with anxiety, depression, substance use, pain and other circumstances.
[NB: I am definitely NOT a clinical psychologist and don’t ever pretend to play one in my work or on the web. Please seek clinical professional help if you feel you might need it.]
Organizations that have stated that ACT is empirically supported, in certain areas or as a whole according to their standards, can be found on Wikipedia and include:
- World Health Organization
- Australian Psychological Society
- UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence
- Society of Clinical Psychology (American Psychological Association/APA Division 12)
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense
- Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
The application of ACT in non-clinical settings, called Acceptance and Commitment Training, is well underway too in wellbeing, transition, performance and leadership.
As a performance coach, that’s where my passion lies.
Exploring the ACT Triflex
The core framework of ACT is called the Triflex (below).
Let’s explore the three parts.
Opening up is not about talking to others (although that may be a useful behaviour).
It’s actually about noticing and opening up to the thousands of thoughts, feelings and sensations (both “good” and “bad”) that we all experience each day. It’s about learning to accept the futility of trying to control every single one.
The challenge for me is that I’ve so often been taught that I must only “think positive” and that I must “feel good” at all times.
A very brief reflection on any period of my life shows just how utterly ridiculous and impossible this aspiration is. Even in a moment like achieving my Olympic dream, there was the full spectrum of experience.
Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” And just like the yin/yang symbol, in every situation, there is “good” and “bad” inextricably linked.
In my personal experience, and that of my clients, learning to open up and truly accept this is both a never ending practice and perhaps the most challenging part of the model.
Being present is not about an absence of thoughts.
It is the ongoing practice of mindfulness to notice thoughts as thoughts and feelings as feelings and, rather than becoming entangled by them, connect back to the present moment.
The kind of mindfulness I’m talking about is not sitting on a mountain top saying OM to the universe. It’s also not burying myself in an app (although they can be great training grounds).
Below is the often-cited definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn (author and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts).
“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
It can be as simple as hearing the air conditioning in the room, noticing the sensation of the chair on the back of my legs or feeling the temperature of my coffee cup in the morning.
With practice, mindfulness is the scalpel that helps me create the space between my reaction to a particular context (which I can’t control), and my response (which I can choose).
My ongoing practice is to recognise my reaction, reconnect to the present and then shift my focus to what truly matters. It’s a critical skill in developing and maintaining psychological flexibility.
Do what matters
The final aspect of the model requires two parts.
Firstly, to clarify what matters.
Not what matters to friends, family, colleagues, instagram algorithms or society, but what truly matters to me.
And secondly, to do. To take action and make choices with a sense of direction: towards what matters.
Often in response to inevitable sledgehammers and curveballs, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate and reconnect to what truly matters.
Rarely is it anything new. It’s just been buried, neglected or lost along the way.
Most often it’s about uncovering and reconnecting to core values, purpose, the people that matter most, activities I love and behaviours that move me towards the kind of life I want to lead and the person I want to be.
It’s possible to get to a draft of these things in 3 mins.
Just give yourself 30 secs per question for each of these six questions:
- What are your values?
- Who is important to you?
- What is important to you?
- What is your purpose?
- What would you willingly do for free?
- What energises you?
I’ve explained this exercise in more detail here, but essentially you’ve just begun to formulate what matters to you. Even your first version of answers to these questions is enough to begin to frame direction through uncertainty towards doing what matters.
The importance of context
When doing what matters, context is absolutely critical.
If the context changes, the choices I make may also need to change.
For example in a work meeting my performance behaviour may be to be quiet and listen. But then a slight shift in context in that same meeting may now require the opposite – for me to speak up.
This is why nailing behaviours for teams and organisations is so hard.
Because “performance” behaviours depend on context.
Tools of ACT
There are three core tools that I like to use to explore the ACT Triflex for myself and help others do the same in 1:1 or group settings:
- Momentum Activity
- Valued Living Questionnaire (Kelly G Wilson) and
- Choice Point (Harris et al).
They’re all in the toolkit to download with references and resources.
As I learned more about the application of this model, I created the Momentum exercise as a tool to explore each aspect of the Triflex in detail.
I’ve found it has helped me (and my clients) regain a sense of momentum, direction and focus when feeling stuck or unsure or working through the uncertainties of transition periods.
It also immediately puts into practice some of ACT’s evidence-based techniques such as “labelling” and “defusion” for those who go through the activity.
Valued Living Questionnaire (Kelly G Wilson)
This is a great tool that assesses 12 researched backed important domains of life on two scales: importance and satisfaction.
It helps to dissect ambiguity and quickly identify areas of focus that require immediate action. When my dad died, and I felt a generalised sense of immense frustration, this tool helped me zone into making the changes I needed in less than 5 minutes.
I’ve added an activity at the end of this questionnaire to help design important, high value action that may help bring energy and a sense of meaning and motivation.
Choice Point (Ciarrochi, Bailey, and Harris)
This is an incredible decision making tool to deconstruct challenging situations and determine actions that align with what truly matters.
It also helps articulate the tough thoughts, feelings and emotions that so often get in the way of our best actions.
While often clunky at the beginning, the ACT Triflex and its associated tools and practices can quickly become a powerful, personalised toolkit.
It’s worked for Olympians, elite military, founders, investors and C-level executives and leaders in a myriad of industries including professional services, education, tech, non-profit and more.
The diversity of application speaks directly to the human experience we all share.
So while no single toolkit is a panacea, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this one is worth a shot.
Finally, like nearly anything important, the greatest value is created by putting theory into practice.
So here are some ways you can get started exploring the world of Psychological Flexibility and ACT.
As I’ve mentioned, you can access the toolkit I’ve referenced above immediately including:
- my Momentum Exercise,
- the Valued Living Questionnaire (Kelly G Wilson),
- Choice Point (Ciarrochi, Bailey, and Harris)
plus some reflection frameworks that you might also find useful.
If you download the toolkit and subscribe, you’ll also be first to hear about events and workshops that I’ll be running in the coming months.
- *Get out of your mind and into your life* – Dr Stephen Hayes
- The Happiness Trap – Dr Russ Harris
- ACT Made Simple – Dr Russ Harris
- Wikipedia article on ACT
Video & Audio
- An interview I did for Scrum.org which talks about the interface of Psychological Flexibility and Scrum and how both frameworks help people to do what matters.
- Dr Steven Hayes’ TEDx talk: The Science of Psychological Flexibility: How love turns pain into purpose.
- Podcasts – here are two podcasts where I was interviewed about my business and athlete transitions.
Finally, if you’d like to ask a question or talk through if or how this all might be relevant to you or your team, please contact me.
Because I love working through this with people.
The sledgehammers aren’t going away.
The daily events and stresses aren’t going away.
The uncertainty of transitions isn’t going away.
The requirement to perform isn’t going away either.
So all that’s left is to choose how I respond.
And that’s entirely up to me.