Using emotional insight
for personal development and professional success

Funnily enough, people are different – a little bit of broken, a little bit wise

September 19th, 2017

I'm going to be presenting a series of posts and ideas to help encourage personal growth and change. These are all tried approaches I've used with a range of people in both professional and personal settings.

But the problem with a blog post is that it goes to everyone. The great thing about individual conversation and coaching is that you can fit the technique and insight to the specific person you are dealing with. And I think it is quite well established that people are different. They think differently, feel differently, have different values, different scripts, different techniques, and different emotional environments. In fact, I believe that the inner life of the people around us is much, much more richly varied than most of us ever realise (one of my favourite questions to ask someone is "What is your experience of your own mind like?" – try it, you'll be startled by how strange things seem in the minds of other people).

The upshot of this is – what may be an extremely useful and helpful insight to one person may be the most stupidly bloody obvious pointless waste of space to another. This is something I've run into many times over the years of observing minds and emotions – I'll wrestle a new piece of wisdom from the depths of understanding, and present it proudly to a friend only to hear the equivalent of "Well yeah – duh!"

Fortunately, this same idea so casually dismissed by one may be very helpful to another. This is the nature of self development – we have wonderful richness of wisdom within us, but also areas of restriction, confusion and painful frustration. The same person who can walk a room and make friends with everyone in it, might fall apart at the idea of giving a speech to the same room. A person with brilliant organisational skills may endlessly procrastinate about tasks concerning self education. An individual in a rich and fulfilling relationship may still find that a simple conversation about housework brings up intense and confusing emotions. Ideas that play to the part of the world we just 'get' may seem facile, whilst seemingly simple ideas in areas which cause us to struggle may be revelatory.

This is all good news – there are many things we don't need to learn, but things that can help hugely for the areas in which we are stuck.

All of which is a long way of saying… I hope you find the content on this blog and site useful. But if I appear to be stating the bloody obvious, or describing a problem you just can't imagine anyone struggling with, just be patient and move on to something else. After congratulating yourself on having wisdom and insight in one of the really important parts of life.

The dreams that restrict us – the gap between what is, and what we want to be

September 19th, 2017

I have had a number of conversations recently with people who seem unhappy with an aspect of their life, but never seem to get around to doing anything about it. These are people frustrated at their current place of work, or dissatisfied with a personal hobby or activity, or even constantly upset in a relationship. What I noticed a number of these people had in common was a tendency to spend time hoping things were otherwise, and through doing so excusing things as they are.

These are people unhappy in their job talking about how their job would be fine if just x and y were different. Or in a relationship talking about if their partner were just different in these few ways. Or that they keep indulging in a frustrating or unfulfilling activity over and over because if it just altered in these certain ways it would be what they wanted it to be.

By carrying an image of what we hope the world would be, and by mentally interacting with that image, we aren't dealing with the world as it is, but instead with a fantasy that isn't there. But by repeatedly indulging the hope that things will change, by focussing on the potential that we can see but that isn't being realised, we deny ourselves the impetus to actually start changing.

When this situation has come up in conversation I've found it useful to ask the question "If this situation/person never changes, is always going to remain exactly as it is, what would you do?" It's remarkable how often this question provokes the desire and motivation to change. I've heard immediate answers like "I'd get a new job" or "I'd quit and spend my time doing something else". Yet these options hadn't seemed reasonable before. The presence of the fantasy – that things will suddenly turn around, evolve, get better – is remarkably disempowering.

Time spent in a fantasy that life has a purpose for us, that our luck is about to change, that the circumstances that surround us will shift of their own accord, is time not spent engaging with reality, learning about our current situation, making judgements based on truth, noticing opportunities for forward movement. Participating in the reality of things, rather than absenting ourselves into a comfortable mental space, is what makes us powerful, skillful and correctly directed.

Fantasies have to die in order to create the best possible reality. Only by seeing reality as it really is can be see the building blocks that are going to allow us to construct what we desire. Only by experiencing our dissatisfaction with the way things are will we find motivation to implement change.

Things do shift, grow and get better by themselves. But more often than not they don't. So I think it's a valuable question to ask – if this is how things are going to stay, if right now is a genuine representation of the state of your life, what would you cease putting up with and start to change?

We need to believe the health service fails us

April 12th, 2010

Here's a scary thought – what if there was no way a government could ever create a health service that we felt safe and secure about.  If, no matter how much money, how much management expertise, how much research was lavished on it, it was inevitable we, as a society, would see the health service as failing us.

There's a psychological argument that suggests that this, is in fact, the case – we see the health service as failing, because we need to see the health service failing.  Why?  Because if we didn't think it was failing us we'd be faced with the horrible fact of our own mortality.  And nobody wants that.

Francois de La Rochefoucauld said that thinking about death was like staring at the sun – you can't do it (he said it rather better, and in French, but I'll just take the metaphor).  Thinking of the inevitability of our own mortality is a very uncomfortable thing and therefore we avoid it.  So much so that if someone who is close to us dies then most of us will seek out a reason and explanation.

Very few of us will be content with the idea that someone died because they were old and that's what old people do.  Or because they got cancer and there is simply a percentage change that any of us could develop cancer on any day, no matter what our life-style, diet or exercise regime.  Or they died because it was a risky operation and it just happened that they were unlucky.  Generally we need to find a reason – a specific reason, a specific reason why this particular person died in this particular way.  Therefore we come up with a theory, a story that tells us why.  We may put it down to their diet, the fact that they used to smoke, or… the fact that the health service let them down.  We can't just accept the fact that sometimes people just die – why?  Because if we accept it was something that 'just happened to them' then it's something that 'could just happen to us'.  And that's terrifying.

The fact of our inevitable death is very uncomfortable, so when we see the death of another person we may need to reassure ourselves that 'it didn't need to happen'.  We tell ourselves it could have been avoided.  We tell ourselves that it was someone's fault.  That if the health service was better run, or better funded, or if the managers were doing a better job our friend or family member wouldn't have died.  By doing so we are trying to convince ourselves that perhaps death isn't inevitable, perhaps it can be cheated when its our turn, perhaps if we complain and protest enough someone will come along and fix the health service properly so that we don't have to die.

None of this is to deny there aren't real problems.  Of course having a better diet decreases your chance of getting cancer, and quitting smoking decreases it a lot.  But it doesn't remove it entirely.  Cancer is just one of those things that happens, it's random and entirely unfair.  Likewise a hospital can be run better, doctors can improve the way they perform operations and managers can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation.  However, it'll never be perfect.

And perhaps we need to always see it as imperfect, as flawed.  Perhaps we always need to criticise the health service, and always feel a little bit let down by it when someone we know dies, so we can look at its imperfections and avoid having to stare at the sun.

[Sadly I can't claim this idea as my own.  It was mentioned to me at a party by a friend, but despite extensive googling I can't find out who the academic was who originally suggested this theory.  If you do know where it originates from do drop me a comment.]

The Ultimatum Experiment – fairness allows societies to exist

April 12th, 2010

In my previous post I was discussing the Ultimatum experiment, a simple but entertaining psychological experiment that suggests that if we feel we are being treated unfairly we are prepared to lose out ourselves in order to punish someone else.  The most recent experiment I have seen on this suggested that we punish others out of a sense of anger, rather than out of a strategic attempt to teach the other person a lesson.  It reaches this conclusion because drunk people still punish the other participant and drunk people are notoriously bad at thinking about long term consequences.

Personally I disagree with the conclusion that people are purely motivated by anger.  Poor though we may be at acting strategically when drunk (which is why a nights drinking is rarely rounded off with a rousing game of chess) I think the kind of action demonstrated in the Ultimatum Experiment is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we don’t need to think it through, we instead ‘feel’ what is the right thing to do.

Man, as the cliché goes, is a social animal.  We function as a part of a society – that’s how we survive and that’s how we prosper.  But societies are tricky things, and to be a successful member of a society we have to strike an interesting balance, a balance which we simply call 'being fair'.

We thrive in societies because we receive more through being a part of them than we could get on our own.  By sharing responsibility for collecting food, producing goods, building shelter and defending what is our own, we can achieve far more than if we were each individually responsible for completing those tasks.  But being in a society is really just being involved in a whole series of individual relationships, relationships we must maintain.  Maintaining the relationships we require to make a society exist relies acutely on our sense of fairness.

What is the ideal kind of person to share a society with?  Clearly a person who is generous, shares their resources and generally acts for the good of others.  But what is the best type of person, from our own self interest, to be in a society?  Initially we may think, from a purely selfish point of view, being a freeloader – a person who takes from society but doesn't give back.  That way we gain benefits from society and get to keep our own resources as well.  But of course, sharing ones own society with freeloaders is the very worse situation to be in – they take from us but don't give back.  So whilst purely selfishly we might want to be a freeloader, we must be on guard to protect ourselves from freeloaders that are close to us.  If we spot a freeloader in our society we should do our best to either punish them so that they behave better in future, or push them out of our society all together.

But this, in turn, suggests that actually being a freeloader ourselves isn't our best strategy – if we are seen as being a freeloader then others will attempt to punish us or push us out of society, and we lose all of the great benefits of that that society was bringing us. We have probably seen this drama played out on a smaller scale in friendship groups over the years – I remember being at primary school and the accusation that 'you're a user' was one of the most vicious that was used.  An accusation that could lead to a child being ostracised from a social group for days at a time (seemingly a lifetime when that young).

So we strike a balance – a balance between being selfish enough that we get good benefit from our own resources, but not so selfish that we are seen as being damaging to society and so rejected from it.  This balance is what I think we instinctively recognise as 'being fair'.  We also constantly monitor the actions of those around us to make sure that they are being fair. If we come across people acting in a way that we don't think is fair we will generally react strongly – we will feel angry and may wish to punish them in some way.  But this isn't necessarily coming from a vindictive angry place – it may come from our need to protect our society.

I believe our instinctive, emotional, response to what is fair and what is not is deeply rooted in our emotional selves because it is necessary to maintain our society.  Like most human qualities what an individual person considers 'their fair share' probably exists on a bell curve – some of us instinctively feel we deserve more than others, some are naturally more pushy towards keeping more whilst others are more naturally generous.  But what I feel the Ultimatum Experiment demonstrates is that even when our intellectually faculties are clouded – by alcohol say – we still feel very strongly when a another individual is treating us unfairly, and will act in a way designed to demotivate that behavior – even if it costs us personally.  It's necessary because ensuring others act fairly is necessary to keep society functioning and that society is much more important in the long term than the short term loss of some money.

Next – what the Ultimatum Experiment suggests about our attitudes to public services, or why so many people complain about benefits so much.

The Ultimatum Experiment

March 22nd, 2010

I’ve recently become interested in a psychological experiment called the Ultimatum Experiment.  It's simple enough to perform:  Take two people. Give one person £100, and ask him to give a proportion of that money to the second person.  If the second person rejects the offered money, neither player gets anything.  It’s made clear that the experiment will only happen once, so there’s no chance of the players doing a ‘deal’ over how they divide up the money – the power for dividing the money is all in the hands of the person with the money, but the person being given a share has the ultimate power as to whether either of them get the money.

As you may expect, if the second player receives around £30 or less he will generally reject the offer of the money.  This makes no logical sense as the second player is in the situation of either getting something (£30 if he agrees) or nothing.  But it seems people want to 'punish' the first player for their unfairness more than they want to benefit from what they see as an unfair offer.

You can find more about the Ultimatum Experiment thanks to this Wikipedia article.

There is some disagreement about the underlying reasons for why people reject the money they are offered if they see it as ‘unfair’.  Some people argue that it’s purely out of anger, that they are seeking to ‘punish’ the person with the money for being unfair.  Others say that it’s to do with a social contract – we refuse people who are unfair to us as a way of teaching them a lesson so that they will be more likely to be fair to us in future.

A further investigation into the underlying reasons behind it can be read here, as it was featured in the New York Times ‘Year in ideas’ article.

This study – entertainingly conducted on drunk participants – suggested that the motivation is more likely to be down to anger than strategic thinking (because drunk people are very poor at thinking strategically or about the long term consequences of their actions).  However, I tend to disagree with this conclusion – I think there's something a little more complex going on, and that this process shines some interesting lights on some of the political issues we deal with all the time.  And share my ponderings in my next post…

An argument that games are worth taking seriously

March 22nd, 2010

Being an inveterate gamer, and having been involved in several projects in game design over the years, it was interesting to come across the TED talk below.  Jane McGonigal not only defends gaming as an activity, but suggests it may save the world.  Or at least help us solve some significant problems.  Last year I was involved in creating a game whose aim was not only to be enjoyable, but to achieve some social good, so it's great to see someone else flying the flag that just because it's fun doesn't mean it doesn't achieve worthwhile.

The game I designed, in conjunction with Undying King Games and The Campaign Company, was Croydon2040.  This was part of the Imagine Croydon project, a project to give thousands of residents of Croydon the chance to have their say about what they wished for the future of Croydon.  It's notoriously difficult to get young people involved in these consultation exercises, so we came at the problem from a new angle – we created a game for them to play which would involve them deciding on their priorities as they played.

Croydon2040 was a web based inter-school game.  A team from each school competed against each other to create the greatest possible future for Croydon.  Each week they were faced with a series of policy decision based on real decision and problems facing the borough.  They then received feedback on the impact of their decisions, as well as the budgeting decisions they made, so they could see how real choices lead to real impacts on 'their' version of Croydon.

This game was a huge success, with the players and schools becoming incredibly enthusiastic.  We often have problems getting younger people talking seriously about politics, or about what their priorities are, but this game did so brilliantly.  By adding an element of competition and challenge, and by giving the players the power in their own cities, we found they were bursting with ideas and opinions.

Humans like puzzles, challenges and the chance to achieve a goal.  Games are a great way of harnessing these drives and directing them in a single direction.  By taking a step back and thinking about where we'd like these energies directed we can achieve remarkable things – as Jane McGonigal says games create a state of 'joyful productivity' in players, and we can choose what that productivity achieves.

Games are still in their infancy in our culture, and we tend to think of them as something for kids or something to be occasionally indulged in when our work is done.  Perhaps its a hangover from our old 'protestant work ethic' that tells us that things are either 'fun' or 'worthwhile' but can't be both.  Yet we do use the 'game' idea – almost all of us have found that if we make a game out of studying, or a task, or a goal we are often far more motivated to succeed and keep at it (even keeping tally marks or progress or time committed is a kind of a game).  If we can use our desire to play to achieve something real and meaningful, or we use games to engage and involve those who otherwise would switch off,  we can have a positive impact on the world whilst just having more fun… and that's got to be a worthwhile aim.

Is anybody listening?

February 22nd, 2010

I was asked to write an article for the NCVO's Campaigns Conference blog.  I wrote the following as a simple introduction to why Emotional Intelligence is so important to running and effective campaign of any kind, and a political campaign particularly.

Is anybody listening?

If you campaign isn’t Emotionally Intelligent, then no.

With the general election campaign gearing up we are seeing a vast increase in political communication.  But how much of this communication is effective?  Given the aim of it is presumably to make us go out and vote for our party or change allegiance to another, how often does it succeed?  In fact, how many of the words filling the airwaves, adverts, newspapers and blogs are even received, let alone acted upon?  The most common reaction to political communication at present seems to be a tired shrug, or an irritated closing of the ears.

We have all become adroit at shutting out messages we don’t wish to hear, or which make us uncomfortable.  Campaigns aimed at changing lifestyle behaviour or shifting opinions get lost in the background noise of society.  In fact, the ability to shut out this noise so you can form your own thoughts and opinions is a necessary skill for anyone living in the communication age.

Campaigners of all stripes face a significant and yet horribly simple problem – how to communicate, how to be heard, how to reach people.  If your message isn’t heard your campaign fails at the first hurdle.  We all have filters to keep information out.  If we still lived in a tribal culture of around one hundred individuals, then our instinct would be to listen carefully and consider all of the information that flowed our way.  But our virtual tribe – the number of people who wish to communicate with us – now reaches the tens of thousands.  Filters are necessary.

The filtering process we use is sophisticated in outcome yet astonishingly simple: we listen to what feels right.  Above all we trust our gut reaction to decide which information is relevant, honest and in our interests.  The unconscious processes involved in creating this momentary feeling are incredibly complex, taking account of our experiences, values and above all the intent behind the communication.  Put simply, if crudely, we all possess an incredibly sophisticated bullshit detector.  Campaigners, politicians, anyone who wishes to influence the decision making of the public, ignores this at their peril.

As we become more media savvy we are learning to see through the sound bites, media campaigns and interview techniques used by those who want us to think differently.  The welcome fact is that deception is becoming less effective, spin and manipulation is being filtered out, and sincerity may become the only thing that gets a message across.  Campaigns must be understood in this context if they are to be effective.  The quality of an individual possesses that makes them trustworthy, able to communicate with us, and able to form a meaningful, powerful, relationships, is called emotional intelligence.  This same quality must be found in campaigns and communications if they are to be successful.

An emotionally intelligent campaign acknowledges the way individuals filter information and make decisions.  This is largely not an analytic, intellectual, process – it is a subconscious, intuitive, process.  Effective communication must feel right to the person who receives it.  Firstly it must strike them as being sincere – heart felt, ideally – secondly it must feel relevant; that it relates to their world, their experience, and their values.  We instinctively respond positively to those people around us we feel are open hearted and demonstrate integrity.  We judge communication and campaigns in the same way.

Here’s a simple thought experiment: two friends approach you wanting to borrow money.  The first speaks eloquently, giving facts and figures that express clearly why he should borrow your money, yet throughout you suspect these are not his own words and someone else has helped write his argument.  The second speaks from the heart, his request is simple, direct and, although not always eloquent, you recognise his own thoughts and feelings being expressed.  Which friend would you lend your money to?  So which politician will you vote for?

Al Franken, the emotionally intelligent politician

September 4th, 2009

I'm often frustrated by the poor communication skills of politicians, how they fail to take account of the concept of emotional intelligence when speaking to the public.  I was therefore extremely pleased to come across this clip of the American Senator Al Franken.  When confronted with a hostile and critical crowd he deals with them with humour, sense and clarity.

Al Franken isn't well known in the UK, but he's not what you'd call a 'conventional' politician.  He originally became famous as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live before becoming a film actor and author.  Perhaps it's this background that means that when speaking he doesn't suffer from 'the politician disease' – he doesn't patronise, doesn't instantly become defensive and doesn't harangue the people who disagree with him.

The emotionally intelligent behavior he demonstrates includes:

  • Not beginning by disagreeing – if you start by saying 'you're wrong' the person you are talking to will either shut down or just argue back.  Instead Mr Franken starts by acknowledging that the opinion of the people he is talking to is valid, and appears interested in it.
  • He takes responsibility – he says "I'm going to vote the way I want to vote."  He doesn't say he's talking about a party line, he doesn't turn to someone else's authority, he doesn't claim to acting based on popular opinion.  'This is what I think so this is what I'll do' is a very powerful stance to take.
  • He engages with the people he's talking – he looks at many of the people around him, not at the camera, his body language is open and positive, he uses the tone of voice of a conversation not of a speech, and he listens to what people say to him.
  • He admits that he doesn't know everything, but uses facts and examples to support what he does say.
  • He has integrity – in my opinion none of the above comes out of the fact that he's learned how to 'work a crowd' I think it all works, and has such a positive effect, because it's genuine.  He really is interested in talking to these people and in helping change their minds.  If your intent is right, and you have the self assurance to follow through on it openly, everything else falls into place naturally.

Emotional Intelligence and Campaigning, video blog Part 2

August 27th, 2009

This is the second of three short videos I recorded with the campaign company to explain some of the basic ideas of Emotional Intelligence and how it applies to campaigning.  Once again, these were done in a single afternoon without a script or notes, so I'm sorry if I seem to ramble a little.

Example of Bad EI in campaigns

August 27th, 2009

Having dealt with the good I should really deal with the bad.  Just to be clear this is nothing against this particular organisation or its aims, merely this particular campaign and the set of ads that go with it.

I can't stand these adverts.  I recently described them as the campaigning equivalent of mugging someone, but on considering it further it's actually rather more like the campaigning equivalent of an extortion racket – give us money and you won't have to feel guilty every time we put this advert on the TV.  The sole purpose of this advert is to make you feel bad, really bad, and then make you give money to stop yourself feeling bad.  There is no further context, there is no further message, there is no further suggestion for action – the message is simply this: 'Bad things are happening, give us money'.

The adverts don't tell you what they are going to do with your money, or how your money is going to be spent, or how your money will help stop the suffering, or whether the stories you are seeing are real, or what the organisation does, or how the organisation could have stopped the suffering if they had more money, or what you could do instead if you don't have any money, or what you could do as well as giving money.

They simply say: children suffer, give us money.

This is bad campaigning and bad emotional intelligence.  Making people feel terrible, pulling at their heart strings and then requesting money, is just plane bad.