The Practice of Gratitude

The ChiefOur dog, a three-year-old black lab named Chief, really has lived up to his name. He is dignified, kind, and gracious with all people and with other dogs. At meal time, he sits patiently and watches intently while his food is prepared. When we put his food down, he waits to be invited to eat. But then he does the dearest thing: when he is finished eating, he goes over to whoever put his food down and thanks them by nuzzling the hand. It is truly adorable.

Is there anything more attractive than gratitude? I think not. And guess what? It is as good for the person expressing gratitude as it is for the one receiving it. The research is piling up. Barbara Fredrickson’s research on Positivity shows a significant difference in health indicators, creativity, and resilience in people who practice gratitude among other positive emotions.

Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra, leading researchers on the way gratitude affects health and well-being, define gratitude this way: “Gratitude is an acknowledgment that we have received something of value from others. It arises from a posture of openness to others, where we are able to gladly recognize their benevolence.”

Their work shows that there is evidence to support the notion that gratitude facilitates coping with stress and reduces toxic emotions resulting from self and social comparisons and materialism. Further, experiencing gratitude can make positive memories (as opposed to bad ones) easier to access, helps build community, makes achieving goals more likely, and promotes health.

In the US, we are once again celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. It is not accidental that most cultures have a “gratitude” holiday. It is simply good for us to stop and remember what we are grateful for. Many people “say grace” year round before eating, which is a wonderful way to stay mindful about how fortunate we are to have plentiful food and clean water.

Of course, practicing a form of religion usually involves giving thanks, and The Blue Zones research shows that people who live the longest belong to some kind of religious community. The secular among us can easily reap the same benefits. From a health and well-being standpoint there is ample evidence that practicing gratitude in small ways on a daily basis is a good idea.

Some ideas:

  • When stopped at a traffic light or sitting in traffic, instead of looking at your smartphone, make a list in your head of all of the things you are grateful for. It will lower your blood pressure, release beneficial neurotransmitters and reduce adrenaline and cortisol in your bloodstream.
  • Write a thank-you note or email to someone who has done something nice for you. It will make you smile and it will make the person who receives it smile.
  • As you are falling asleep at night, review your day and come up with one lovely thing you are grateful for. It can be as simple as the hummingbirds who love the tree outside your kitchen window or the fact that you have a job.

Make gratitude a habit. It isn’t that hard to do—and the rewards are immediate and vast.

How to Be Grateful

Coaching isn’t all about achieving happiness, but it certainly is almost always focused on the pursuit of what the client believes will make him happy.  You may have heard already that the happiest people are happy because they are grateful rather than grateful because they are happy.  It is not a chicken/egg proposition.  It is in the research – The Happiness Advantage, The How of Happiness.  Consciously choosing to constantly scan the environment for what you are grateful for, and keeping lists of the same, changes the brain and literally makes you happier.  So if want to be happier, there is one super simple easy thing you can do right now.  Today: this minute.  Be more grateful.  Not just once a year on Thanksgiving, not just when you get a promotion or good news.  All the time.  But how you might ask: how do I be more grateful?  Well, David Steindl-Rast explains it perfectly in his TED talk – you can take 14 minutes and watch it or you go with my Cliff Notes.  Here they are:

 Stop. Look. Listen.

That’s it. 

 Stop. Look. Listen.

 Notice what is going on that you are grateful for – the sun, the rain, running water, indoor plumbing, shoes that fit, electricity, your adorable dog/cat/child, your funny colleague, your car started! Your new desk chair you had to lobby five years to get. Functioning internet. So much.  An endless list.

 When?  As often as possible.  Here are some ideas to get into the habit:

  •  Any time you start obsessing about your To Do list, stop and think of things you are grateful for instead.
  • Anytime you start second guessing what you should have said in your last meeting, stop and…
  • Set a timer on your phone to do it every 15 minutes. 
  • Every time an email/text/tweet comes in.
  • Every time you hear a beep of any kind (I do this; you would be amazed how much beeping goes on.  It makes it much easier not to be annoyed at the sound of trucks backing up!).
  • When waiting at a stop light.
  • When brushing your teeth (Oh the possibilities, unlimited clean water, hot water! toothpaste, dental care!).
  • Every time you sit down at your desk. 
  • Every time you get up from your desk.
  • When you get into bed.

Other ideas? Try it, and see what happens.

Be Your Own Coach By Becoming A Journalist

In their book, Coaching in Organizations: Best Coaching Practices from The Ken Blanchard Companies, Madeleine Homan and Linda Miller define coaching as follows:

“Coaching is a deliberate process using focused conversations to create an environment for individual growth, purposeful action, and sustained improvement.”

To help initiate and guide these conversations, coaches use a series of targeted, thought-provoking questions. These questions are intended to assist the coaching client down a path of self-discovery and self-improvement. Therefore, one can conclude that great coaches ask great questions.

Even if you are already working with a coach, there will inevitably be moments in time (be it work or personal) where you will want or need to coach yourself. You may face an issue that requires immediate action and can’t wait for your next appointment with your coach. Or, perhaps you’re dealing with some smaller issues that you feel aren’t a good use of your time with your coach. Of course, those smaller issues that cause feelings of overwhelment have a way of quickly becoming larger issues if you let them fester over time.

If you are not a trained coach, just the thought of coaching yourself might cause you feelings of overwhelment. So, if you’re not a great coach who is trained to ask great questions, you need a simple framework to get you started. The one that I use was introduced to me while in journalism classes back in my grade school days.

The primary responsibility of a journalist is to capture and report the complete story. To make sure they achieve this, they rely on a basic concept most commonly referred to as The Five Ws (and one H). By adopting and implementing this simple concept you can set the context to begin coaching yourself through practically any situation.

  • Who? Who are the stakeholders? Who’s involvement is required? Who can I go to for help?
  • What?What problem am I attempting to solve? What else do I need to consider? What help do I need?
  • Where?Where is the issue unfolding? Where do I, and/or other stakeholders, need to be? Where can I go for help?
  • When?When does action need to take place? When do stakeholders need to be notified? When should I ask for help?
  • Why?Why is this an issue? Why are certain individuals involved? Why do I need help?
  • How?How did this issue arise? How will the issue be resolved? How will I reach out for help?

It is important to note that these are questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. This leads to deeper reflection and furthering the conversation. With this framework in place, you should be well positioned to coach yourself through your issue and/or better prepared to discuss the issue in further detail with your coach.

What other tips or tricks do you use to coach yourself when the need arises?

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Going With the Flow

Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (pronounced mee-high  chick-sent-mee-high, my friend David Rock told me that, and he is important because he wrote one of my top books The Brain at Work) is another book that stopped me in my tracks.  Published in 1990, my copy is old, much dog eared and underlined.  The author is more recently widely known as a pioneer in the Positive Psychology arena, and his early work outlined in Flow was required reading for coaches because it was solid research about what makes people feel good.  Absent real problems like psychological damage, war or pestilence, people were coming to coaches with the objective of optimizing their existence and more specifically, their time at work.  Csikszentmihalyi says that in his studies, when people reflected on their most positive experiences they seemed to share one if not all of these characteristics:

  1. “ the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.”
  2. we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.”
  3. The task has “clear goals and
  4. Provide immediate feedback
  5. There is deep but effortless involvement that shuts out the noise of everyday life
  6. We are able to exercise a sense of control over our actions
  7. Self consciousness disappears, but sense of self emerges more strongly after the experience is over
  8. The sense of time passing is altered; minutes can seem like hours, or hours can feel like minutes.” (Harper, 1991, pg. 49)

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory was that to achieve flow we needed to maintain the balance between the level of challenge of the activity, and our skill level – if the challenge is too low, we become bored, if it is too high we become overly anxious.  Each individual needs to monitor their own challenge level to keep it optimal to stay engaged. 

This rang so true for me, and it was extremely useful in work with clients who were clearly bored, but judging themselves for it, thinking they had perfectly jobs and should be happy.  Not so!  To stay in Flow, it is critical to constantly be raising the bar.  This is not totally true for everyone all the time, but for some people, some of the time, the model is extremely useful.

For more information on Flow

Learn to Love Chaos

The second book in my series on books that knocked my socks off and made an appreciable impact on my coaching practice:  Leadership and The New Science

In the early 90’s I was having lunch with a friend and mentor Alex Caillet and I asked him what one book would make the biggest difference for me and he recommended Meg Wheatley’s Leadership and The New Science.  One of the things I had noticed working with clients is that they were desperate for answers.  The right answers.  Of course, as a coach, it was not my job to be the truth dispenser with all of the right answers.  But I did feel an obligation to help clients articulate a set of internal values that they could use to make decisions no matter what the situation.  But I was still at a loss for a set of Universal Laws that were consistent, were not beholden to any particular world view or religious law.  I kept coming back to quantum physics – there had been a recent splash in the news about complexity theory and I had been noodling on how to apply those laws to regular life and work for my clients.  Well – Meg beat me to it, and what an amazing job she did.  Her breakthrough book made a huge impact on me and in the business world at the time, but as happens with many great books, it has fallen out of circulation.  I say, it is time to bring it back.  Some of the earth shaking concepts:

  • Order will naturally emerge out of chaos.  You have to be patient and order will come naturally from within.  Good leaders accept occasional chaos as a revitalizing and renewing step.
  • Relationships are the only things that matter- it is critical to develop a diversity of relationships.
  • Information is the organizing force in the universe; it is the life blood of any system.  If it is not flowing freely, the system will not self organize properly.
  • Vision is an invisible field and it is the leader’s job to hold this field.

Is that all?  Isn’t that enough?  Going back to re-read this book to create this blog post, it has once again rocked my world. 

Click here for a terrific, oldie but goodie interview with Meg Wheatley

PS I think it is important to give credit to whomever introduces us to great books.  The person who introduced me to the Angeles Arrien book mentioned in the previous post is an old, dear friend Belle Linda Halpern, founding partner of The Ariel Group.

Unexpected Inspiration

In my mentoring of coaches and coaching practitioners in organizations I am often asked what my influences have been, so I thought it would be fun to do a short series about the books that have rocked my world as a coach.  Not the obvious ones, the books that are not necessarily on the beaten paths and the coaching school reading lists.  Over the next few weeks I will share some of my favorite books with a short review of their key messages. 

 To get us off to a brilliant start for 2012, I will tell you a little about The Four Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary by Angeles Arrien.  Arrien is an anthropologist who travelled and lived among indigenous peoples and studied change agents – all of whom draw on the power and wisdom of the 4 archetypes in the title.  What she found was that no matter what their culture – peace loving or warlike,  maternal vs. patriarchal, agrarian or nomadic – all of the effective leaders follow roughly the same four principles which comprise the Four Fold Way. 

  1. Show up and choose to be present (Warrior)
  2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning (Healer)
  3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment (Visionary)
  4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome (Teacher)

I have been using these principles personally as a self leader, and experimenting with them with clients for over 15 years.  They have proved to have astonishing staying power and have supported those who wish to build personal power, be more effective with groups, and increase their coaching skill.  Most fine leaders are not as well rounded as they might be, and find very little inspiration in competency models to articulate their gaps and create a real plan to close them.  This model provides another angle and I have found that the principles work regardless of religious conviction or cultural background.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About Change

There are probably six excellent change theories and models, and hundreds of books.   Here are a couple of little factoids about the human brain that just cuts to the chase on this topic:

  1.    People can only really focus on one big goal at a time.  Setting another goal will most likely cancel out the original goal (Rock).

 

2. Change is hard for everyone and really really hard for some, because it literally sets off alarm bells in the brain (Rock and Schwartz).  When navigating a change, take more time than you think should be needed, set up systems for people to have conversations about the change to process it. People need time and coaching to relate, repeat and reframe (Deutschman) their thinking about the changes expected of them.  Be ready to be talking about the change long after you have become bored to death with it.

As Peter Senge so advises: 

  • Start small
  • Grow steadily
  • Don’t plan everything and
  • Expect challenges.

Image by Paul Brentnall