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John McCain Resilience and Getting Back on a Horse





In the obituaries for Senator John McCain, all commented on the courage he needed  to survive 5 years in captivity during the Vietnam War.  Even more courage was required when he refused to be released one year into his imprisonment because he understood it was his father’s appointment as Commander of the Pacific Forces that was driving the offer.  The North Vietnamese believed it would give them leverage.  He rejected the offer and said he would only accept his release when all other prisoners were released. His resilience was present in rejecting the offer because of strong principles, but even more so in surviving the torture of the subsequent years and his own suicide attempts.


That resilience, no doubt supported him in his many subsequent years in politics. It enabled him to speak ‘truth to power’ because of being clear on his values and principles, but it also influenced how he raised his children.


In her eulogy to her father, Meghan McCain said, “I was a small girl, thrown from a horse and crying from a busted collarbone. My dad picked me up. He took me to the doctor, he got me all fixed up. Then he immediately took me back home and made me get back on the same horse. I was furious at him as a child, but how I love him for it now.”  What she loved was that when she got back on the horse she saw the look of pride in his face and his words “nothing is going to break you”.


At a time when much is being said about both the greater need for resilience in a world of uncertainty, and the lack of resilience in children who have been parented to avoid risk or failure, many 21st century parents would not take McCain’s approach. However, what he was doing is what the brain needs to deal with difficulty and distress.  The hippocampus, that part of our brain which lays down memories embeds the memory over time.  The initial fall from the horse will initially be a fragile emotional memory of shock. If the parent responds by telling the child never to get back on a horse because it is dangerous, over time the encoded memory will be one of fear of horses and a deepening of the memory of the fall and the break.  If the parent responds by saying ‘now you are OK, let’s see you back on the horse again’, and celebrates our courage, the fragile memory gets overlaid by the experience of realising it is still enjoyable to ride a horse.


The same holds true beyond childhood. How often we use a single setback, disappointment or downright failure to lay down in our hippocampus the memory that we cannot, or we are not good enough, when if we can get back on the horse that has dismounted us we discover that we can succeed, we can learn to do better and we can deal with disappointment and move on.


So, the challenge to support your resilience  is:

  • What is it that has dismounted you recently?
  • What memory have you laid down in your hippocampus about that experience?
  • What do you need to do in order to challenge that memory?
  • What new emotional memory would that action embed?

Challenging the Tetris Effect

If you have ever played the computer game Tetris you will know it can become addictive.  A game as simple as lining up blocks of the same colour can consume hours of time.  That is why an invitation to university students to be paid to play Tetris as part of a research study was irresistible.  The study reported that even when the students stopped playing the game they saw Tetris blocks everywhere they went.  If they were shopping they were mentally lining up cartons of the same colour. If they were out running they were rearranging bricks on walls so that the colours matched.  Their brains had become wired in just a few days to see a world in which Tetris was the new reality.


The relevance of this to non computer game players is that it reflects how we operate in many spheres of our lives, if we give enough time to something, the way we view the world is shaped by that experience.  Test it for yourself: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a colour. Open them and the colour you first see in your surroundings will be the colour you were thinking of.


Shawn Accor in his book The Happiness Advantage, translates this phenomena to the workplace; to show how lawyers trained to critically analyse evidence in court, found they applied the same techniques out of court, when questioning their children. Or, auditors with the ability to spot an error on a tax return would use the same skills to identify errors in their partner’s cooking. Unsurprisingly they did not receive a positive response for the use of their expertise; but all they were doing was continuing to scan the world for further evidence of their skills in action.

Once we have established our reality framework, we develop a spam filter which quickly puts into a junk folder anything which does not accord with what we have decided is our reality. If our filter is scepticism then any experience that confounds our scepticism, is more easily put into the junk folder than examined as contrary evidence.

This argument would seem to support the  ‘I am what I am’ school of thought, where once we establish a position it does not change.  That would be true if we could not move items out of the junk folder, but we can, and do.   Consider what happens when you buy a new car.   Suddenly every car on the road seems to be the same colour and model as the one you now own. Those cars were there all the time but when your framework was your previous car, they were invisible to you.

The importance of being able to challenge our established (and partial) reality, particularly if it is one shaped by an expectation of  difficulty and negativity becomes particularly important when we are under pressure.  Given that resilience is fuelled by adaptability, how can we adapt our thinking?


One answer lies in accessing the power of thinking more optimistically, through letting into our reality evidence that there are things in our life that are ‘good’ even when times are tough.  The idea of recording gratitude each day for the small things in our lives has been well established in the positive psychology literature, but the advice to write 3 gratitudes daily is often not backed up with the ‘why?’.  Psychologist Robert Emmons, whose research is behind this advice has shown that people who commit to the discipline of recording three things each day that they are grateful for, become more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better sleep and even have fewer headaches than control groups.  So gratitude makes you feel better about yourself, but beyond this, people who show up as more optimistic set themselves more challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulty and cope better in stress situations.  Optimism is valuable for achievement, determination and dealing better with the pressures of our lives.

To develop the practice of gratitude as a means of developing an optimistic mindset requires practice,  and we are often resistant to committing to developing new habits, when the old ones are familiar, but there is evidence it is worth the effort:

  • In scanning the day for 3 things that you are grateful for (no matter how small) you become more skilled at noticing, so your reality framework expands.  At the same time in noticing what has been good, what has been frustrating, annoying or disappointing changes its position in your reality.
  • Even doing gratitude for a week leads people to feel happier and less depressed at three month and six month follow up points according to a study by Professor Martin Seligman (the pioneer of positive psychology).
  • Once your brain has expanded its perception through the daily habit, you don’t need to write it down your brain will start doing the work for you, as part of how you see the world.
  • You can take the practice of gratitude further by writing about a positive experience. People often think of journaling at times of difficulty because there are well established health and psychological benefits from writing about strong emotions, but researchers Chad Burton and Laura King showed that happiness is increased by writing about positive experiences.


You may never have played Tetris. You may be immune to computer games, but it is likely that at times you are seeing the world through a view of reality shaped by particular experiences.  By increasing your access to alternative data  you will increase your resilience to deal with the demands on you.



Detoxifying Imposter Syndrome

There is a secret 70% of  us share.  Imagine:  you have just been promoted, or you have been recruited to a new organisation or you have received recognition for your achievements.  In response your phone is full of emails, texts and voicemails offering congratulations.  You thank them for their good wishes, and at the same time, you are thinking:

  • I am not ready for this
  • They will soon find out that I am not up to it
  • It was luck
  • It was a poor field otherwise they would not have chosen me
  • I am only there as a token

Welcome to the Imposter Syndrome Club.  It is a club that research suggests 70% of us belong to at some point in our lives, and yet we assume that it is ‘only us’ that is undeserving, has self doubt, or  is anxious about taking on a new challenge.  Because the original research, by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes  was solely conducted with women it is often suggested that it is a woman’s issue, and male colleagues live their working lives untouched by self doubt.   Sitting in on a coaching session would quickly dispel  that myth. It affects the successful as much as those aspiring to success, men as much as women.  Why?  Because Imposter Syndrome is part of the human condition.


Its roots are developed in childhood.  The reality that as a child we cannot do things as well as the people who matter most to us– our parents, begins the process of comparison.  Those feelings are magnified  by childhoods which bring trauma.  Growing up in a family where there are issues of addiction, abuse (mental and physical) or a pattern of hyper-criticism, fuels the need to show that we can be good enough, whilst still believing we never will be. It drives ambition and determination, but it does not bring the rewards which we seek. Instead it fuels, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism and self doubt.

So given, that 2/3 of us are walking around with internal dialogues telling us we could be exposed at any moment, why does it remain a hidden secret?  The answer may lie in the simple truth that we know what we think, but we only see what other people do.  You see the person standing on the stage receiving their Oscar, their sports award or their recognition for business success and you buy into their appearance.  They look confident, their success looks seamless and  based on a far greater talent than you could ever have.  What you don’t see is the journey that got them there.   You can’t hear their internal dialogue remembering the times they nearly gave up, how they only got the part by chance, or how they live in fear of the next competitor.


So if it is part of being human, does it have any value to us?  It can,  if we can turn it from a toxic internal  voice to a useful guide.  In a 2016 TedEx  talk Lou Solomons shared how she learnt in therapy to separate out the mean inner voice by giving it a name, and then creating a supportive countervailing voice.  Recognising when the mean friend  was showing up she then called on her strong friend’s  voice to outwit the internal bully.  Learning how to manage our thoughts  through being able to objectify them is extremely valuable, because it makes conscious, what is unconsciously ruling us, but it is not the only way.


If we accept that the Imposter Syndrome is part of being human, then we can consider what its value could be if we could detoxify its impact.

  • If we could take a leap of faith and accept that the person opposite us probably has the same thoughts and feelings as we do, then we would be more open about not having all the answers and look to offer and seek support more readily.
  • If we saw our limited knowledge, not as boundary to what we can achieve, but as a driver to our curiosity, then we would achieve more.
  • If we viewed ourselves not as a flawed professional but as a work in progress then we could be kinder to ourselves about not getting it right all the time.
  • If we accepted that when we take on something new we cannot be as good as those who have been doing it for years, but that motivation is the fuel for learning.
  • If we saw the thoughts and feelings of being an imposter as drivers to action, rather than brakes on our potential then we would risk more with less fear.


In the 17th century, the French philosopher wrote, “Kings and philosophers shit, so do ladies”. If we accept that not only do we all have the bodily functions regardless of our status or success, but that we all have similar internal thought processes regardless of our seniority,  we could move Imposter Syndrome from being our individual secret to a shared condition of being human.

Why don’t we do what we say we are going to do?


You have probably long given up on New Year resolutions in the knowledge that they don’t work.  They don’t work because the old you does not metamorphosise on the stroke of midnight into the new you.  The new you  that is required to exert the necessary will power to give up smoking, eat healthier, exercise regularly,  be more considerate etc

However, that does not mean that for the rest of the year we don’t constantly give ourselves instructions on what we should be doing in order to live a better, more successful, more satisfying life.  Whether it is vowing to manage time better, achieve a better work-life balance, not answer emails at home or not look at the phone when with friends and family.   The desire for self improvement is constant, and the failure levels are disappointingly high.


Why is this?  It is not that that we are not convinced of the value of the behavioural change, and yet we find ourselves continuing to take on too much, abandoning activities which keep us balanced, looking at emails late at night and irresistibly drawn to that text that has just pinged in when we should be focussed on our child or partner.


The answer according to researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, and the authors of ‘Immunity to Change’,  is that our behaviours make absolute sense if we acknowledge that we have the ability to create perfect logical systems which make us immune to acting on the changes we say we want.


Take this all to common example:

  • You are determined to leave work on time so that you can get in the exercise that you know helps you deal with the demands of your work.
  • What you do instead, is stay at work until you are too tired to exercise and all you want is to relax when you get home.

This abandonment of a desired activity, only makes sense if you ask the question, “what am I secretly more committed to?”

Your answer could be:

  • Getting the next promotion
  • Ensuring X does not get the next promotion
  • Having a friendly relationship with my boss
  • Not missing out on anything

Once we admit our secret commitment(s) then the actions make absolute sense, and in fact to leave work on time, makes no sense.

Underpinning that commitment are assumptions that hold the commitment firmly in place. They are like two pieces of Velcro that attach themselves firmly to each other.

Assumptions like:

  • The key decider on promotions is who is present most.
  • The only thing that separates X and me are the hours we work
  • My boss’s view of me is decided by the time I leave work
  • I can only know what matters by being present after normal working hours.


While the assumptions sit inside our heads, they maintain an unchallengeable logic, but once we bring them into the open, their limitations become clear. They hold us firmly where we are, and allow for no other behavioural option.  However, they are only assumptions, and we usually do not have unchallengeable data to confirm their truth.  The power of  an assumption is that it is an untested  thought  guiding our actions.   It is only when we own it as an assumption that we have the possibility of choosing another assumption that offers different possibilities.  For example:

  • There are other qualities than the ability to work long hours that decide who does best.
  • Exercising helps me be better  resourced to deal with the demands of work.
  • Being able to manage time well within the day can create a more positive impression than always working late.
  • Not everything is worth knowing, and no one can ever know everything.


So, if you are not doing what  your rational head tells you you need to do, then start by unearthing the commitments that are telling you to stay as you are.  Once you own up to those commitments, find  the assumptions which are driving them, and you then have the option of creating some new assumptions that will better support your aim.

Feeling Upset Write About It

I recently met a hero of mine, James Pennebaker.  You may not have heard of him, but he profoundly influenced my work, because he taught me the power of expressive writing.  30 years ago James Pennebaker, a Professor of Social Psychology made a discovery, which is both obvious and often not acknowledged : keeping secrets is bad for us.  What he learned is that writing about something, even if you do not talk about, it has health benefits.  He first made this discovery when he asked students to write about a trauma that had happened to them earlier in their life, but which they had not spoken about.  They wrote just 4 times for 15 minutes, but in the months that followed he was able to see that those who wrote had less visits to doctors and had fewer minor illnesses, He also found that immediately after writing our immune system is boosted. He concluded that confession is good for the body.  His pioneer work has been replicated in over 1,000 studies, and in populations across the world and the same findings emerge.  Writing is good for your health.

Why is this?

Firstly,when you write, you are often able to label your emotions in a way you may not feel comfortable doing if speaking out loud.  Writing that you are feeling angry, pissed off, jealous or shameful starts the process of being able to separate away from the emotion.

Writing helps to organise the experience. Putting it out there, puts some space between you and the event, which is not possible, when it is swirling repetitively around inside your  head. In creating that space, we begin to have new thoughts and emotions.

Thirdly, when we hold onto something, it impacts on our lives.  Holding onto rage against another person weeks, months or even years after the event does not impact them, but it does impact on us.  There is a Buddhist saying that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but the person holding the coal is the one who gets burned.  When we hold onto anger we continue to hurt ourselves.

When we write about something which has emotional meaning for us, we improve our working memory for days and even weeks, and even more crucially, it helps us to break the pattern of going over the same event with the same thoughts (what psychologists call perseverative cognition).

Writing also  helps us to sleep better.  The NHS knows this.   In its’ advice on  managing stress, it advises people to write down worries for the next day before going to bed.  The  aim is  to acknowledge the concern but without the emotions and thoughts attached to them, invading our sleep pattern, so that we are not waking in the night with the distorted thinking that accompanies disrupted sleep.

So the evidence is strong, writing about things which are upsetting us, refusing to go away and dominating head space is a powerful way of helping yourself to better physical and mental health. It does not mean you have to write every day, even Pennebaker admits he only writes occasionally.  It does mean noticing when life is throwing you a curve ball that is affecting your emotionally, and allowing yourself to write to yourself for as long as it is takes before the emotional charge of the event shifts.


Grief: The Elephant in the Workplace


Sheryl Sandbergs new book ‘Option B’ has received wide attention because of her profile as COO of Facebook, but its’ real importance is that she has brought into the open a universal experience that receives little attention, that of grief at work. In a society that looks to massage grief into invisibility after the immediate aftermath of a death, she shares how the loss of her husband impacted on every part of her life: from suddenly  becoming a single parent, to  dealing with the demands of her role when her brain was overwhelmed with the weight of loss.  She shatters the myth that we pick up where we left off once the funeral is over, and speaks openly of her lack of focus, her frequent tears, and her memory lapses.  Her colleagues were generous in their support, often the bereaved perceive their colleagues as less than supportive.


They are silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.   They are embarrassed as to how they will deal with the emotions of a colleague so avoid the topic, or offer a mundane expression of empathy ‘I’m sorry for your loss”,  before moving onto business. They ask ‘how are you?’, as though there can be an authentic answer to describe the reality of what the person is experiencing.  As the saying goes, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” The offer is made,”is there anything I can do?” putting the onus on the person  to define an appropriate  action, knowing the one action they want, the return of their loved one cannot be delivered.


This book will be read because of Sandberg’s career success, but her experience is no different from any other employee, so what can we all take from it to normalise both loss and responses to loss at work.

  • There is no way of knowing if you are saying the right thing, but it  is worth taking the risk of asking the person how they are today. It acknowledges that reactions change day to day, while the bland, ‘how are you?’, invites the platitude  ‘Fine’, that both parties know is a lie.
  • Not naming the elephant in the room of the death of a partner, parent, child or even pet, does not make it easier for the bereaved. It simply makes them feel there is something shameful in the death of someone they love.
  • Don’t ask if there is something you can do – offer to do something.
  • There is a fine balance between offering to take on work for a grieving colleague and their feeling diminished by the off.  Check  in if it would be welcome if you took on a meeting, delivered a presentation, took on an assignment to reduce their workload – or will simply compound their sense that their brain has deserted them.
  • Don’t offer reassurance ‘time is a great healer’, two years on you’ll have moved on or once you’ve worked through the  Kubler Ross grief cycle you’ll be fine.  Grief is not a  programme to be completed, it is a set of states  that the individual will revisit for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t assume your responses to loss will be theirs. Better to be interested in their response to their loss than to see yours as of interest to them (at least in the early stages it won’t be).
  • Give affirmation of what they are doing well at work, as they will be focussed on what feels strange or meaningless, what they have forgotten and when they could not focus.

Most centrally, treat them as the person you have always known. They do not  have a disease, but grief is a large hole in a person.  That hole will never disappear,  but  over time they will start wrapping layers of life around it.  Those layers are paper thin at the beginning, bu with  time they will become thick enough to protect them and to enable them to create a different life.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Advertity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy  is published by  Penguin Random House

Resilient Leadership: The Performance Difference Between Pressure and Stress

If you are a leader you are subject to pressure, because pressure is the demand to perform well.  You may love pressure.  You know you do your best work under pressure.  When the deadline looms is when you kick into gear.  It is because of your ability to absorb pressure that you have been given a leadership role.


But – what happens when the pressure becomes uncomfortable?  When the demands are more than you can manage.  When your sense of being in control disappears.  When you feel unsupported, and when your emotions become entangled in the situation. In those conditions pressure becomes stress.

I have yet to meet any leader who thrives on stress, and yet it has become an accepted condition of working life.  It is often only when stress shouts loudly, through showing up as physical or mental illness that it gets attention.

Much stress does not shout loud enough to be noticed.   It silently simmers under the surface,  whilst shaping how people show up at work.  Many leaders struggle through tough times, whilst feeling depleted, and hoping no one will notice.  The reality is it is noticed, even if it is not acknowledged.   Team members sense that their leader is less available to them and less connected to their work. They notice mood changes and loss of optimism.  In turn their sense of commitment to their work, their optimism about what can be achieved and their willingness to stick at the tough stuff is directly impacted by what they are noticing  in their leader.


Stress impacts on the whole system around a leader (both at work and at home). However, no matter how heavy the pressure, stress is not an inevitable.  Sitting between the two is the amazing quality resilience.  A quality which we all have, but which at times can desert us.   When present, it buffers us so that we can deal with the difficult. As we lose access to it, our susceptibility to stress increases.




The challenge for leaders is how to retain access to those resilience qualities that life has already provided, and how to increase resilience capacity to work through difficult times.


The answer I have discovered through research and many years of working with leaders as an executive coach, is that resilient leaders are skilled at learning how to manage their energy sources:

The three energy sources


Physical energy is shaped by how you take care of your body as a resource that deserves to be looked after well, if you are to do good work.  Rather seeing the  head as the source of your skill and the body as a neglected attachment, resilient leaders accept that the well-being of the body affects the power of the brain.   How well your body is resourced through food, exercise and sleep directly affects how well your brain functions.

Mental energy is depleted by the time we give to going over what is unchangeable or catastrophising the future. It is reduced by expending energy in multiple directions rather than focusing on what is most important now.  We can increase our mental energy by:

  • Learning how to challenge our thoughts, rather than being undermined by them
  • Considering how your purpose as an individual and your purpose as a leader are aligned.


Emotional energy

It is hard to sustain emotional energy when feeling pessimistic about the present and future.  It is hard to sustain positive emotions when life is so absorbed by work that there is little energy left for life outside of work.  Sustaining emotional energy is helped by:

  • Being able to recognise what is OK alongside all the challenges of work
  • Having supporters who can give a loving boot to help you move forward
  • Ensuring you do things that enable you to use other parts of you; whether that is helping out your child’s rugby team, singing your heart out in a choir, playing a sport (no matter how badly) or writing poetry. When we do something different we re-balance and renew.

Since every leader requires resilience to deal with the demands of the day to day, as well as those events which destabilise us, every leader owes it to themselves to manage their own resources well alongside those of the organisation they work for.

To find out more about how you can develop resilience as a leader then click to this link for details of my new Resilient Leadership on line programme


Why do I need a coach supervisor?

You have been coaching for years , and have plenty of clients. Why do you need a supervisor?  You have just completed a coaching course and are eager to go it alone without being constantly assessed.  Why would you want a supervisor?  These are challenges which are often put to coach supervisors.  The easy answer is because many of the major purchasers of coaching demand that those they work with have a supervisor.  But, that response feeds the idea of the coach supervisor as either a tick in the boss, or an external figure of authority.  It promotes the idea of the supervisor as the looming presence checking that the coach is doing it right, or at least doing no harm.  It draws attention away from the real role of the supervisor in increasing the awareness of the coach, so that they are better resourced and supported to do great work with their clients.


Now that I supervise internal and external coaches, I see the role of a supervisor as very different from that figure of judgement I dreaded at the beginning of my coaching career.  I know that all of my supervisees are talented able individuals – some with a wealth of experience in coaching, others with a wealth of experience from other areas of their lives.  They know more than they imagine, but they need space to think about their thinking.

Immediately after a coaching session individual reflection captures what went well, what we wished we had done differently, how resourced or stuck we felt, and what we noticed.  The role of the supervisor is to increase that lens of attention so that the coach sees more and can take more back into their work.

What we do in coaching sessions is never random.  It is based on how we see the client:  analytical or playful, accepting or sceptical, reflective or activist.  It is equally based on how we see ourselves, and what we think is possible for us.  A supervisor is there to increase our capacity so that more becomes possible.  As a  supervisor I am less interested in the content of the session than in the dynamics:

  • How does the coach bring themselves to this client. Does the fact the client is a CEO make the coach sound deferential when they speak of them? Does the fact the client is much younger make the coach become maternal or paternal in how they respond to them?
  • What happens when the two of them are together? Does the coach get caught up trying to out-think the intellectual client?  Does the coach fail to name what they are sensing the real issue is?
  • What is the unspoken psychological contract that has developed between the two of them? The client expects to have lots of space to think but without any expectation of take action?  Or the client expects they can cancel sessions at short notice because their work is more important than that of the coach.
  • Is the client transferring their dislike of authority into positioning the coach as a figure of authority to be resisted.
  • Does the issue which the client brings to the session play out in parallel within the session e.g. the coach complains that they don’t feel they are impacting on the client, in the same way as the client talks of not making an impact on their boss.
  • Is the coach labelling the client as difficult or uncoachable without exploring what they are evoking in them?

Because the supervisor is not caught in the detail of the coaching conversation, they can listen differently.  They are then able to use what they hear in how the coach talks about their client in the service of the coach’s need. The supervisor can share what they are feeling, sensing or noticing in the context of the question which the coach is bringing.  The supervisor can also support the coach in finding what is the real question that needs to be addressed. Often this is not – what technique do I need to work with client A, but what am I not seeing or bringing to A’s attention that would make the difference?


The supervisor’s role is primarily to create the safe place where the coach can bring their uncertainties, mistakes and vulnerabilities. .  The things which we do not want our clients to see, but which will get in the way if they are not dealt with .  The supervisor’s role is not to sit in lofty authority bestowing wisdom, as though they do not also have clients who can challenge and undermine them.  Their place is sitting alongside the coach: a partner in enabling insights to emerge that will increase effectiveness in the next coaching session and for future clients.

Are you reflecting or ruminating: the key difference in staying resilient

Talk of being stressed by work has become a norm. The blurring of lines between work and non work because of technology, means there is no longer a buffer between work and home. The volume of work constantly increases because of what technology can deliver. The demand to do more with less at speed and the complexity of many problems with no clear answer are all markers of the pressure to perform. But does pressure mean stress? Two people facing those same pressures will react differently. One will seem to take it in their stride; the other will experience the demands as stressful. Even if they do not admit to their feelings, the stressed worker will notice changes in their ability to control their emotions, to work productively and to maintain a sense of optimism about outcomes. It may even make them ill as their immune system is unable to support the demands they are making on it.

Or consider the converse, someone whose work seems to involve little pressure, but who shows every sign of being stressed. So what is the difference between pressure and stress? This is the question Dr Derek Rogers, a research psychologist from the University of York has been exploring for the last 35 years, and his conclusion is that the difference is simple. Stress and loss of resilience come from the propensity to ruminate rather than to reflect. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with pressure. It is simply the expectation of performance, and many people say they thrive on that pressure to deliver. Stress comes when the demands produce thoughts which are played in the brain like a scratched record. The thoughts generated by the emotions in the moment of demand become trapped in the faulty groove of the vinyl, and we cannot change the record.

What does rumination look like? You have had a bad day. One team member announces they are resigning at a key point in the project. Your boss calls you in at the end of the day and tells you that you need to get the project finished even earlier, and as an afterthought adds that you did not get the tone right when you presented to the Exec Committee earlier in the day. On such a day it is understandable if your thoughts as you go home are dominated by anger at the team member for making your life more difficult and concerns about how easily you will replace them. Add to this your feelings of failure at not delivering the presentation well and possible consequences for your career in terms of how you are seen by senior leaders. Then there is anxiety about how your boss will appraise you if you don’t deliver on the delivery date.

Those reactions are normal, and a good night’s sleep can provide perspective. Rumination starts when you cannot let go of the thoughts and feelings. When for days and weeks after you are worrying about your reputation and you are seeing catastrophe ahead in terms of the project’s delivery. You hold onto the emotions the events of one day generated. You do not sleep well and when you wake in the middle of the night your brain immediately fills with negative thoughts. On the bad day your body recognised you were feeling threat and prepared you to fight, flee or freeze as adrenaline flooded your system. Weeks later if you are still replaying the situations in your brain your body replays the same reactions. It is now also calling on cortisol to help you deal with the danger which it thinks you arefacing, and cortisol called on over time both compromises the immune system and lays down fat. More causes for negative rumination.

One of the differentiators between humans and other species according to York and his co-author Nick Petrie is our ability to ruminate, and to re-experience emotions and bodily sensations long after the event. If you surprise a pet cat by walking into the room quietly, it will spring into the air, arch its back and be prepared to fight. Once it recognises you as its loving owner it will relax lie back on the rug and go back to sleep. It will not be asking itself questions such as ‘’Why did I not notice the door opening?’, or ‘What would have happened to me if it had been a big dog? The cat simply recognises the reality of the situation as it is.

So rather than the pressures of the job in themselves causing stress, it is our propensity to ruminate which is a key contributor. Our ability to deal with pressure without becoming stressed lies in being able to reflect rather than to ruminate. So what is the difference?

  • Reflection comes from dealing with the present moment. It comes from focussing on ‘what is the situation right now?’, and then drawing up plans that deal with that reality. It is the difference between constantly thinking about the possible cost to the project of a member leaving and becoming anxious, and wondering what you could have done differently to keep them, and focussing on the reality of what you can do to minimise the impact of their leaving ,and what you can renegotiate to make the project workable.
  • Reflection starts from noticing when you are in what York and Petrie call ‘waking sleep’ i.e. spending time trying to rewrite history or predicting the future, and then asking yourself how useful those minutes of thought have been to solving the difficulty. It is a practical application of mindfulness: a noticing of the emotions and thoughts which are filling your brain, in order to be able to challenge the process, by bringing you back to the present.

So how do you shift from rumination to reflection, given that going over things in our head as though we can change what has passed or write what will pass is an engrained practice in many of us.

Get out of Waking Sleep

Waking sleep is when we are not focussed on the task in hand but are daydreaming about the past or a projected negative future, with all the emotions that go with those thoughts. Getting out of waking sleep and into reflection means:

  • Notice yourself. Mindfulness asks you to notice your thoughts as just thoughts and not the truth. Catching yourself and being able to say ‘I’m daydreaming again’ is the first step.
  • Question yourself. Notice how long you have been in daydreaming mode, and then ask yourself how useful those minutes have been. What new ideas or solutions have come from the replaying of emotionally charged thoughts.
  • Ground yourself. What is the situation right now? Rather than ruminating on ‘Will I have a job next year?’, or’ What if the deadline is not met?’ Ask yourself – ‘What is the reality at this moment, and what does that enable me to do?

We can never work without pressure, but those who succeed have the ability to stop themselves derailing by focusing their energies on reflection, rather than rumination.

Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. (McGraw Hill Education)

Confessions of a Failed Mindfulness Practitioner

Zen stones in water

What if you know mindfulness is good for you, but you still find reasons why it can’t be fitted into your day.   What if you have studied innumerable raisins close up in the service of mindful attention but you still don’t like raisins.  What if your mind is always full but not of the thoughts and feelings that are helpful.  What do you do instead?

Mindfulness has entered the mainstream.  There is hardly a leadership programme that does not include it.   Major plcs as diverse as PWC, Glaxo SmithKline and Google provide programmes and even special space for mindfulness breaks during the day.  Harvard University offers it to students, and  state schools include it as part of examination preparation.  The 8 week programme of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat Zinn to help clients with symptoms of stress and anxiety is now offered far beyond its original mental health setting.  When high street retailer, Tesco, teaches mindfulness to staff at store level it is a signal that it is now so commonplace that a backlash is inevitable, and it is beginning to happen.  Why is that?  There is plentiful evidence of its efficacy when it becomes a committed practice.  There are MRI scans which show how by regular mindfulness practice the brain is changed to think more positively,   but the truth is most of us are not committed practitioners.  We enjoy it whilst on a programme and when done with others.   We recognise its value at times of stress, and then we forget.  It takes up too much time, it becomes another thing to do, or our practice is so intermittent that we feel little value.  Who am I talking about when I write this – me.  I have done the 8 week programme, I have downloaded guided meditations, I have numerous mindfulness books sitting on the shelf, and yet I don’t continue to do the work.  It’s not because I don’t need to, it’s because I am a natural resister of regular disciplines.


I kept my sloth quiet when amongst those committed to mindfulness, until I found an ally in the work of Emma Young.  Her book ‘Sane’: written by a science and health journalist who shows a resistance to doing many of the things which she is told she should do in the name of well being struck a chord in me.  In setting out to establish what really works and is supported by science, she filters out many of the contradictory messages we are given, and identifies the essentials for improving mental strength.  Inevitably, she examines mindfulness, and concludes after talking with a range of researchers,  that it is the disruption to mental thought processes which is key.  Some may get it from mindfulness, others from running, playing a musical instrument, or making a cake.  It is the value of the activity in keeping us in the moment, undistracted from any other thought or concern that gives the activity its recuperative power.


Now,  I have discovered my form of disruption in the work of Heartmath®.   Heartmath® is at its simplest a breathing technique to reduce stress and build resilience.  However, it is based on the growing neuroscience evidence of the intelligence of the heart.  The heart is not just a pump, it is an organ with neural circuits that it is continually in communication with the brain, informing it of our level of stress or relaxation.  All those sayings which refer to the heart:  heart broken, heart sore, heart weary , bleeding heart, heavy heart  or heart to heart, are not accidental, they recognise that the heart is an active organ of emotion and communication. It is directly linked with our limbic system.


By learning how to breath in a heart focussed way, we can control the variability of our heart rhythm and bring it into a smooth coherent pattern which balances out our need for energy with our need for relaxation.  In doing so we  enhance our performance and ability to handle the demands of the day. What is powerful for those who like to see science in action is that with Heartmath® you can observe your own heart pattern through a bio-feedback application linked to smartphone technology.   You can see how when you change your breathing you change the neurotransmitters which are driving  emotional responses to events.  And, of course, whilst engaging in managing  breathing more effectively, you are not focused on the thoughts that were causing us negative emotions.  It works for me, because I know that even 3 minutes of focused heart based breathing will support me in dealing with the demands of the day, and when the demands increase, a top up can be done quickly and inconspicuously.


Once I discovered its value for a failed mindfulness practitioner, I decided to use it with  clients as another means for supporting their resilience.  Clients like it, because even in the most demanding of situations they notice that by changing their breathing, they change their response (and no one even knows they are doing it).  So, while mindfulness has undoubted benefits, if you cannot quieten your mind one way, simply find your way.