Motivational Interviewing or NLP?

I have often been asked which approach a professional should take in order to build motivation with their clients.  The person asking may be wanting to help their clients or learners to be more proactive with career planning, get back into job search after a period of unemployment, maintain a new habit, make progress with a qualification or develop a daily practice.  The barrier they are encountering is a seeming lack of motivation.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing was first developed by Miller and Rollnick (who have written the definitive book on the subject) to work with drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics, but it is now used a whole range of settings, including health and career development.

Mindfulness teachers, for example, might use this approach to motivate a learner to do the daily mindfulness practice required for a learning programme , whilst Careers Advisers might use the approach with unemployed clients, to motivate them to look for work or proactively explore their options.

To get your head around this approach, you need to start by thinking about ambivalence.  If you find it hard to motivate yourself to do something, it is usually because you are in some way ambivalent – in some ways you want to do it, in other ways you don’t.  For example, in some ways you might want a promotion (more money, more challenge, more high-profile) but in other ways you might not (fear of failure, more stress, not sure you if have the skills).  The scales can tip from side to side, and MI works with the client to help them uncover what is on each side of the scales, and then tip the balance towards the desired action (if there is one).

There are two components to motivation – believing that something is important, and feeling confident that if you took action, you would succeed.  If either of these beliefs is weak, motivation will be weak as well, so the interviewer works to increase these two beliefs.

One of the common traps in trying to motivate someone is giving advice – telling them what you think they should do.  Often when people tell you what to do, they articulate what is on one side of the scales (all the reasons to act), and you respond by articulating the other side of the scales (all the reasons not to act), which has the effect of weakening your motivation to act.  For example, if my mindfulness teacher tells me all the reasons a daily practice is important to get the benefits from the programme, I will respond by explaining all the reasons I can’t do it (not enough time, children too young, being too bored, forgetting etc.).

So in MI, you start in the opposite place – you explore with the person why they don’t want to act, and by really listening and understanding their responses, you free them up to articulate the other side of the scales – why they should act.  Articulating the reasons why you should act strengthens motivation.

So a Careers Adviser, for example, might explore with a client all the reasons why she finds it difficult to identify vacancies she could apply for – not enough time, not knowing where to look, not seeing anything local, forgetting, lacking confidence, not seeing anything that matches her skills – and then only after this has been explored well, would the Careers Adviser use questions to elicit more positive statements from the client about the benefits of finding some vacancies.  The point is very much that the reasons for sticking to the exercises must come from the client, not the practitioner.

There are many specific questions and techniques that are used in MI, but the basics are fairly simple:

  • Open Questions
  • Affirmation
  • Reflective listening
  • Summaries

These are all basic counselling skills, used in many professions.  As with client-centred counselling, you need a lot of respect and empathy for the individual you are working with, and you need to believe that they have the potential to change.  The key thing that is different from client-centred couneslling is that the interviewer uses techniques to help the client build motivation to act in a certain direction – to manage their career, to give up smoking, to exercise regularly, to meditate, to engage with a  training programme.

There is a lot of academic research supporting the efficacy of this approach, and it seems to be most effective when the interviewer genuinely does have empathy and respect for the client/patient/learner.

My experience of MI is that it is really effective in working with reluctant or disengaged clients.  It is a great approach to working with clients who have been “sent” for an interview, and don’t want to be there.  It works really well with anyone who seems ambivalent; they say they want something but they don’t take much action to achieve it.  I’ve also used techniques from motivational interviewing on friends and family, with some success!

It’s also useful in a management situation, when you are perhaps hoping to motivate someone to make the best of their potential – perhaps do some extra training, take on a new project or role,  take control of changes in the workplace, or develop new skills.  It doesn’t fit so well, however, with managing performance in the workplace.  If you are in the position of having to set targets and ensure they are met, you are providing an external “stick” and you can’t then be neutral enough to do motivational interviewing in it’s true form.

So What About NLP?

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is widely used in business and management, life coaching, sports coaching and communication skills training.  The jury is still out on how effective it is – some people swear by it and others think it is a bit of a con.  There are loads of books, trainers and websites on NLP, explaining how to use NLP techniques to get the most out of life, set and achieve goals, improve your relationships and anything else you care to mention!  NLP consultants often come into organisations to improve communication skills, increase sales or improve motivation.

NLP was developed by Bandler and Grinder, and is a set of practical techniques to improve your skills in managing your thought patterns, communications and behaviour.  Where Motivational Interviewing delves around in the negative, NLP relentlessly concentrates on the positive.

So the mindfulness teacher above might work with her learner and ask her to visualise how her life would be in five years if she had maintained a daily mindfulness practice.  The learner might imagine herself as calmer and more able to deal with difficult emotions, feeling more positive in work and enjoying her family.  She would be asked to make this vision as clear as possible – what can she see, what do others say about her, how is she dressed, what colours are in the picture?  She could perhaps add some music to this mental picture.  Then she would be asked to keep this picture in her mind every day, so that subconsciously she makes choices which lead her towards it.

A Careers Adviser might work with a client to identify negative thought patterns (e.g. There’s no point in looking for a job because I’ll never get one) and replace them with more positive “self-talk” – If I keep applying for suitable jobs, I will be getting more interview practice and in the end I will find something.  

NLP is often used in Career Guidance to improve confidence in managing new situations, job interviews, presentations.  It can also be used to help clients set ambitious goals and think into the long-term about how they want their life to be.  There are techniques than can be used to help clients control negative emotions – anger, anxiety, shyness – and to improve relationship and communication skills.  

NLP techniques are great to use with clients/patients/colleagues who want to take part in the activities.  They can be adapted well to group sessions as well.  They are also good for mentoring relationships – perhaps in the workplace or in education.  I’m not completely convinced about the whole NLP package, but there are definitely tools in there that are very useful, and I’ve made small changes in my life as a result of doing NLP activities, so some of it at least has worked for me!

So which to invest in?

If you want to spend a bit of time developing your skills in one of these areas, which should you explore?

If by nature, you are an empathic listener with a more facilitative approach, MI will probably come easily to you.  If you see yourself as more a magician with a tool box of tricks, NLP is likely to be more attractive. MI will suit you better if your preference is to explore what is here right now in the present, whilst NLP may suit you better if you are future-orientated and like to have goals. Choosing approaches on this basis will build on your natural strengths.  However, there might also be something to be said for working with the approach that comes less naturally to you!

If the people you are working with are reluctant to engage at all, then motivational interviewing will be a better starting point for engaging them.  If on the other hand, the people you work with are already committed to working with you and making changes, you may find that there are plenty of techniques in NLP that will work well for you (although MI will still be useful when you hit brick walls and no progress is being made).

If you like approaches that have been rigorously tested, the MI wins on that score. If, however, you are more persuaded by what seems to work well in practice for you, then there are plenty of people who swear by NLP and you may be one of them.

Of course, you may just find that both approaches are worth learning more about and using as appropriate.

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Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!

 

 

Listening with an Uncluttered Mind

As a trained counsellor and career guidance practitioner, I like to think I have very good listening skills. And put me in a quiet room with a client in need of support, and yes, I probably do. However, I am very aware that in other workplace situations, I don’t offer the same quality of listening, and I wonder what would happen if I did. I suspect that I would find work more rewarding, since the highlights of my week usually relate to connecting with people.  Maybe it is the same for you.

So how can we learn to listen?

There are several levels of listening that can be offered, from superficial listening (appearing to listen but not really paying attention) through attentive listening (listening carefully to the words) then active listening (reflecting back the thoughts and feelings) and finally deep listening (listening with all our five senses to tune into the emotions that lie beneath the surface).

In a counselling/guidance setting we are aiming for the deeper levels of listening, and we are trained to use active listening skills to help us get there. With practice we get better at noticing body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and pace, as well as the words that are chosen. Reflecting back what is heard and sensed without trying to steer the conversation is a discipline; it is much harder than it sounds. Listening without judgement can also be challenging at times.  However, listening without steering or judging frees us up to truly empathise instead of thinking about what advice to give, question to ask or information to share.

Deep listening gives the speaker the space the they need to really express themselves, but more than that, it is an experience of being emotionally held by someone who “gets” you, and it can be very moving and affirming. To open up requires trust and we are only like to do it if we are not being judged, if we feel there is a kindly acceptance of our inner most thoughts and fears.

Of course, there are many barriers to deep listening, and most of them have to do with thinking too much about ourselves and our own needs. All of the following can be roadblocks to listening:

– Thinking about how to respond

– Planning what direction to take the conversation in

– Thinking about how to persuade someone to change their point of view

– Thinking about other tasks that are competing for attention

– Feeling bored

– Evaluating what is being said (is it true, do I agree?)

– Managing the time

As soon as we start thinking about these thing we are no longer fully focused on listening, and the quality diminishes.  We are partly listening but we are not so tuned in to everything that is being expressed.

Generally, the more stressed we are, the more buzz and chatter is in our minds and the less we are able to listen. If you thinking about an email you mustn’t forget to send, you are not truly listening. If you are evaluating your own performance or criticising yourself, again, you aren’t truly listening.

Meditation has a lot in common with deep listening. When we meditate we are focusing our attention on one thing (often the breath, the body or an object). We are noticing the thoughts that pop into our mind, but trying not to latch onto them. We gently bring our mind back to whatever is the object of our attention whenever it wonders.

Active listening is much the same, except that the object we are focused on is the speaker. As we listen thoughts may pop into our heads, and we notice that but try not to get involved in our own thoughts. We may experience bodily sensations, especially if we have an emotional reaction to the speaker, and again we just notice and accept that without analysing at this point (we might want to do that afterwards!)

Practicing mediatation helps to develop powers of concentration, the ability to accept ourselves without judgement and it can free the mind of some of the clutter of thoughts and stories that prevent good listening. Likewise, practicing good listening us develop self-awareness and an open acceptance of others, listening without judgement.  It disciplines us to focus on another rather than ourselves.  For a really good listening session, it is essential to come with a clear mind.

Of course, it is not possible to be in deep listening mode all the time. If you are teaching or chairing a meeting, you have to give information and instructions, and manage the time. If your meeting has a purpose, then you have to think about how best to achieve that purpose.  You will inevitably be focused on tasks a lot of the time.

But there are many opportunities to use deep listening too, in both formal meetings and informal interactions.  A colleague may be offloading about their day or sharing a problem, an employee may be struggling with a new challenge or finding it difficult to accept change, or a group may be experiencing some conflict. These are all situations that benefit from a good listener.

Real listening can radically change workplace relationships by making people feel genuinely heard and cared for. In tough times, when everyone is stressed, deep listening is harder to do, but it it is even more needed. So, my mission this week is to see how many opportunities to listen I can find.

Tree Pose

DSC_0328This felt surprisingly high up and a bit scary! I can do tree pose (vrikshasana) easily on the floor, but add some height and uneven ground, and it was a whole different ball game! I like balances, because you have to focus and concentrate, and if your mind is as scattered as mine seems to be at the moment, that is a good thing.  I had to focus on a tree at my eye line and NOT LOOK DOWN because I am not all that good with heights and I do get a bit of vertigo.

It’s good to do things that a little bit scary from time to time, things that push you out of your comfort zone, where you need to trust yourself and your ability to meet the challenge. It’s what keeps your comfort zone growing, as things that were once scary become less so.

For tree pose, you need to be really firmly rooted down into ground, but not too rigid. You need to be able to wobble and come back to balance. A tree is firmly rooted into the ground, but can sway and bend with the breeze without breaking. The yogi needs the same qualities.

It was lovely to feel a bit of mud under my bare feet and squidge down into it, and then feel the leaves rustling around me, and be held by the strength of the tree.

Yoga isn’t just what you do on your yoga mat. Every pose can teach you something about life.  For me, tree pose is about learning to be grounded in your own values, having integrity and doing the right thing, but also being flexible enough to meet the changes and challenges that life constantly throws at you.

Happy spring, and let’s all enjoy this sunshine!

Power Poses, Yoga and Rocking That Job Interview

My favourite TED talk has to be Amy Cuddy’s talk on power poses. It is a simple idea, that changing your body language, using powerful poses and taking up space can change your life, and if we all do it, we can change the world. Through her research, she found that striking “power poses ” such as the victory V (arms in the air) before key tasks including job interviews increased confidence, reduced stress and lead to greater success. She linked the poses to hormonal changes including increased testosterone and reduced cortisol.

Cuddy presents some convincing evidence to support her argument, but it is her own story of overcoming the feeling that didn’t belong I need academia that is so engaging.  Apparently, she hadn’t planned to tell this story and it is her authenticity and willingness to be vulnerable that is so moving. If you haven’t seen it already, watch it now.

As someone who has struggled with shyness, often feeling that I didn’t fit in and dreading being the centre of attention, I really related to her story of overcoming these barriers. Her solution is to deliberately use powerful, confident body language, and “fake it until you become it”. She suggests practicing powerful poses before key events such as job interviews or presentations.

I often talk to young people (usually girls) who are fearful of making presentations, sometimes to the point of avoiding opportunities, and I’ve shared my story. I too used to be terrified of presentations, but, after avoiding them all through school, I realised I had to get over the fear. It was preventing me doing things that I wanted to do and knew I was capable of.  Part of the Careers Adviser role is to facilitate groups and I wanted to be able to do it. So,  I pretended to be confident, acted how I thought I would act if I was confident, and eventually I actually did become confident. Now training  and working with groups is what I enjoy most, which was a real surprise at first.

Some psychologists have now found a problem in that they cannot replicate Cuddy’s findings  (they have a habit of doing this every time a theory gets popular). But I’m going to stick with the power poses, or at the very least, remember to pay attention to my body language and posture when under pressure, whether that is a job interview, a difficult meeting or a presentation.

People initially decide how to treat you based on first impressions, which are made up of how you look, what you wear, tone of voice and yes, body language. If you look confident, people assume you know what you are doing. Striking power poses in the toilet before an interview might seem a bit whacky, but if it helps you remember to take up space and stand tall and confident, then stick with it, I say.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until you are in the toilet to prepare. A good yoga session is the perfect tool to get in the zone.  Some of the power poses that Cuddy describes are actually quite similar to yoga poses. Virabhadrasana (warrior) poses encourage expansion in all directions; it’s impossible to do warrior without taking up a lot of space and channeling strength.  Cuddy talks about “starfishes” which are similar to the five pointed star often used to prepare for Virabhadrasana.

Back bends like salamba bhujangasana (sphinx), bhujangasana (cobra), ustrasana (camel) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel) require opening up and expanding in the chest area, which is the opposite of the powerless and submissive shrinking that Cuddy observed in her subjects. Gomukhasana (cow face pose) is another pose that opens up the chest and shoulders. There is at least one research study which found a link between cobra pose and the production of testosterone, the hormone linked to confidence, dominance and risk taking.

Cuddy doesn’t have much to say about tone of voice, but I would add a bit of chanting to my pre-interview yoga practice, to get my voice warmed up and find my vocal power (singing loudly in the car is a good alternative).   Finally some deep, calm, breathing and meditation to slow the heart rate, calm the nerves and remember that whatever happens I am fine.

It’s ok to be a bit nervous when you are in the spotlight of an interview; it just shows that this matters to you. What is not ok is when you come out feeling that you didn’t get yourself heard or show your true self. I hope these tips can get you to the point where you can be your authentic self and show what you are capable of!

Making Yourself Lucky

Chance and luck play a huge part in the direction our lives take, not least when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities to work.

One friend of mine, who had been frustrated with her lack of progression at work, finally found her perfect job as the training manager for a group of Care Homes, by chatting to an acquaintance at the school gate.  Another friend, a university Careers Adviser who liked her job but had become rather fed up with the long commute, just happened to be chatting to a colleague in the canteen and he mentioned that one of his students was applying for a Careers Adviser post down the road from where she lived.  She applied – and got the job!

In the last month, I’ve come across:

  • a sixteen year old client who was offered an apprenticeship with his uncle who happened to be building a house (he’d never thought of construction as a career before)
  • an adult client who set up a wedding planning business after having been asked by two friends to plan their weddings,
  • a young woman who happened to be shopping in the local corner shop when she noticed a sign saying they needed a part-time assistant.  It just happend to fit perfectly around her family responsibilities!
  • a computer programmer who was under notice of redundancy, and happened to mention this to a client who then offered him a job in their IT department, doing more practical work that he thoroughly enjoyed

Ask a random group of people how they got their current job, and the chances are, many of them will have got their job through a friend or acquaintance.  In fact, the CIPD estimate that 70% of jobs are found through informal means – through friends and family, proactive networking, speculative applications and cold calling.  There is always a huge element of chance involved in this – whether we happen to meet that random stranger, make the right phone call at the right time (just when gap in the organisation has appeared) or  get chatting to the right person at the school gate. Of course, the more approaches you make, they better your chances of succeeding.

Even in more formal job search methods, there is still an element of chance – whether we happen to buy the right paper, visit the right agency or look on the right internet site on the right day.  These chance encounters can lead not just to a new job, but to a whole new occupation that we might never have considered if we hadn’t happened to see a particular advert or meet a particular person.  Like it or not, most of us are not particularly rational when we choose an occupation.  We don’t research the full range of occupations; we stick to what we know about.  We don’t carefully match our likes and dislikes against the demands of the job; we take what happens to be available and looks vaguely suitable.  Chance plays a very big part in this.

So, if luck and chance play such a big part in career choice, is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier?  I came across some descriptions of psychological experiments designed to find out just this.  In the first, some volunteers were given a newspaper and asked to go through it counting the photographs.  Unbeknownst to them, the researcher (Howard Wiseman) had inserted an ad which said “Win a £100 by telling the researcher you found this”.  People who rated themselves as lucky before the experiment were more likely to see the advertisement – perhaps because they tended to have their eyes on the bigger picture and spot opportunities that the unlucky people missed.

In another experiment, he asked people to help him get a letter to a random person – say Kate, an events manager, in Cheltenham – by passing it on to someone they knew by name, who might be able to pass it onto someone else who could get it to her.  Amazingly, many people around the UK could get it to her through just 4 contacts.  Some people who had volunteered for the experiment, however, didn’t pass the letter to anyone at all.  When questioned about this, they said it was because they didn’t know anyone who they thought could help.  These people also tended to be those people who rated themselves as unlucky before the experiment began.

He concluded that lucky people tend to have a wider social network and to see that network as being full of people who could help them.  Lucky people are living in a “smaller world” and are more socially connected to other people around the country.  When they need a plumber in a hurry, a new client, some good advice or a new job, they are more likely to know someone who can help them.  Happy coincidences are a frequent occurrence, because of their wide social network.

So, if we want to improve our luck, the key seems to be in widening our social networks – taking the trouble to talk to people, being friendly and interested in the random strangers we meet, smiling at the neighbours we recognise, starting conversations with people around the coffee station, using social networking sites and getting out and about in our communities.

This is not a new conclusion.  There is a whole approach to career planning known as Planned Happenstance, which suggests that rather than setting ourselves an end goal, we should keep an open mind, and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to generate positive chance encounters and be prepared to make the most of them when they present themselves. The “Happenstance” refers to the luck element in this approach, while the “Planned” refers to planning to maximise lucky events and our ability to make the most of them.

Attitudes such as curiosity, enthusiasm for learning and willingness to take risks are a key part of this approach, as are networking skills.  Advocates of Planned Happenstance suggest taking part in lots of activities that interest us, developing new skills and trying out many new experience (work, travel and leisure), which will generate many chance encounters, and thus increase our chances of something really lucky happening to us.

So, next time you think about going to a professional conference, a party, a yoga retreat or an evening class, remember that another good reason to go is that expanding your social network could improve your luck!

 

 

 

Childhood Dramas At Work

A story about my meditation journey

Meditation can bring up a whole host of negative emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, hurt – and sometimes all that seems to happen is you sit there with them.  You try to make the difficult feelings welcome, accept them, and experience them fully.  You notice that your throat is tight, your stomach is churning, your chest is squeezing, there are tears in your eyes and you try not to back away from these uncomfortable sensations.  When this happens over and over again, you wonder what the point is – nothing seems to be getting better. But then sometimes you have an amazing moment of clarity that is felt on a very different level to the moments of clarity that you might experience through more logical analysis.

So, here is a part of my meditation journey and my moment of clarity.

A situation arose at work where, due to a re-organisation, my position within my work team shifted.  I had been occupying what was really my dream job, and a very central position in the team.  Because of my role, I was often the first to be consulted by my senior managers and I had a lot of influence with them.  We would have little meetings without the rest of the team.  I also got on very well with them and they felt like friends as well as managers. They made it clear that they valued my work and my inputs. But with the re-organisation, a more senior manager was parachuted into that central role, and my role was changed, so that, although on the same grade, I was now on the periphery of the team working at much more of a distance from my senior managers and with no special relationships.  Suddenly, they were having little meetings, and I wasn’t invited.  Emotionally, it felt like a real kick in the teeth and I took it really hard, much harder than I should have done.

Every time I sat down to meditate, I felt overwhelmed with negative feelings of hurt, anger and sadness.  It felt like a really personal rejection, although logically I knew that there was no rejection intended.  I had been usurped and my position had been taken by this new manager.  Logically, it was hard to blame anyone – no-one had particularly chosen this situation, least of all the new manager.  But emotionally, I was in bits.  I just couldn’t get past it.  I found myself turning into a person I didn’t really like very much, full of negativity and bitterness.

Every time I sat to meditate, all these feeling arose, and all I could do was notice them.  They didn’t go away.  I began to feel a bit disillusioned with meditation since it didn’t seem to be turning me into the wise and compassionate person I wanted to be.  Sometimes I did loving kindness meditation, and tried to extend loving kindness to my work colleagues, but I couldn’t really feel compassion at a deep level – it was all my head rather than my heart.

But one day, as I sat to meditate, an image came to me that was so powerful it did transform how I felt.  I was suddenly a little girl again, on the periphery of my family.  My Mum and Dad and my younger sister (by six years) were close together and I was on the outskirts.

I think that this was a powerful emotion of my childhood.  I remembered photos of myself as a toddler, my Mum and my Dad together, so close before my sister was born.  Even when she was a baby, she was just a super-doll for us all to play with.  But as she grew older, she seemed in some way to replace me.  She was easy-going, compliant, cheerful and seemed to navigate her social life with ease.  I was awkward, spiky, shy and moody.  The more that my Mum seemed to prefer my sister, the more I did things calculated to annoy my Mum.  I felt uncomfortable in my skin, and different to every one else.  I never quite fitted in.

The image that came to me so powerfully in meditation was the three of them, posed as in the photos of my early childhood, but I am now on the periphery and she is at the centre.  I wanted to take my younger self in my arms, give that little girl a big hug and say, you know what, actually you are great just as you are.  You don’t need to change to fit in, you don’t need to pretend to be anything other than yourself, and you are of value.  You are lovable.  I sat for longer focusing all my compassion on my childhood self.  Other feelings seemed to soften and dissolve.

Later I extended that compassion to my sister who never asked for that role in the family. This wasn’t hard as my sister and I have always got on well and I always cared for her.

I also tried to extend that compassion to my parents, which was a little harder.  Now I am a parent myself, I know how frustrating children’s moods and behaviour can be, and that a parent can love a child and be frustrated by them at the same time.  I try to empathize with my mother who was probably doing the best she could.

I was also able to extend this compassion to my work colleagues in a way that felt more genuine than it ever had done previously.

I realised that in every job I have had, I have made great efforts to occupy a central position in my manager’s heart, by working hard, being excellent at my job, being helpful and being emphatic to my manager’s stresses.  It’s a pattern that I have repeated over and over with new managers – get my good work noticed, be super-helpful, then make friends.  It’s generally worked – my managers have rewarded me with challenging projects, praise, recognition, support and friendship.  But when my relationships with managers don’t work out like this, I take it hard.  It’s like they have reneged on their side of the deal.  That is not the ending I am looking for.

I began to wonder what it would be like to be different at work – less dependent on others for validation.  Less willing to please.

Transactional Analysis has a lot to say about how parent and child relationships get repeated in adult relationships.  The classic book, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested, is “Games People Play” by Eric Berne.  I read it a long time ago and I studied it again on my counselling diploma.  So maybe I already knew these things about myself and my relationships in an intellectual, analytical way. I probably did some kind of exercise in class about it.  But in meditation, I really felt them deeply for the first time.

I wonder how many difficult work relationships between managers and the people they manage are really the result of people bringing their childhood stories into work and re-enacting them, possibly hoping to achieve a different outcome.

Thinking of the people I have managed, some do really like to please.  One spent the first few months of our relationship greeting me with “what have I done?” as if she expected to be told off by the teacher.  Some like to make friends, whilst others expect a more hierarchical relationship.  They are probably all, to some extend, either repeating a comfortable pattern or looking for a happier ending.