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Kate Atkin

Have you ever said yes to something which seemed a good idea, but when the time came you started to view it differently?

A year ago I missed the entry deadline into the Corporate Speaking Challenge run by the School of Public Speaking. So I gaily said “put me down for next year”. Well those twelve months passed and I forgot all about it until a few weeks ago when I got an invitation to attend the heats and prepare a 6-minute speech on the theme of “everything needs to change, so that everything can remain the same”.

THE day arrives. The nerves start to kick in, even though I had prepared and practiced my speech. “Why am I doing this?” I wonder to myself…

Two days before the contest I decided to set myself an evening reminder for something unconnected, by way of a daily alarm on my phone. I chose to use a song rather than an alarm sound thinking this would be a good idea, and then promptly forgot about it. After all that’s the point of a reminder!

Back to yesterday evening… at Mintel’s offices in the City of London.  Phones are on silent, check! And double check! Ten participants, and I was speaking fourth. It comes to my turn to speak. As I am part way through the second of three points in my speech, a story about change in the British mining industry, strains of Enya are heard in the room, gradually getting louder. Yes, you’ve guessed it my alarm was interrupting my speech. What would you do?

The chap sitting near my handbag realised where the offending noise was coming from, so I had a choice. Do I carry on and ignore the noise, do I ask him to turn it off, or do I turn it off myself? Well carrying on wasn’t going to work, I was distracted and had lost my thread and my audience were distracted.  Asking a stranger to rummage in my handbag didn’t appeal, so I opted to have the bag passed to me and turned it off myself.

Interruptions happen all the time; speeches don’t always go to plan. It’s how you deal with the matter that is important. I have never interrupted myself before, and said as much to the audience, with an apology. I then paused, regrouped my thoughts, ditched a good chunk of my speech as I had lost valuable time during the incident, quickly finished my third point and jumped to my conclusion. Finishing just on the allotted 6 minutes.

So often in business we need to deal with the unexpected. Things don’t go to plan. You need to change course or miss something out. How do you deal with it?

If no-one had noticed I could have ignored the alarm and carried on. But it was obvious to others that there was something going on, and it had also put me off my flow, so I needed to “call it out”. Once named, and dealt with using a little bit of humour, the big task was to pick up where I had left off. The only reason I could do this was because of the upfront planning I had put in to writing, preparing and practising my speech.

The old adage of know your beginning and your ending held fast for me yesterday. I was able to jump to my conclusion… And still finish on time, just.

So was it a good idea? It seemed so at the time, and I am through to the finals.  Hopefully next time I’ll be able to deliver my speech without interruption!

I am currently reading The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Simons and Daniel Chabris. Christopher Simons was one or the creator of the famous ball-passing perception test, which many of you will have experienced.  If you haven’t, concentrate hard on getting the right answer and you may be amazed at the result.

 

 

 

I recently watched this again and was struck by the fact that even though I knew the “trick” to the video, when I decided to concentrate on the task with full effort… guess what, my brain failed the perception test yet again.   Wow! How much am I missing out on? This is definitely worth a watch and if, like me, you have seen the video before, give it your full concentration on the task and see what happens. Perhaps your subconscious will deceive you too… I’d love to hear what you notice. Kate

Like many I have been shocked and saddened by news of Robin Williams’ suicide. Dead Poets Society is among my all time favourite films and Carpe Diem has long been my motto. While there are many laudable tributes to his work and many sites offering support to those suffering from depression, could I ask you to do one more thing?

Open up in the workplace about mental health.

Not just for those who are, or might be, in need themselves, but also for those who support people suffering from depression or another mental illness. It’s really tough to suffer from depression and it can also be really tough to understand it from the outside. However hard we try it isn’t possible – even those who have felt depressed still cannot truly understand what it’s like for someone else. Such is the nature of depression.

Being able to talk about it can be helpful. I’m not saying it will be in all circumstances, but with supportive workplaces at least one of the blocks or areas where stigma around mental health issues might be encountered could be removed. I know I’m dreaming a little, individual people will still hold their opinions, at work and outside. But could you, or your organisation promote mental health awareness a little more?

If you’d like to do so but don’t know where to start, contact Mind, SANE, Samaritans or another charity, or call me – Stuart and I have experience as both depression sufferer and supporter respectively as well as in promoting awareness.

If you’re reading this and in need of support right now follow this link to Mind’s website

As some of you will know in September 2013 I embarked on a two-year programme of study, for a masters in positive psychology (MAPP).  On doing so I discovered that many people equate the term positive psychology with positive thinking, The Secret or the Law of Attraction.  while they all have “positive intent” as a common thread, that is where the similarities end.

To explain a little more about what Positive Psychology is here’s a video:

What is Positive Psychology

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

A great read. Well-researched and gives us permission to be human.

However, that’s not the whole story.  The video focuses on Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment).  I recently came across another way of explaining Positive Psychology, by Tal Ben-Shahar, who has written the book Happier.  Tal Ben-Shahar has the wonderful phrase of giving ourselves “permission to be human”.  This embodies the concept of positive psychology perfectly to me; it is about experiencing the ups and the downs of life, being real and being realistic (see my earlier post on optimism).

Positive Psychology is not about denying the negatives in life, the events we wish hadn’t happened, or the feelings we wish would go away.  It is the scientific study of what enables people to be fully human, to experience more of the ups by choice, taking empirically researched steps to increase their levels of well-being, meaning in life and happiness.

Not just “thinking positively”.

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Your thinking strategies affect your performance

There is a general assumption in Western society that optimism is best, that happiness is something to be achieved and that looking on the bright side is the right thing to do.

But optimism has been likened to red wine by researchers Puri and Robinson; a glass a day can be good for you, but a bottle a day can be hazardous.  Here’s why…

 

There’s an extent to which being optimistic and looking on the bright side is good for you, but also times and circumstances where it’s not.  I’ll discuss the wonderful issue of happiness another time… here I’m going to focus on optimism and the benefits and drawbacks for both personal health, well-being and in business.

The Good News

Research has shown that having a generally optimistic disposition, a tendency to look on the bright side, has its benefits.  Optimists are more likely to live longer, recover faster from surgery, have greater coping strategies with strong social networks, and feel happier than those with a pessimistic outlook.

Optimism and Goals

Optimism, or holding an optimistic bias as Tali Sharot termed it in her book, The Optimism Bias, has some drawbacks.  Research has shown that optimism often means tendency to underestimate the likelihood of negative events occurring in the future.  This can lead to behaviour which is detrimental to achieving your goals.  In one study, optimistic participants were inclined to stop persevering at a difficult task sooner than pessimistic participants.  A possible explanation is that optimists generally have a more positive mood.  Evidence suggests that people in a positive mood will act to preserve that mood.  So if you have a difficult task to delegate at work, don’t give it to the most positive person in your team!

Giving feedback to an optimist may also be a challenge.  In studies, optimists recalled feedback about their performance as significantly more positive than it actually was.  They also assumed they had less to improve in relation to their performance.  So don’t be surprised if some of your staff or colleagues don’t hear the feedback you give them; their brains are selectively discounting the information… they are not consciously ignoring you!

Defensive Pessimism and Performance

This is a type of pessimism which, when used effectively, helps people achieve goals, perform well and reduce anxiety.  Rather than a general pessimistic, Eeyore-type outlook, defensive pessimism as identified by Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor, is a strategy employed by some people to prepare for all eventualities.  When facing a difficult task or situation, the defensive pessimist will think through all the things that could go wrong and how they will feel if those events occur.  They then, and this is the crucial bit, put strategies in place to try to ensure the negative events don’t happen.  I notice this in myself when I am preparing for a presentation or workshop… what if I can’t get into the building, what if the computer doesn’t work, what if my slides won’t load, what if I forget what I want to say, what difficult questions might I be asked?  Then I take steps to phone up the venue to check the access times, put my slides onto a data stick and into Dropbox, put my laptop in the car and think through the questions and my likely responses… all “just in case”!

Don’t stop someone playing through their “what if” scenarios.  If someone well-meaning tries to help a defensive pessimist think on the bright side by telling them not to worry, to look at what will go right, performance can be negatively affected.  So saying to me “don’t worry, you’ve given hundreds of presentations and that’s never happened” isn’t at all helpful, even though it’s meant to be reassuring.  Equally a defensive pessimist shouldn’t encourage someone with a strong optimistic disposition to think about what might go wrong.  They will perform worse too!  So it’s a case of recognise the differences and ‘vive le difference’.

Would you like to increase your levels of optimism?

You can give your optimism a boost by noticing and logging three good things each day (these may be small such as there was no queue for at the coffee machine, or the bus was on time, to larger more significant things such as we won the contract, or I submitted my data on time and the boss was pleased with the results).  Another way is to list the goals you want to achieve and write a description of yourself and how you want your life to look in a few months or years and review this every-so-often.

In summary:

A good level of optimism is beneficial to health and well-being.

Too much optimism can result in ignoring crucial information

Allow people to think through their “what if” scenarios if they need to

 

References and useful Links

Find out whether you are a Defensive Pessimist

Buy The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem

Research articles by Norem & Cantor and Tali Sharot,

What does Mindfulness have to do with the bottom line profit and the productivity of your staff (or yourself)?

How often do you spend time being in the moment, being conscious of your actions, taking control of your thoughts?  Or do you spend time responding to the ping of a new email, switching tasks readily and getting interrupted at work?

Research from Harvard in 2012 found that for the average person (if there is such a thing) the mind wanders 47% of the time.  What they also found was that a wandering mind equated with an unhappy person.  If you feel unhappy at work how productive are you versus the times when you feel happy?  Stands to reason doesn’t it, happier people = more productive people.  There’s a great TED talk by Matt Killingsworth on this topic, showing just how important it is to stay in the moment, something which practicing Mindfulness can help with.

What has also come to light is that practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress, increase happiness and boost productivity.  Here’s a link to a fuller article on the subject by www.mindful.org

Don’t just enjoy reading it, give it a go, you’ll be amazed at the results!