Ever wondered what behavior was all about? Here we explore Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) through the relational structure of Values – Narrative – Behavior, the guiding philosophy taught at Life Weavings through therapy and coaching. Challenging the usual understanding of behavior that it is a conscious reaction to a situation, instead we’ll be looking at how behavior works in consideration of the nature of our predictive brains and our deep need to construct a reality that works for us and makes sense.
If you have any questions about any part of this episode, please feel free to reach out at David.firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond to each message and it’s possible your question may get an entire episode dedicated to it!
Your support is deeply appreciated and allows me to keep bringing you the content that you appreciate. Below you’ll find a button to set up a single or recurring donation through PayPal. Any amount is appreciated and ensures you’ll never hear advertisements.
The game of ‘telephone’ was great for giggles when a pre-teen. However, the real-life effects of communication failures as adults rarely get the same response. Certainly the consequences tend to be larger and often longer-lasting, especially when attempting to have others buy-in to your vision.
Such consequences are keenly felt when having difficult conversations with loved ones and when attempting to get multiple levels of a business to connect with a new message. The two situations may at first appear completely contrary, but the level of intimacy involved is no different. The message or vision you’re trying to share is an extension of your Values and hence who you believe yourself to be. The context may be different, but not the process.
Vision Must Be Reciprocal
Being caught up in a vision, personal or professional, can be intoxicating. Often the trainings involved for instilling a corporate vision can have similar props to, and feel like, a religious revival meeting. Special speakers, games that induce a feeling of connection through shared levels of mortification, and dress-code. The most ingenious is name badges, as the sweetest thing a person can hear is the sound of their own name, only increased by the belief: ‘a complete stranger knows me!’ That we so often forget our names are emblazoned in colorful marker right on our chest only points to a passive blindness in the face of the desire for recognition.
All of these strategies are targeted to get buy-in, the individually felt ownership of a collective vision. How this plays out between the conference and the day-to-day living in the office is where the proverbial rubber and road meet.
When middle managers were aligned with top management’s strategic vision, things played out as the widespread view of visionary leadership would suggest: the more these managers engaged in visionary leadership (by communicating their vision for the future and articulating where they wanted their team to be in five years,) the greater the shared understanding of strategy in their team, and the more the team was committed to strategy execution.
For managers that were misaligned with the company strategy, however, the dark side of visionary leadership became evident. The more these misaligned managers displayed visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams.
The focus on middle management is key here. Visionary leadership at the top all too often becomes an extension of the conference/revival mentality, where the mere presence of a dynamic and charismatic person is thought to be sufficient. Unfortunately what’s missing in this standard view is a recognition of everything else that went into the initial training. The collective feel, as it were, gets lost.
This is why middle management is so important. They become the signal-boosters for the visionary hub. For this reason, middle managers need to be strong leaders themselves, possessing the capacity of sharing a vision. However, this very strength, when unbound from the greater vision, starts a business version of ‘telephone’ that gets ugly. The process happens in two stages:
Without reciprocity, without consistent communication between the governing vision and middle management, the strength needed to spread a message gets used to fill in perceptual gaps.
Those perceptual gaps will inevitably be filled in by what is felt to be important by the person in their individual space. Ego always trumps vision when a consistent message is missing.
How does one escape this destructive game? By building on Values.
Values as Messaging
External behavior is primarily concerned with aligning the world with an internal desire or vision of ‘what should be.’ We act in ways we’ve learned from past experiences, will result in people and circumstances shifting to what we want/expect. These desires are grounded upon a set of Values, signposts for what is important to us in a given situation/context.
How do you ensure that managers are aligned on your company’s strategy? Our experience working with companies around strategic alignment suggests it starts with creating strategic alignment among middle managers before strategy execution efforts begin. This should not be one-time communication but a dialogue; people will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value.
The “strategic alignment” spoken of above should start with an identification of those Values which support the ‘Governing Vision.’ As noted in the image below, Values are the bedrock for making sure a vision is accepted at every level of an organization.
This process works for several reasons:
Values are universally understandable, stemming from the shared experience of being human.
A ‘Governing Vision’ is supported by Values through an articulation of what those Values mean in practice, i.e. Principles. This keeps each level of management from filling in the gaps of what Values mean. When uncertain, refer to Principles.
Principles are the support beams connecting Vision and Values. They keep a Vision from being too vague and too specific, resulting in either the chaos of competing visions at all levels, or an inability to be flexible within changing contexts.
A ‘Guiding Vision’ fails when there are too many voices clambering to be heard. To make these voices turn from being a disparate group of instruments into an orchestra, individual buy-in is a must. As when we gain coherent and consistent direction in our individual lives through what we care about, our Values, so too can organizations.
Communication is more than words being exchanged between two or more people. It’s also more than the non-verbal physical cues made famous by such shows as “Lie to Me.” When people engage in dialogue, they’re seeking to build a relationship of perspective with reality and, if reality doesn’t fit quite well enough, get the other person(s) to agree regardless. This is true whether the discussion has to do with broad, socially significant, political opinions or the varied intimacies of one’s emotional state.
The significance of binding perspective to reality cannot be overstated. Opinions aren’t just mental states, they’re the means through which we gather the disparate pieces of reality and bind them to create an experience. That we all like to be right begins to make sense here, given the potential weight carried by our thoughts. Combine these two points and the many forms of communication can be seen in a new light.
We can start with cultural practices.
Dialogue with Humanity
Contrary to the majority of felt experience, our thoughts are rarely unique creations. They’re far more likely to be derivatives from our social upbringing and cultural backgrounds, to promotions of something we recently read and likely didn’t critique long enough. The latter is especially fun in conversation if confronted by someone who does immediately know more than we do, as our shallow understanding is highlighted. Did I say fun? I meant embarrassing.
The reason for the non-careful assumption inherent of many of our opinions depends on how critical you want to be about our humanity. For those with a more negative view, it’s due to our inherent laziness as thinkers. A more reasonable take has to do with time-management. It’s simply easier to assume that the information we personally encounter is more likely true than not. Taking the time to critically analyze everything that crosses our mental space is not only impossible (since a great deal is unconsciously taken in), but it’s really poor resource-management. We’re far too busy living our lives to halt at every thought.
One of those ways we’re living is through culture. Consider cultural practices as mental shortcuts to meaning. Ever had a word that you used but didn’t know if it was the right one? Or hear one that you didn’t know the definition of? Sure you could look it up on you smart phone, but that takes time. Better if everything you hear has built-in definitions that you absorbed through experience. Enter cultural practices.
However, those built-in definitions and meaning can pose just as many problems as they solve. How aware is the person of their own history and what they’ve absorbed as normal behavior? How much self-ownership do they have concerning the meaning of any particular practice? Are they open to the practice having other meanings or purposes?
Remember, culture is a short-cut to meaning, a device for carrying entire narratives or stories tying together reality. If the weight of individual opinions is so heavy, and that’s just for a single person, imagine the exponential increase given to a story that has time/family attached to it.
Dialogue through Culture
To attempt addressing the very real difficulties, when considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is. The person will provide a story. That story will give structure to the meaning the behavior has for them. It will be really easy now to immediately agree or disagree with the story, based on one’s own assumptions. Good conversation/dialogue is generative, it builds greater understanding. It isn’t warfare with two parties lobbing linguistic hand-grenades at each other.
Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. Use this space to reflect on:
1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support…
2) identifying whether that shared Value holds the same level of importance for each of you in the context you’re in.
To keep it simple, let’s take the practice of washing one’s hands. The primary Value to be supported is likely going to be Cleanliness, but is such always primary in awareness? If you’re rushing to the bathroom in the middle of a movie that you spent far too much money to see in a theatre, is Cleanliness going to be the top concern or is Time-Management and Pleasure? If someone saw you not wash your hands and immediately began chastising you, claiming you clearly didn’t care about Cleanliness, your response would likely be anger/frustration. Why? Not because you got called out for not caring about something you do in fact care about, but because the other person clearly doesn’t care about Time-Management and Pleasure! See the irony? The other person cares about those things too, it just wasn’t their priority in that moment, precisely because they aren’t you.
Starting with Value allows us to get behind the stories/narratives that so easily catch us up in the moment. At that point, another person’s behavior no longer stands on its own, instead being caught by our own construction of reality and judged accordingly. Importantly, this isn’t, at this level, about morality, nor does it remove issues of ethics. We’re simply looking at having good generative dialogue. Frankly, if a chief concern is to convince another person the error of their ways, no better place exists to start than with what you have in common and an appreciation for your shared humanity.
Starting from a deficit is always frustrating because after all the work done and resources used to get oneself to the surface, you often find yourself exhausted by the journey. Further, deficit thinking has us defining ourselves from the perspective of where we’re going, not where we’ve come from, it can feel that no movement has occurred at all! Unfortunately this mentality is exactly what we bring to ‘goal setting’ and it’s precisely why the spiral of shame and self-doubt is so often the end result. Thankfully we can give up goals by instead looking at achievement. The way to do this is to reframe our behavior within a consideration of Values.
Values are not Behavior
Values are not synonymous with, or at least not fully understood or fulfilled by, particular behaviors. This may at first sound obvious, but it’s not typically how we assess and judge ourselves and one another. When was the last time you chastised yourself for not going to the gym and instead binging a tv show? When was the last time you judged another as being dishonest based on a particular situation? For that matter, when was the last time you felt yourself unfairly judged when you went with being supportive rather than being honest? Or, how easy is it to think of a time when you gave up on supporting one Value, like Honesty, for the purpose of saving someone’s life, job or prevent being hurt?
All of these scenarios bring us to three conclusions:
Values never go away
Sometimes in supporting one Value in a particular way, it may mean not supporting another in a way we’d otherwise do
Context often drives what Value(s) we’re focused on
Consider the difficulty of judgment, both of others and ourselves. Often it happens where one family member will declare you don’t love them because you don’t treat them exactly the same way as another. The accusation is often met with stunned frustration because of course you love them, it’s simply that you interact differently due to the nature of the particular connection, the context in which a behavior occurred and what the other person’s interests may be. A more obvious example would be if one of your kids declared you didn’t love them because you don’t treat them the exact same way as your spouse. Clearly the claim is absurd, the very nature of the connection leads to different behavior. Importantly, the Value itself never went away.
Life is a constant juggling act of supporting what we care about, utilizing the behavior we’ve learned to associate with particular Values and doing so within contexts of which we often have no control over the particulars. Consider self-esteem or integrity, where ‘standing up for yourself’ is a common advice given. Yet, when faced with a hostile work environment or unhealthy personal relationship we won’t follow the advice, instead opting for another behavior. Where we often then shame ourselves, the reality is we did act to support a Value, but instead of Integrity, we acted on Financial Security, Safety, Peace, etc. What we’re concerned with here is not a judgment about long-term consequences, but a proper evaluation about why we do what we do in any given moment.
Those moments are context-driven. We are not likely going to be able to focus on Health when we’re incessantly surrounded by junk food and find it difficult to gain access to healthier alternatives. It’s little wonder in that context that Pleasure takes center-stage. We’re not likely to work on Self-Esteem/Image when coming out of an emotionally abusive family, surrounded by unsupportive community and/or lacking in skills that our specific society finds useful. I say “likely” here because there’s always personal stories of people seeing their way through adversity; this is about the general experience. In fact, behind every story of success despite adversity you’ll find that the person did the one thing we’re about to bring attention to: expanding perspective.
Daily Valued Living
Rather than goals, let’s consider what we’re already doing in our lives that is helpful and expand on that. Rather than getting caught up in a hyper-focus on one behavior, let’s consider how we’re always seeking to support what we care about.
Identify an area of your life you’d typically set a goal based on lack or self-denial
What Value is associated with that area?
Select 2-5 other Values that come to mind, or are associated with, that initial Value.
What are healthy behaviors to support that Value?
Consider how others are supporting those same Values and how you may bring such behavior completely or in part, to your own life.
Each step is about starting from your humanity, at the center of which is what you care about, and building upon what already exists. From that foundation you can increase your confidence in what is behaviorally possible by enlarging your competence in how you support what matters to you. Noticing what you’re already doing is exactly the opposite of getting lost in the contemplation of what you’re not. The latter is an ever-expanding sinkhole and we know where it sends us: nowhere.
By promoting to ourselves the daily ways we support our Values, we remind ourselves that we are constantly in service to them. By expanding what is possible through noticing how others support our shared Values we build a greater repertoire of behavioral tools to work through the struggles that inevitably come up. Isn’t that what we’re all ultimately interested in anyway?
Working with clients going through difficult times, many questions come up concerning fairness, justice, and responsibility. The world, it becomes painfully obvious, doesn’t respond to our thoughts the way we’d like. Our pictures/stories of ‘what should be’ rarely match ‘what is.’ Despite this, we continue to struggle on, moving from moment to moment with a sometimes grim, sometimes emotionally poignant, determination. Faced with the struggle, there is a completely understandable question in response: When will this end?!
I want to turn for a moment to the ABCs. Before you start going down that familiar song from childhood, we’ll be looking at:
A – Antecedent
B – Behavior
C – Consequence
Now, don’t go running for the hills just yet. This is simply a way of looking at our behavior, a framing of the world and our interaction with it. Prior to action is a factor/item (an ‘antecedent’) which has a causal relationship with the behavior, followed by a consequence(s) or result. This is just a more formal way of declaring what our parents used to warn us about concerning ‘there will be consequences!’ What they often left out in their warnings, and frankly what we often oversimplify as adults, are the influences/antecedents leading to particular behavior.
Getting Caught in Consequence
The reason for this formality is to help us see where we get stuck. The influences/antecedents is where we can find freedom, but we as a species are pretty terrible at determining what those are on a day-to-day basis. Seriously. We are. But more on that in a bit.
Where we get stuck is in the perception of consequence. When you stub a toe walking around barefoot, do you focus on the walking or are you wincing, hopping and holding on to the hurt foot? When you’ve lost a job, had a fight with a friend or see a relationship ending, do you focus on all the decisions that came before it or are you caught up in the emotional cacophony of the loss?
Further, even after the initial pain is worked through, consider how the consequence is still front and center in how you view the world. From the item on the floor that ‘shouldn’t have been there’ to ‘that person/group is horrible’ and ‘I always make horrible decisions,’ the thoughts/assessments are vibrantly colored by the shadowy influence of obsessing over consequence.
Before getting sucked into morose reflection, the focus on consequence makes a great deal of sense. Our brain/body system comes from eons of evolutionary development and biological cost/benefit appraisal. Expending energy on anything other than consequence would be a privilege. Think about it. If you’re focused on brute survival, the consequences of one’s behavior should definitely be front and center in consciousness. When faced with getting eaten, freezing to death or not having enough food, these are consequences that will direct, understandably, the attention of anyone.
Revealing the Influencers
We’re not going to remove our tendency to obsess over consequences and we should definitely not ignore consequences either. However, if we want to change our future behavior, reduce negative consequences and expand how we work through situations, then we need to focus on more than consequences. Here come the influencers.
The one area of our lives we have the most control over is often the one area we rarely consider in effecting our decision-making: our biology/physiology.
How well and how much have you been sleeping?
What kind of food are you typically eating? Full meals or snacks? High in sugar? For that matter, what’s your caffeine intake and how close to sleep time are you taking it?
Focused exercise? Not just wandering around but an actual exercise routine.
Meditation practice? Even 10 minutes a day is a huge help. Meditation isn’t about adding yet another activity, it’s about slowing down and seeing how the cacophony of our every-day lives is not the same thing as our image of who we are.
Relationships are not just about intimate partnerships. They include family, co-workers, and even the strangers we run into at the store or on the street.
Do you feel seen by those you feel closest too?
Are you concerned about the future of an important connection?
How difficult do you find it to talk with your boss?
Environment is about both the socio-cultural expectations/rules we live under and the physical structures we live within and interact with.
Is your personal space cluttered and disorganized or dirty?
Do you feel too cold or too hot at your place of work so you’re constantly having to make adjustments?
Do you live around green spaces and/or how often do you step away from buildings and into nature?
Are family members bringing up expectations you either don’t personally care about or are things you feel shame/doubt about?
Freedom through Awareness
The questions above are not exhaustive and quite often there isn’t a right or wrong answer to them. They’re about expanding your awareness of what is effecting you, because they are and you don’t have a choice about it. You can no more stop being influenced by biology, relationships and environment than you can stop the tides of the ocean being controlled by the moon.
Freedom is not in removing yourself from influence but by becoming more aware of them. This allows for the exploration of potential responses rather than being trapped into “what I’ve always done” or “feeling overwhelmed” or “I don’t know what came over me.”
We can’t remove ourselves from consequence, but we can help shift what consequences we will experience.