Positive Actions: Ellie Rentoul's Blog

Happiness is a HABIT – CULTIVATE it.

Why is Procrastination Bad for Our Health and Career?

Why do we put things off? Do you ever find yourselves saying any of the following when you know you should be working on an important task (e.g. preparing a family budget, writing your company’s business plan, starting an exercise programme, working on tax paperwork, menu-planning and shopping for healthy meals, working on a difficult work project etc)? 

1.     This is just too hard…

2.     I don’t have time right now – I’ll deal with it tomorrow/ next week/ next month…

3.     This task is unpleasant/boring/tedious/messy

4.     I’m not in the mood right now

5.     I simply don’t have all the information/components/ingredients I need to do it

6.     I’m simply overwhelmed – please leave me alone!

7.     I’m not really clear what I should be doing

8.     I’m just not that interested..

9.     I’m interrupted too often by my colleagues/children/spouse/friends/neighbours

10. I don’t have the energy right now

11. I’m not yet organised enough – but will be very soon and then I will…

12. It isn’t actually due for a while…

Let’s face it: most of us procrastinate sometimes.  Heck, I have days when I KNOW I should be working an important project (like writing this blog, for example!) – but instead I’m either “choosing” to clean my office, worse, spend time on social media or online shopping.  When it becomes a frequent habit, however, procrastination will get in the way of our productivity, goal fulfilment, and the maintenance and enhancement of our reputation, to say nothing of our relationships!  Therefore, it makes sense to develop the skill of standing back from yourself and HONESTLY acknowledging when we are procrastinating – and then figuring out why.  And that, my friends, we all know is NOT always easy as we are biologically programmed to reduce ‘dissonance’ by looking at a more favourable explanation of why we haven’t achieved results or completed our task (see the 12 possible explanations above).  So, how DO we look at ourselves in a more constructive way? 

First, it is helpful to identify the activities that you prefer to do INSTEAD of the tasks that you KNOW you should be doing and are avoiding:

1.     What ARE the activities we choose when we procrastinate?

2.     Are there certain “favourite” activities that repeatedly see you put off your important tasks?

For example, some people (including myself) say that they will just check their emails before they start on their A task. But there are several notifications from the social media sites on which they are active, and by the time they read and respond to all the new posts, the leftover bits of time AND your energy for the important project are seriously compromised.  Perhaps you are just going to “tidy up the office” (yep – me again!) before beginning – and you get caught up in complicated re-arranging.

Or maybe you think you will think better after a run? Of course, going for a daily run is a great thing to do for your health and fitness.   But why not chose to go for a run when you are taking a break from your project? 

Perhaps you are one of those people who are motivated by urgency (remember cramming all your studies JUST before the exams or writing your company’s business plan the night before it is due – until 4am?).  Some people feel like they do their best work under pressure, so they wait until the last possible moment – when the task is at emergency level – and then they put in a heroic effort to get across the line on time! There is bad news and good news about procrastination.   

1.     Why is habitual procrastination (or procrastination as a personality trait) bad for our health? 

Now the first bad news about habitual procrastination is that it is actually bad for our physical and psychological health.  Researches led by psychologist F. M. Sirois from Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada, have found that habitual procrastination can lead to heart problems, headaches, digestive issues, colds and flus, and insomnia (Crew, 2015).  Unfortunately, Sirois’s study didn’t attempt to uncover a reason WHY procrastination and heart disease may be linked, but there are some obvious possibilities (offered by science journalist Melissa Dahl).  People who are habitual procrastinators may be likely to put off dreary chores like exercising or eating healthily, and the avoidance of these can of course lead to chronic health issues, like heart disease. And, as anyone who’s ever procrastinated on anything knows, people who put undesirable tasks off still, eventually, have to ACTUALLY DO THESE TASKS – and when they do, they’ll be under more stress than necessary, because they’ve allowed themselves less time to get the thing done. Stress, and its main culprit’s Cortisol detrimental effect on the body’s inflammatory responses, is well known to contribute to heart disease, digestive disorders and reduction in the function of the immune system (i.e. stressed people get sick easier and take longer to recover).

2.     Procrastinating is also not great for your career progression

The second, less physically damaging, outcome of habitual procrastination is that people are not often recognised or promoted for putting on a heroic last minute effort to meet a deadline or to put out their own fires; they stay at their current professional level because there will always be fires to put out!  Employees who can avoid or solve the problems that caused the fires are more likely to be promoted.  For families with a stay-at-home parent who is a procrastinator the list of potential problems is endless: from kids not having the right uniform/stationery/equipment in time for school to families eating frozen ‘TV-dinners’ five nights per week (because mum/dad have ‘ran out of time’ to shop for groceries and cook a healthy meal) or bills/fees not being paid on time – resulting in fines and extra charges. 

So, what should you do if you regularly procrastinate?

If you find that you are procrastinate regularly, don’t despair!  The good news is that taking control back from procrastination is NOT IMPOSSIBLE!  

1. Rule Number One: to heal procrastination pain – work on avoided tasks FIRST THING IN THE MORNING (many of my clients know about this mantra of mine!).  If morning is not your best time (due to shift work or other commitments) – chose the time when you feel it is YOUR “power hour” (the time of the day you know you are usually most productive). Most people have more energy then as your glucose levels are high and you have recharged after a good night’s sleep.  It is scientifically proven that most people can focus better and make better decisions earlier in the day (before the glucose level drop by about 1pm) and then again 20-30min after a meal. So: DON’T put work on the “urgent but not important” tasks first!  Do your “hard but necessary/important” tasks first thing in the morning (Zeigler, 2005)!  Please e-mail me for the copy of the Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix to help you better plan your tasks. 

2. Break up major projects into smaller tasks, which can be individually scheduled. Use a GANTT Chart, or a simple Master to Do List or a Family Planning Calendar – whatever works for you.  Once you get going on the smaller tasks, momentum will tend to build to carry you through to completion of your project (Tracy, 2010). 

3. Program your subconscious mind to help. Now this may sound like some ‘hippy nonsense’ – but it works!!  Repeat with energy and enthusiasm  – as often as necessary – “Do it now, do it now, do it now!”.  To avoid being sent to a psychiatrist for talking to yourself – it may be better to this in private. Remind yourself of the importance of the project, the need to stay on your schedule, and the appeal of the rewards you have planned to give yourself for doing this. Eventually your subconscious mind will get the message and gather up the energy for you to complete the project: on time. 

4. Stop being an adrenalin junkie – learn to be well-organised and PLAN things in advance. The point is not to discourage you from hard work. It is great that you can perform well under pressure.  Rather, it is to urge you to plan and schedule in the needed tasks in a timely fashion to avoid unnecessary stress and delays. Even if you feel you are brilliant in adversity, the fact that you created the adversity through procrastinating may not go down well with those around you (or worse, above you!) (Zeigler, 2005).

 

Values – Why knowing what these are for us is so important for our happiness?

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How to Deal with Disappointment

How to Deal with Disappointment

 

You miss out on that dream position you wanted. Your family loses the long & unfair court case. Your best friend announces a move to another country. Life is rife with disappointments. Many of them are out of our control, so if we want to be happy, the only option is to learn how to deal with them.

 

What is disappointment, and is it good for us?

According to Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. we can define disappointment as “the gap between our expectations and the outcome which resulted”.  Hence, the larger the gap, the stronger the disappointment. Simple, isn’t it? But not always easy to deal with.  When things don’t work out as we hoped, the unfulfilled desires fester, filling us with negative thoughts and emotions. We may criticise ourselves, saying that we’re just not good enough, or that things never work out for us. We can become stuck in all the “d” states: Doubt, Discouragement, Despondency, Despair, and even Depression. So what’s the best way to not only move on but to grow from a disappointment? Dr Carbonatto offers six simple steps.

 

Step One: Acknowledge your feelings!

Disappointment is painful, but can you be more specific about what you’re feeling? Maybe underneath the hurt of being dumped from the team, you feel resentment. Behind the post-breakup weeping, are you angry at how you were treated? Feeling vengeful toward the business partner who betrayed you? Ask yourself if you are blaming yourself, others, or circumstances for what happened. Are you caught up in making excuses, shifting blame, or not taking responsibility? These reactions are normal after a disappointment, but they can hold you back. Clarifying why you are disappointed (i.e., identifying the gap between what happened and what “should” have happened) can help you identify expectations you had, preparing you for the next step.

 

Step Two: Bury unrealistic expectations

Here you evaluate the expectations you had of yourself and others. Were they fair and realistic? Flexible? Or did you see the situation narrowly (i.e., like a donkey with blinders on)? Were you thinking in a petty or selfish manner? Ask yourself, “Do my expectations need to be adjusted for next time?” If necessary, get a reality check from a trusted friend, because if you can’t acknowledge unrealistic hopes, the next step will not be do-able.

 

Step Three: Connect to your purpose; re-commit to your vision

Disappointment knocks us about. We realise that we lost the battle. But we are far more capable of hanging in to win the war if we take a moment to re-connect with our overall purpose: why were we pursuing the goal in the first place? How does it fit in with our vision for our life? Coming back into relationship with the “why” of whatever we were seeking gives us the patience and courage to stare down the disappointment and start again. Do we need a new strategic vision – or just a new way of approaching what still seems to be the right thing for us? What if Sir Joseph Swan had given up on his vision for an electric light bulb before his 2000th (and finally successful) attempt? And if you think that Edison developed the lightbulb – think again! Edison has merely worked on Swan’s lightbulb and then began a shameless advertising campaign stating that HE was the real inventor of the light bulb so he won the rights of distribution of an incandescent lightbulb across the USA – making him a very rich man. For both Sir Swan AND for Edison, persevering in the face of apparent failure allows us to get to the next phase of the process.

 

Step Four: Disidentify from the disappointment

Remember those drawings that looked like so many dots until you stood back – and then the “hidden” picture became apparent? Disappointment functions similarly. It is not until we stand back and disidentify from our painful feelings that we can see the big picture of the situation, including the possibilities and potentials that are embedded within the disappointment. With a disidentified perspective, we can see what we are being asked to learn from the situation – and get a glimpse of what else we could do, or what could happen differently in future. We suddenly realise that the job would not have suited our lifestyle, or the person who left us was often not there for us even when with us. Separating illusion and imagination from clear-headed reality primes us for the fifth step.

 

Step Five: Exploit opportunities by identifying strengths and supports

Up to this point you may have felt disempowered, but here you identify skills and strengths which help you to turn the situation to your advantage. What knowledge do you now have which can drive successful future efforts? What tools are at your disposal? What support can you garner from others? The lost court case gives valuable experience of how the justice system operates; the close friend shifting away gives the opportunity to utilise our own resources and meet new friends. A poor interview sharpens our skills of self-presentation for a job which may be more suitable.

 

Step Six: Flexibly re-set objectives and expectations

Moving through disappointment requires a re-appraisal of expectations which life has not met. To avoid future disappointment, we can ask ourselves how we may be able to pursue our objectives realistically, with less rigidity, and not lose hope. Maybe we can still keep the bar set at the high level, but approach it with more, smaller steps. What helps now is a genuine acceptance of what happened along with an equally solid commitment to moving forward. Creative and wise people tend to see how what they have already experienced has given them the capacity to engage the next battle, where they often win the war.

 

Thus disappointing outcomes become GIFTS; we just need to learn to unwrap them!

Mindfulness & Goal Setting Half-Day Workshop – 30th August 2015

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Quieten your Mind and your Heart will speak

 

Mindfulness & Goal Setting Half-Day Workshop – Sunday 30th August 2015, 10.30am-2.30pm

It seems like everyone is meditating these days – from CEOs of companies to professional athletes and TV personalities. So what IS mindfulness and why is it good for us? And why does goal setting improve your life outcomes? Join me to:

  • Discover what mindfulness is and how it can help us to have a healthier, more productive, more creative and financially stable life.
  • Learn 5 quick and easy mindfulness & stress busting techniques.
  • Discover what your Core Values are and whether you are living in congruence with these.
  • Prepare a clear Personal Action Plan to focus on 1 or 2 Life Goals, which will bring your closer to your Optimal Future.
  • For small business owners: instead of a Personal Action Plan, we can prepare a One-Page Business Plan.

Venue:
90, Hilda Street
CORINDA QLD 4075

Cost: $150/person
Concessions: $130/person (students, pensioners and people with a disability)

For bookings:
Mob: +61 (0)404 067 360
E-mail: ellie@ellierentoul.com
www.ellierentoul.com

The workshop is limited to five (5) people only – to ensure all attendees receive high quality guidance and advice specific to their needs . I look forward to seeing you all on the 30th August!

Ellie Rentoul 🙂

What motivates us?

Most of us would agree that having meaningful work – work that provides a sense of fulfilment and empowerment is one of the key factors in our overall happiness. Those who have found deeper meaning in their careers find their days much more energising and satisfying, and count their career as one of their greatest sources of joy and pride.  Sonya Lyobomirsky, professor of psychology at University of California, has conducted numerous workplace studies showing that when people are more fulfilled on the job, they not only produce higher quality work and a greater output, but also generally earn higher incomes. Those most satisfied with their work are also much more likely to be happier with their lives overall.

For her book Happiness at Work, researcher Jessica Pryce-Jones conducted a study of 3,000 workers in 79 countries, finding that those who took greater satisfaction from their work were a whooping 150% more likely to have a happier life overall. On the flipside, research by the Gallup poll in the US found that, not surprisingly, people whose work is out of alignment were much more likely to be depressed, anxious, and have damaged relationships in their personal lives. Now that tells us that we should spend a bit more time on both career planning and career management!

If you find yourself unhappy and unfulfilled with aspects of your work, according to research by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, you are not alone: job satisfaction and employee engagement has been on a steep and steady decline worldwide over the last two decades. However, Gostick & Elton also have found stories of teams and individuals who are deeply fulfilled by their work, who are passionate about what they do, and are energised when Monday comes.  So – what is their secret? In most cases, Gostick and Elton say, these people and teams have taken control of their careers. So, why don’t we all do it? The problem is that most people in unsatisfying jobs feel either helpless or overwhelmed.  Many wait for the outside force like a manager to fix things or some even secretly wish to being made redundant – because someone else is making a decision for them.  But this is a very passive way to manage one’s career and is unlikely to produce a better career outcome in the long run.

In addition, most people don’t have a clear understanding of what their strongest motivators are. Based on my 5+ years of coaching experience, this is probably the most relevant cause of career inertia.  People simply don’t know what they should do instead of the current role they are in – as the saying goes: “better the devil you know…”. However, there IS a solution, and in most cases it does not require a major career or job transition. There is no need to look for that ‘dream job’ as it simply doesn’t exist! EVERY job contains within it at least 20% of the stuff you don’t like to do. Most people don’t need to make a risky leap into the unknown; they just need to make small changes in their work lives. Many of the happiest people Gostick & Elton interviewed for their book “What Motivates Me?” didn’t find their bliss down a entirely new path: they made course corrections on the path they were already on.

So, how do you find out what truly motivates you? According to Gostick & Elton, there are 23 key motivators (or we can call them Core Work Values) that drive and shape our thoughts, behaviours and habits. As you read the list of these ideas, you’ll most likely notice that a majority could be motivating to you in some degree, with only a few being truly demotivating. However, the priority ORDER for each person is vitally important as it results in a unique mix of 3-5 core drivers that shape our identity:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Challenge
  3. Creativity
  4. Developing Others
  5. Empathy
  6. Excelling
  7. Excitement
  8. Family
  9. Friendship
  10. Fun
  11. Impact
  12. Learning
  13. Money
  14. Ownership
  15. Pressure
  16. Prestige
  17. Problem Solving
  18. Purpose
  19. Recognition
  20. Service
  21. Social Responsibility
  22. Teamwork
  23. Variety

Gostic & Elton have come up with five clusters for the above motivators which they call Identities.  These are:

  1. The Achievers –
    • the love a good challenge;
    • they are driven to excel;
    • they thrive under pressure;
    • they like to be in control
    • they have strong belief in their own talents
    • Completing tasks is crucial to them
    • They feel guilty if they aren’t giving their all
    • They are highly accountable
    • In extreme cases can suffer from perfectionism – there is no such thing as a healthy perfectionism!
    • They set ambitious goal for themselves and others – so will need help with respecting others when striving to reach a goal and not simply ‘run them over’
  2. The Builders
    • They want to help others grow;
    • They’ve long felt a sense of destiny to help others;
    • They want to be surrounded by a passionate team;
    • They believe everyone is a leader;
    • They are loyal friends;
    • Doing good is more important to them than making money;
    • They connect well with others – especially those with the same beliefs;
    • May find it hard to exert ‘tough love’ when genuinely needed so employees or team mates can take advantage by sitting back and putting in less effort;
    • Can end up disillusioned and complaining when others don’t meet their lofty set of standards;
    • Sometimes they ‘jump ship’ when dissatisfied in order to ‘find themselves’.
  3. The Caregivers
    • Driven by Empathy, Family & Fun;
    • They can relate to other people easily;
    • Are natural communicators;
    • They are dependable;
    • They respect others;
    • They try to balance their work and personal lives – so they tend to leave work on time to be with those they love;
    • They are genuine;
    • They are positive;
    • They are light-hearted;
    • They don’t like to be in charge and they avoid having ‘tough conversations’ with staff and people in general;
    • They can do too much ‘small talk’
    • They can be addicted to social media
  4.  The Reward-Driven are motivated by:
    • Money – they like to be incentivised;
    • Prestige – their identity is strongly tied to their success;
    • Recognition – they like regular indications of praise;
    • They are ‘doers’ and action-oriented;
    • Can be highly stressed, tensed and anxious – they work longer and report a higher incidence of failed relationships with spouses and children;
    • Can be pushed not by the healthy desire to compete but by an overriding fear of failure, which means they find fault in themselves;
    • They can be driven by a need to win all the time;
  5. The Thinkers
    • Dislike bureaucracy – they hate silly rules and red tape
    • They want to know ‘why’
    • They value novelty
    • They like to see the impact of their innovation;
    • They think before they act;
    • They like to draw on a wide range of experiences;
    • They don’t like being told how to do their work;
    • Can filter out everything but they most positive comments to reinforce their own points of view. They avoid constructive comments from staff & co-workers;
    • They can dominate people and situations – particularly under pressure.

Prior to each career coaching session, I will send out a unique questionnaire that will help to understand what your key motivators are and what are your 3 dominant Identities. That will be a good starting point for either a career course adjustment or a complete life shift. If you would like to book a Skype or one-on-one or a group coaching session, please contact me on: +61 (0)404 067 360 or via e-mail: ellie@ellierentoul.com

Why Goal Setting Works

As good managers we  should always recognise that if our teams aren’t operating as effectively as they should the problem may lie with us. Did we set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited goals (SMART goals)? If not – redraw them! Ensure that each goal is both challenging and realistic. Aim too high and you’ll demotivate your team. Aim too low and the team will become bored and disinterested.

According to Edwin Locke, the five principles that underpin successful goal setting are:

  1. Clarity: when a goal is clear and specific, there is less misunderstanding within the team about who is expected to do what, to what standard and within what time-frame.
  2. Challenge: Teams and individuals are motivated by challenge and achievement. A ‘good’ goal is one which is difficult but do-able and which team members believe will give them great satisfaction when achieved.
  3. Commitment: Teams and individuals are more likely to ‘buy into’ a goal if they feel they were part of creating the goal.
  4. Feedback: Teams and individuals react positively to action by the leader that clarifies expectations, adjusts goals and acknowledges achievement.
  5. Task complexity: Teams may get excited by working on challenging tasks but they may also get overwhelmed if the task is too complex and practice “task avoidance”.

Locke asserts that the underlying purpose of goal setting is to facilitate success. If managers fail to make targets clear and specific they will frustrate and inhibit staff from achieving their objectives.

So, as a manager, once you have set SMART business targets ask staff to set their own individual targets. Have them use the SMART approach and make sure that their targets are compatible with the team’s goals. By doing this, you keep everyone motivated and committed to an integrated set of personal and team goals.

A few words on providing feedback: yes – managers should provide regular feedback to both individuals and the team as a group – but there is no need to go overboard with it! You don’t need a daily team meeting or meetings to agree agendas for meetings etc. Instead, provide feedback as and when you come into daily contact with people and hold short, snappy meetings to discuss and record progress.

For complex tasks take special care to ensure that you don’t overwhelm the team. Those team members who are used to working on complex tasks may be straining to strut their stuff. But less experienced staff may feel under severe pressure to perform. Keep an eye on them and talk to them regularly. This is where your leadership skills will truly come to the fore. You may chose one of the four Hersey & Blanchard’s popular leadership approaches:

  1. Coaching: where you provide high levels of both direction & support.
  2. Directing: where you provide high levels of direction on how/what to do but low levels of support.
  3. Supporting: where you provide high levels of support but low levels of direction on the specifics of how/what to do.
  4. Delegating: where you provide low levels of support and low levels of direction.

It is important to note that staff will not progress from “Directing” to “Delegating” in a linear fashion. As each new task is delegated the role of the manager/leader is to identify what type of leadership and support your staff needs (if any!).

Why High Stress Jobs Lead to Wide Waists?

Did you know that stressed people put on weight for the same reasons as bears can hibernate? No – I didn’t either until I attended a workshop ran by Dr Gilmarten, a brilliant psychologist and a former hostage negotiation specialist and a police detective from Boston, US. Bears hibernate because they are able to convert most of their calories consumed prior to winter months into fat by releasing high levels of a stress hormone cortisol into their blood stream. This causes the liver to start producing more glucose, which in turn triggers pancreas to release large quantities of insulin.

In humans this happens when people are dealing with high stress situations on a regular basis, and it leads to humans to gain weight around the abdominal area – EVEN IF THEY DON’T INCREASE THEIR DAILY CALORIE INTAKE. Just think about it: highly stressed people are more likely to gain weight – unless they exercise for at least 20-30min per day! So – if you have a very stressful job (such as police officers, Emergency Room staff, ambulance officers, firemen, lawyer, investment banker, engineer, stay-at-home mum and the list goes on…) – you must make daily exercise your priority to ensure you do not become insulin resistant in later years – which leads to Diabetes II. The maths are pretty simple – to reduce the risk of Diabetes II by 60% you must exercise for at least 100 minutes per week (so a daily 20min walk after work can be a good habit to have).

The more you sweat – the faster you get rid of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenalin and nor-adrenalin as these are best released through sweat and urine (yep! you guessed it: it would also be good to drink at least 4-6 large glasses of water or green tea per day). Understanding how your body deals with stress and why you reach for high fat and high sugar foods when you are stressed (think about a bear rapidly storing fat before a long cold winter) is a good start to make positive changes to your habits. Start small: walk regularly and plan your weekly meals and drink lots of water or herbal tea. The rest will come. Good luck!

Happy Couples Habits – Skilful arguing

According to Dr Julian Short (“An Intelligent Life – A Practical Guide to Relationships, Intimacy and Self-Esteem“), one of the common features of getting into an argument with your partner is that things can sometimes escalate to the point where neither one of you is listening to anything that is being said.  You are locked in a battle where you keep pushing your position but there is no resolution.

Couples have different styles of arguing: it might be that they both go on the attack, which often leads to a tumultuous rows and things that are said in a heat of the moment may completely destroy goodwill and intimacy. Instead of opening things for discussion, this toxic style of communication shuts down any chance of validating each other. Other couples may have two people who simply hate conflict and they both avoid arguments at all costs. Hence, many issues are left unresolved and they ‘fester’ for years while both partners continue to ‘coast’ in the marriage/relationship – usually until the children leave home. According to Andrew Fuller (“Life – a Guide: What to Expect in Seven Year Stage“), what often happens for these couples is that at around 50-55yrs of age one of the partners decides that he/she can not live a lie any longer and seeks to ‘find themselves’ outside the marriage. If they were authentic and communicated with their partner mindfully and honestly throughout the relationship (and not only during the ‘honeymoon period’) they wouldn’t have been ‘lost’ in the first place.

Then there is a very common pattern where one person goes on the offensive while the other runs and hides. Desiree Spiering, sex therapist and relationship counsellor from the ABC series “Making Couples Happy“, describes it as an Octopus and Turtle relationship.  The Octopus-Turtle dynamic is not necessarily a bad thing, says Desiree.  You just have to make it work for you: if you have  two octopuses it is too volatile. And if you have got two turtles nothing will ever happen! The octopus role is important, pushing the turtle to do things and change, but at the same time, to work well together, the octopus has to quieten down a little bit, give him or her time to process things and to come out of their shell, give them space, set a time to talk rather than dumping your grievances on them as they walk in through the door at dinner time.

Dealing with “Flooding”

One of the key problems during an argument is that one or both partners can suffer from a ‘flooding’ effect. The ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and once the heart rate gets to around one hundred beats per minute, you ‘flood’ with stress hormones (such as cortisol) and lose the ability to listen, problem-solve, and communicate in a meaningful, respectful way. So, it’s very important to understand what is going on biochemically within your body (and brain) during stressful arguments – so if one or both of you are ‘flooded’ the argument will not progress very far! You might scream louder, repeat your position more times or get personal with your attacks. What then happens is the couples digress completely from the actual main topic of their dispute and nothing gets resolved – despite tempers flared and energy wasted arguing. The key is to try and communicate in a way that doesn’t result in flooding, and if it does – take ‘time out’! Go to another room for a walk, garden – for at least 30minutes as this is how long it takes for the hormones to ‘normalise’.

Another useful technique is the use of diaphragmatic breathing. When we are flooded we start taking small shallow breaths. This leads to hyperventilation and it exacerbates the physical symptoms of stress such as tightening of the chest, shortness of breath which makes speaking uncomfortable and give people a feeling of panic and heart palpitations. Deliberately mimicking a relaxed, deep breathing pattern seems to ‘trick’ the nervous system to calm down.

How to Argue Skilfully

According to John Aiken & Alison Leigh from the popular ABC series “Making Couples Happy” – and based on the pioneering work on couples therapy by Dr John Gottman), the golden rule during an argument is to be respectful. This means:

  1. allowing your partner to finish;
  2. listening without fixing;
  3. giving undivided attention to your partner;
  4. being specific and clear when expressing what you want.
  5. don’t blame,
  6. don’t use generalisations such as ‘you always do/say/make me…’ or ‘you never do/say/help…’
  7. avoid getting overwhelmed and walking out too frequently

A good tool for skilful arguing used by psychologists is called DESC:

  1. D is for Describe
  2. E for Express
  3. S for Suggestion
  4. C for Consequence

So, you DESCRIBE what is bothering you (e.g. I don’t like it when you throw your dirty clothes on the floor. EXPRESS: “It makes me feel disrespected and unappreciated as you expect that I pick up your dirty clothes as well as wash it.” SUGGEST: “I would really appreciate if you could place all your dirty clothes into a washing basket in the laundry.” CONSEQUENCE: outline what you think the ‘consequence’ of that new behaviour would be (e.g. “I would feel respected by you and appreciated as an equal partner in the household”).

The partner has to then repeat back to you what you’ve said e.g. “So what you are saying is… – validating your position with phrases such as ‘you make a good point..’ or ‘I get what you are saying…that must be upsetting’. Agree to the new way of doing things and commit to following through with your promise.

Why some Couples are Happy?

According to the brilliant book by John Aiken and Alison Leigh“Making Couples Happy :-)” (Allen & Unwin, 2013)  happy couples do a lot of Talking, Supporting, Connecting and Dreaming. So, let’s start with “Talking” as a point of difference in a happy relationship. It includes effective listing, expressing appreciation, respectful communication and taking ‘time-out’, understanding body language. The authors propose a set of key communication skills that would help couples to feel heard and valued by their partner as well as to enable them to manage conflict in a more constructive way.

Skill #1: “Listen but don’t fix”. Couples who report high levels of happiness, are able to listen to each other mindfully – without interruptions, judgement or passive aggressive non-verbal cues such as the ‘rolling of the eyes’ or one partner trying to fix the problem without hearing the other out fully. Mindfulness is a growing discipline within coaching and psychology that allows individuals to live more consciously in the present rather than get bogged down in thoughts of the past or  fret about the future. By actively and fully paying attention to the world around us, we can avoid getting caught up in unhelpful thoughts and difficult feelings. Learning to listen mindfully is a positive psychology and coaching skill that helps people to connect with each other through empathy.  It requires them to sit in pairs, and take it in turns to talk to each other. The person listening is not allowed to speak at all: they empathise by simply using facial expressions and gestures.

Listening mindfully allows them to be present with each other and really connect. It encourages them to listen to their partner without jumping in and without trying to fix their problems or to offer advice; to stay with their partner’s emotions and validate them.

Skill #2: Expressing Appreciation. Another interesting aspect of healthy couples’ communication is how much of it is positive and how much is negative. Do partners focus on each other’s strengths or weaknesses? Research shows that couples who focus on the positive aspects of their relationship are the ones who are happiest in their relationship (Aiken & Leigh, Pg. 46). For starters, focusing on the negative is not going to be good for your partner’s self-esteem, let along their sense of warmth and closeness to you. Far from it. When you make a point of communicating to your partner about what they are doing wrong – it will crate resentment, anger and distance – not to mention the fact that they are unlikely to START doing what you ask them! Aiken and Leigh propose a simple yet very effective exercise The Three Good Things”: all you have to do is, at the end of your day, think about three good things about that day, and write them down in a journal. Next, write why these things went so well for you. It could be anything at all: a nice word of praise or an act of kindness, an especially good dinner, or if you have noticed a beautiful sunset/sunrise/flowers in the garden. Nothing is too small – as long as it has made you feel good. However, the authors recommend that at least one of these things should involve your partner. Gratitude has a remarkable effect on human health and wellbeing. Expressing gratitude to others makes them feel appreciated and it brings us closer to them. But taking time out to be grateful for the day-to-day goings-on in our own lives is not something many people think of doing. Well – we should! There is a lot of research to show that being grateful will make you happier.  The “Three Good Things” exercise is especially effective if you do it regularly, after a month you can expect to feel happier about life in general – and not just for that month. The effect can last for three to six months.  So the longer you continue the exercise – the more you and your partner will reap the rewards! I have been personally writing “the three good things” into a small journal next to my bed for over 3 years and have seen its positive effect on both my own wellbeing and the level happiness within my marriage.

Next week I will be talking about the other important aspects of effective communication within a couple relationship: “Skill #3: Talking with Respect & Taking ‘time out’ to avoid Emotional Flooding”.