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Writer’s Block & the Psychology of Gender

It’s been a quiet year on the blogging front for me in 2017. Most of my writing efforts have gone into breaking through a pretty stubborn bout of writers’ block.  How I overcame it also has strong parallels with life’s roadblocks.

Losing Motivation and Other People

Writing is a strange process. It requires hours of solitary confinement, a period of collaboration and compromise and then a period of handing over the finished project to fate, or a fate worse than death – other people who ‘play the numbers game’ and treat your creative efforts as numbers on a spreadsheet. The whole project becomes a team effort without shared accountability.  Ultimately, even if as an author you do everything for the book, by the book, if anyone in the team doesn’t do their bit the book can sink without. An important lesson I learned was that no matter who screws up, the buck always stops with me. This led to a pretty compelling sense of ‘what’s the point?’ My spirit to write was strong, but the motivation was weak, and the flesh ‘couldn’t be bothered’. It was probably what positive psychologists term learned helplessness. When you come to the point that you lose all sense of agency, then you stop trying. (You’ll probably get a strong sense that I’m choosing my words carefully here). So what did I do?

I got to the point where not writing something was not an option. So, I figured that writing about something I know a lot about would help overcome the block. I chose to revisit the subject of gender. On paper, it seemed like a good idea. And indeed it started well. However, I hadn’t quite taken stock of how much the subject of gender had moved on. It’s in a state of flux with everyone ‘jockeying’ for ascendancy.  It’s said that sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better. It’s precisely what happened. I spend too much time in online chat forums where the self-appointed guardians of gender terminology expend a lot of energy chastising the ‘less-informed’. I’ve read of people getting death threats for not hitting the space bar! The writer’s block grew markedly worse. I became fixated on how each word and sentence might be interpreted and taken out of context until I sat, day after day, staring at a blank screen. Eventually, I got to the point where I realized that no matter what I write, someone, somewhere will disagree with it. I just had to refocus on my goal. This was to write a book called The Psychology of Gender aimed at an audience who wanted something between self-help and academia.

Routine and Perception

Over the years I had developed a predictable writing routine, but it had begun to fail me. It took longer and longer to get started, and the results of each session were meagre, that is, if I managed to write anything at all. So in response, I changed everything. I abandoned my office and occupied space in a local café. Instead of my habitual 3pm to 9pm slot, I switched it for 7.30 am to 1.30pm.  I’d always thought of myself as an afternoon person and transformed into an enthusiastic morning person. Perhaps ‘enthusiastic’ is a bit of a stretch. In finding the right café, I ‘auditioned’ quite a few. The one I settled on was 1.3 miles from my home, and I think the early morning walk also helped to get ideas flowing.

People have asked me about the distractions writing in public spaces compared with my home office. Well, it balances out. At home, I have access to an endless supply of tea and coffee and usually take full advantage of it. At a café, there is, in theory, an endless supply of tea and coffee but I think twice having one every fifteen minutes, as I would do at home. There is also only so much I can carry with me, so I tend to think about which books I am going to need, rather than having everything at my fingertips. At a café, there are no sofas to lie on, no CD collections to flick through, no musical instruments to noodle about on. To pass the time in a café, I work. Although there is background music I usually listen to my own playlists through earphones. I found that when the music stopped, I continued working with the headphones on. This has now become a way to mute distractions. I work with the headphones in and the music off. It seems to help me to concentrate. It also signals to other people that I am busy, well, at least that’s the theory. Sat in my usual spot one day, I was typing on my laptop; I was wearing my reading glasses, I had headphones on, with books and journal articles on the table. Out of the corner of my eye, a stranger mouthed something to me, I looked up, took off my headphones, and he said ‘Are you busy?’ No these are my new earrings, I thought but didn’t say anything. I just politely affirmed that I was and took a moment to have a little chat. Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean I can’t be human. It turns out the stranger was a retired publisher.

Finding Your Process In Writing and In Life

Finding a writing process and finding a way to manage life is not so very different. Both evolve. Things that once worked might cease to work. Although there are constants, flexibility is the key. Alvin Toffler in Future Shock argued that a defining capacity of human beings is our ability to learn, un-learn and re-learn. We often need to renegotiate our processes and adapt, both to changing circumstances and to our ourselves as lifelong learners. At the same time, we need to keep focusing on our own goals and values at any given time. We night have core values that never change. These are our terminal values, the endpoints. Alongside these are our instrumental values that might change. These are the values that get us to the endpoints.  Also, it helps to adopt the three attitudes that comprise psychological hardinessThese are a commitment (to other people and the world), emphasize control rather than powerlessness, and focusing on challenge (rather than security). All three of these attitudes are evident in the way I ‘mixed things up’.

Book: The Psychology of Gender - By Dr Gary WoodThe Outcome

So what is the outcome of this deliberation? Well, that would be The Psychology of Gender (See UK / US)! It was definitely a labour of love. However, at the end of it, I have found a writing process that will also take me through the next book for which I wrote a proposal a few weeks after I’d handed in the gender manuscript. Most of the time, even in the face of distractions I have remained civil and also made a few friends along the way. And whether it’s embraced, treated with indifference or torn to shreds like Orpheus in a Bacchanalian frenzy, I’ll live to tell another tale!
To discuss coaching for writing, coaching for life in general or training in the psychology of gender, please get in touch: info@drgarywood.co.uk
Visit the sibling site The Psychology of Gender to find out more about the book. See also Twitter: @gender_psych
Pic: Gender questioning coaching with Dr Gary Wood

If You Call Your Customers ‘Punters’, Do You Deserve to Have Any?

Picture: Crossed fingersThe meaning of words evolves. For years many people have complained about the use of ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’, such as ‘I laughed so much I literally died’ or ‘I was literally glued to the TV set’. Thanks to its overuse (incorrectly), Webster’s dictionary has now included ‘literally’ to mean literally its opposite. Another word that is currently being overused (and incorrectly) by TV reporters (especially on BBC) is ‘punter’. I’m finding myself increasingly irritated by it’s routine use to mean ‘customer’ or ‘client’. Recently I have overhead business users using it too. In this post I argue that we should resist the casual shift of meaning from customer to punter.

Punters versus customers

‘Punters’ are people who gamble, make risky investments or place bets.The word became popular in the 1980s. It’s not clear why news outlets insist on using the word ‘punter’. Maybe the think its trendy. Clearly words do come in and out of fashion such as ‘iconic’. Everything these days is iconic according to news reporters, presenters and journalists. The issue is that ‘punters’ and ‘customers’ are two separate things. A customer wants assurances that goods or services will be delivered to an appropriate standard. ‘Punters’ flip a coin!

Although in time ‘punter’ will undoubtedly find its way into the dictionary with an alternative meaning (customer), but the implication will stay. What next? Think of a service you need to visit and ask yourself ‘Do I want to be a punter?’ Are you expecting to ‘just take your changes’? Do you want to be treated like the proverbial fool, easily parted with your money?

Attitudes, Values and Actions

Customer service is one thing that a business cannot afford to short-change its customers on. Customer loyalty is not built on a punt. It’s not just a turn of phrase; it whispers contempt. We are often told to treat people as we would want to be treated. Better still to find out how people want to be treated and treat them that way instead. Our words reveal our attitudes. Our attitudes communicate our values and, in turn, shape our actions. Actions build trust. With trust comes loyalty. Businesses who treat their customers as ‘punters’ can’t really expect any of that, and certainly don’t deserve it.

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If you found this post useful:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. His clients have included BBC, Powergen, American Airlines, The Payments Council, first direct amongst others. Contact Gary Wood by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

How to be More Persuasive and Convincing: Use the Rule of Three

It’s not difficult to persuade anyone of the prevalence and significance of the number three in Western culture. It’s everywhere, from sport (three points for a win, hat-tricks),  fairy tales (Bears, Pigs, wishes), literature (Musketeers), films (Amigos, Stooges),  to religion (the Trinity), interior designers (three ornaments on a shelf) even stand-up comedy (the rule of three elements in a joke). We even say that bad new comes in threes! There is something intrinsically satisfying about the number three to our pattern-seeking brains.

In psychology there are also plenty of triads such as Sigmund Freud‘s id, ego and superego (in psychoanalysis) and Eric Berne‘s parent, adult, child (in transactional analysis). I was surprised at just how many there are, so much so, that when writing my book Unlock Your Confidence I found it useful to use a triangle device to communicate the essence of psychological theories, without getting too bogged down in the details. I tested in workshops and it was a fast and effective way of introducing new material without taking away from the hands-on, experiential nature of the workshops. People really seem to get ‘three’.

It turns out that the rule of three offers a blueprint for persuasiveness. Kurt Carlson (Georgetown University) and Suzanne Shu (University of California) in their research paper ‘When Three Charms but Four Alarms’, find the ideal number of claims to include in a persuasive argument. People, firms and products should all use the ‘charm of three’ when making positive claims. Two is not convincing and adding a fourth point is viewed as a step too far.  It actually has a detrimental effect and increases scepticism..

This post is deliberately brief as the rule of three has endless applications. I figure your time would be better spent updating your CV (resume), updating your websites, rethinking your presentations, sales pitches, marketing and advertising campaigns or just the humble negotiations in relationships. There is no need to come up with as many convincing reasons as long as your arm. Three will do nicely.

Links:

Why There’s No Such Thing as “Too Much Confidence” or “Over-Confidence”

We often hear the phrase ‘over-confidence‘ (or ‘too much confidence’). There is no such thing!  If it seems too much or ‘over the top’ then it’s not confidence. It might be arrogance, aggression, over-compensation, blind faith or even delusions. Most importantly, it may indicate lower self-esteem. These over-the-top displays of bluff, bluster and bravado are nothing but a smoke-screen.

‘Fake it ’til you make it’ confidence is based on stress

Outer displays of ‘over-confidence’ are part of the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach, whereby you behave confidently until you actually believe it and until it becomes ‘part of you’. So they begin as a way to counter a lack of self-belief. Yes it’s good to take action and indeed confidence does need a leap of faith, however, real confidence, true self-assurance starts within. At its root, confidence is about feeling comfortable in your own skin. If it seems ‘too much’ it’s about covering up for discomfort. Inner confidence is cool and level-headed. ‘Over-confidence’ is hot-headed. That’s because psyched-up displays are more likely to stem from the classic stress responses of fight or flight. most notably, the fight response!

Building confidence is like building rapport

In face-to-face interactions people tend to model and match each other as they build rapport. So they may begin using similar words and gestures as the other person. This happens spontaneously. This is why, embarrassingly, you may find yourself starting to speak in a similar regional accent to the other person. A similar thing happens with confidence. When we are around truly confident people, it rubs off. Confidence is positively contagious. You begin to relax and this brings out ‘the best in you’ and you pass this on to others. The thing about body language is that if we focus on relaxing we don’t have to worry about faking it. The body language takes care of itself. If everyone is a little too ‘in your face’ and intent on ‘faking it’ then the encounter is based on lies and that can be stressful. If you are stressed, then it’s not confidence.

The difference between assertiveness and aggression

We prize assertiveness but it is often confused with aggression. The concepts are often used interchangeably but are very different things. In an assertive state we can stand our ground and make our point and still accept that another person doesn’t necessarily have to accept our view. We can be assertive and still be quite calm. On the other hand, aggression is all about making sure another person accepts our point of view. Aggression is all about force. It’s all about the fight. So if a person dominates a space and leaves no room for other opinions or for others to contribute that’s not confidence. It’s aggression or maybe even outright bullying.

Relaxation is the basis of elite performance

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my workshops, first  I focus on relaxation. In a relaxed state we are able to access a broader range of emotional responses, skills and abilities. Professional athletes adopt a similar strategy. they begin by learning to take control of their own stress response. This doesn’t mean that they perform in a ‘semi-comatose’ state. They learn plenty of techniques to psych themselves up too. The point is that the cornerstone of elite performance is relaxation. This is what we build upon. So in my workshops, I invite people to take risks and have fun. I’m aways the first in the workshop to risk looking foolish. Usually by the mid-morning break, everyone in the group is chatting as though they are good friends. At least one person comments on that when I ask for feedback. They are surprised at how quickly the group forms. And for my part, I never cease to be amazed at how quickly people will grow and take risks if you provide the necessary conditions. Many of them have attended workshops and training courses where they have managed to get through the whole day without learning anyone’s name. That never happens in my workshops.

Fear and respect are not the same

We all learn more efficiently when we are relaxed and amongst a group of like-minded people, not when we are stressed in a group of (hostile) strangers. This is the basis of my confidence-karma approach, that is, we build confidence in ourselves as we pass it on to others. We begin by relaxing ourselves and then focusing on putting others at ease.  The most frequent challenge I get to this approach is from managers who question whether they will get respect if they ‘try to be everyone’s friend’. Nowhere in my book or workshop do I suggest we should try to be everyone’s friend. Being a boss and focusing on putting people at ease do not have to be mutually exclusive. It’s common amongst managers to confuse fear and respect. Respect is earned and fear can be overcome. You will get a lot of respect from being a person who empowers others.

No such thing as ‘too much confidence’ with the Confidence-Karma approach

So that’s why according to my approach, there is no such thing as over-confidence or too much confidence. Confidence people bring out the best in others, they don’t scare them into submission.

If you liked this post, please use the ‘like’ and buttons below and pass on the message to others or check out Gary’s other posts about confidence

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How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one)

How to find a life coach? Maybe that should read ‘How to avoid falling over a life coach in the street’. There are numerous training schools, coaches offering services, coaching directories and so-called accrediting bodies. As it is rather a new discipline there is no one ‘governing body’ and no agreed standard for coaching training. In some instances coaching-training providers have set up their own ‘governing bodies’ and approved their own courses! However, I suppose we have to start somewhere and in most cases the real credentials for setting up a coaching training school or organization is that they thought of it first!

This post is not intended as a demolition of the coaching profession. Its aim is to help you make an informed choice and enter into the coaching process with confidence. To this end it includes quite a few questions that you should be asking when looking for a life coach who is experienced, qualified and right for you.

Yes, it’s a long post. There’s a lot to cover and it’s still not exhaustive.

So, before deciding to find a coach the first step is to be clear about the phrase ‘life coach’ means

What is a life coach?

Anyone can call themselves a life coach. It’s a catch-all label not a protected title. Ideally a life coach is a professionally trained practitioner who assists clients to identify and achieve personal (and professional) goals. It is a professional relationship, a partnership where the client brings the agenda and the coach brings the skills and tools to facilitate the process. The aim is for the coach to help you to bring out your strengths, aid insights and help you to meet your goals (in line with your values). It’s often said that if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching.

Coaching should always focus on what it is meaningful to the client.  Ideally, the coach should have a set of skills that bring out the your strengths and insights and help you to find your own solutions. The coach brings the agenda. Any tools and techniques should always be meaningful to the client.

How do you know you need to engage a life coach?

What are the issues that caused you to think about hiring a coach? How do you imagine a coach is going to help? What will you be doing with the help of a life coach that you’re not doing now/on your own?

Decide what you need from a coach. If it’s just someone to talk to then it would be cheaper to go out with friends for a coffee.

Is it coaching or counselling that you need?

If the issues have a strong emotional component and are causing you distress so that you wouldn’t feel you could tackle goals, then some form of counselling might be a better first step. Many of the information here is useful in finding a counsellor too. If you are suffering from severe emotional upset then your GP (local doctor) is often a good place to start.

If you feel stuck, or have a sense that you want more out of life or of you have goals you want to achieve then coaching is probably the way forward. Yes, a by-product is that coaching may have a beneficial effect on emotions and on confidence and esteem. However, that should be as the result of working on your goals.

Why bother hiring a life coach at all? What are the benefits?

The coaching process works on the principle that two heads are better than one, mainly because the two heads have different roles in this professional relationship. You provide the agenda and the coach provides the tools and know-how to manage the process. A good coach should ask the right questions to get the best out of you and enable you to reach insights that it may have taken a lot longer on your own. Part of the role of a coach is to hold a mirror up to you. Sometimes a coach will challenge you (in a supportive way). In my practice I help people find solutions that work for them according to their strengths and values. It can be a very life affirming process. My aim is that when you leave the process, you do so feeling empowered and have alternative way of viewing yourself and the world. Clients are often surprised at just how quickly positive changes take place and I never cease to be inspired at what my clients achieve. That’s why it’s so important to get the right coach-client match, and the main reason for this article.

Questions to ask a before engaging a life coach

  • What coaching qualifications do you have?
  • Where did you study for your coaching qualifications?
  • How long did you study?
  • What other qualifications do you have?
  • What did you do before coaching?
  • What is your coaching philosophy and is it grounded in evidence?
  • What do you do to maintain your own professional development?
  • What is the evidence that this coaching approach works? (ask the coach).
  • What ethical framework do you subscribe to?
  • What professional bodies do you belong to?
  • Can I see myself working with this coach?

Beware of new-age and ‘esoteric knowledge’ re-branded as coaching

Some people calling themselves coaches will work in tarot and crystal readings. They may purport to use esoteric tools and techniques. So let’s begin with the most important thing. If it seems glamorous or mysterious or good old-fashioned ‘gobbledygook’ then it more likely serves the interests of the practitioner than it does the needs of client. This does not mean that they appeal to arcane ‘knowledge’ to which you do not have access. If it sounds like a load of old mumbo-jumbo, it’s not coaching. It’s more likely that someone is ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and use the buzzword of coaching to tap into the growth in coaching and to lend their own practice more credibility. Be clear ‘Tarot coaching’ is not coaching. Coaching is about helping the client tap into their own strengths and abilities. There should be no glamour and mystery! When additional paraphernalia is included this introduces a whole new system of thought that may distort or usurp your own agenda. It’s up to you to work out what the ‘real’ issues are, not the turn of a card!

Coaching training and qualifications

Anyone can call themselves a coach. Being schooled in ‘the university of life’ does not qualify someone to be a life coach. So  as well as asking about qualifications, ask where they trained and then investigate.

The standard of tuition and the quality of the content on coaching training courses may vary enormously. Some are based on sound evidence-based principles others follow a more ‘inspirational approach’ sometimes called the ‘make-it-up-as-they-go-along-approach’. So, find out a little about the coaching ‘academies’. Just because they say they are the best and appear in the little shaded area in Google rankings means nothing. You pay to get in that shaded spot.  Check out the coaching academy websites.

‘Proper’ academic educational establishments give you a clue in their web addresses. A web address academic institution is the UK ends in ” .ac.uk “. In the USA, the web addresses end in ” .edu”. If the coaching academy doesn’t have such a web address, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they offer poorer training. See if they are accredited or affiliated to an academic institution. I recommend that you think very carefully before engaging a life coach whose training does not meet these standards. There are many business-oriented training providers without the assurance that the training provided meets an approved standard. If it’s affiliated to an academic institution, it’s more likely that its quality is assured.

And just because a coach has written a book doesn’t override all the above. It’s relatively easy to publish your own e-book these days without the additional input, editorial control, assistance (or hindrance) from anyone else. Of course, the self-published e-book may be an excellent resource, so if you are intrigued check it out first and decide whether there is substance to the approach and whether you think it might work for you.

If the book has published the ‘old-fashioned’ way, there are lots of stages of development with a conventional publisher and a number of editors are involved to produce the finished book. Obviously, a conventional publisher wants to sell books and this affects what they accept. In tough economic times, publishers become a little more conservative in what they commission. It just might be that an author just hit a brick wall and decided to self-publish.

Either way, a book doesn’t override credentials and qualifications.

Different approaches and types of life coaching

There are many different approaches of coaching. I first trained in a cognitive-behavioural approach based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and so has a strong evidence-base to support it. After training in some more ‘inspirational’ based approaches, I studied solution-focused therapy which is easily adapted to the coaching setting and again has a wealth of evidence to support it. Things like NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) based courses have become very popular as the training only takes a few weeks. Although the NLP approach borrows heavily from psychology and psychotherapy there is little evidence to support it as a coaching approach. There is no evidence to support its claims of instant transformations. Yes, things can change very quickly especially with a coach who asks the right questions. However, it should be more about tapping into your strengths, abilities and insights rather than ‘re-programming’ you. People are not robots and shouldn’t be treated as such. The glamour of the ‘instant’ approach often has more to do with the coaches reputation that the client’s aspirations.

Go for a coaching approach with a track-record supported by evidence-based research, not one on the say-so of the practitioner.

Modes of coaching

There are a variety of means to deliver coaching so you need to decide what will best suit you. Coaching can be face-to-face at the coach’s practice or private rooms, it can be at your workplace, it can be over the telephone, via Skype of just by email. Of course, it can be any combination of the above.

Decide what would work best for you. If you want face-to-face coaching then it makes sense to look for a coach in your local area to avoid excessive travelling. If you think you might prefer telephone coaching then you can look further afield. The wonders of technology mean that if you have found a coach who you think is right for you  Skype means that geography isn’t important. In my practice, even the clients who prefer telephone or Skype coaching often have a face-to-face session first.

Costs: How much should you expect to pay for life coaching?

There is no recognised agreed ‘average’ amount. The only observation is that coaching tends to be more expensive than counselling. Partly, this is because coaching is more time-limited. As I practice solution-focused brief coaching, I offer coaching for one to ten sessions, with the average being four to six. If the life coaching is more interested in ‘exploring issues’ than working towards your goals, it’s not coaching. It should be relatively brief, and it shouldn’t take weeks to build up to tackling your goals. If you engage me as a coach, expect me to begin working with your goals from the first session.

The cost of coaching also depends on the experience and qualifications of the coach. So newly qualified, less experienced coaches tend to charge less than the highly qualified, experiences, in demand coaches. However, this is not always the case. Just because someone is charging £200 per hour (or more) doesn’t make them ‘one of the best coaches’. Price does not override qualifications, so always check them out using all the above questions.

The average fee for a 50 to 60 minute coaching session is about £50 to £75 ( $75 to $100). Some coaches offer services for £25-£30, others for £150 or more. It’s an idea to fix a budget and approach coaching as a tailor-made, personal or professional development programme. I wouldn’t advise signing up to indefinite monthly payment plans. We all know what happens with the gym membership. If the coach does offer monthly payments, it should be for a fixed total sum. Then you choose if you want to renew.

Life Coaching: What you’re paying for

When engaging a coach, apart from the cost of their training, it is important to consider what is involved in terms of time-cost for the coach. Coaches prepare before handing by re-acquainting themselves with the clients’ notes. Then there’s the actual session of 50-60 minutes. After that, the coach will write-up the client’s notes which may take as long as the coaching session itself. So for each single session the coach may spend at least two hours. Coaching fees reflect this time-cost.

Warning signs: Avoiding the pitfalls when looking for a life coach

  • If a coach tells you that they don’t subscribe to any ethical framework, they just do what works: walk away!
  • If a coach dismisses evidence-based knowledge as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘stuffy’ or claim that their approach is ‘above scientific understanding’: walk away!
  • If a coach has a variety of coaching plans more confusing that energy company tariffs: walk away!
  • If a coach tries to get you to sign up for an indefinite period on direct debit or standing order: walk away!
  • If the coach seems to be evasive, doesn’t seem to want to answer your questions or tells you that you aren’t asking the right questions: walk away!

Approaching the Life Coaching Directories

Many coaches advertise their services on coaching directories and although a listing on these directories is not necessarily an endorsement of the quality of their work, some directories ( but not all) require proof of qualifications. So still be cautious. Still ask all off of the above questions.

Use the coaching directories to see what’s in your area. Read the coaches’ profiles and decide which ones seem to connect with you. Can you imagine working with them? Then irrespective of what they have written on their profiles, do you homework and ask all the above questions.

Don’t just look at the coaches who appear at the top of the listings. Some of the directories charged extra so coaches appear in prime position! So have a good look through all the listings in your area.

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodHere are some directories to get you started:

(I have taken the liberty of linking to my profile entries. Just hit ‘home’ on the websites to search for other coaches)

What if you need more information on finding a life coach?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodSo there you have a sound basis on which to engage a life coach, I hope it hasn’t been too bewildering and I hope you are now better informed of some of the pitfalls. If you have any questions:

Check out books by Dr Gary Wood and his recommendations on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

How Taking Photographs Can Impair Your Memories (and what to do about it)

New research indicates that although we think of photographs as something to preserve our memories, the process of taking pictures may actually impair our memory of events. This phenomenon has been dubbed the photo-taking impairment effect  by Dr Linda Henkel (from Fairfield University, Connecticut). She states:

When people rely on technology to remember for them – counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves – it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.

The research was carried out in museum to learn the effects of visitors’ memories of what they had seen. Participants were given a tour and asked to either photograph exhibits or simply try to remember them. When their memories were tested the following day the results showed that the photographers were less accurate in recognizing objects and memory of detail was poorer compared with those who had only looked at them.

However in a follow-up experiment participants were asked to take photographs of specific details in objects by zooming in on them. In contrast to the previous experiment the recall for detail was preserved, not just for the part of the object in shot but also for other details out of frame. So the conclusion here is that photographs do preserve memories if we take the time.

This research fits in with what we know about learning in that the deeper we process information the easier it is to recall. So for instance it is more difficult to remember a list of random words than the same number of words that have been organized by category first. It also reminds us of the value of goals. Where the participants had a more specific goal they engaged at a deeper level with the subject. Active learning is always more effective that passive learning. Setting your own goals is better letting them be set by chance. In a previous post I discussed how to get the most out of a self-help book. The key recommendation is to actively engage with the material rather than just passively reading the book. Most of my work in academic coaching helps clients to tap into the fundamentals of human psychology and employ active learning techniques.

And so to mindfulness the state of fully experiencing the present moment. The research on photo-taking impairment effect hinges on the level of engagement the participant has with the subject material. There is a great lesson in the research for life in general: take your time, create balance in life, have a goal, be actively present and focus on what is really important.

With advances in digital photography the temptation is to ‘point and shoot at anything that moves and anything that stays still! The result is that we amass lots of pictures we never look at again. In the past people would decide whether to take on holiday a camera film with 24 or 36 shots. Today that would barely a few minutes.

The famous painting by René Magritte “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) is a reminder to us that photographs are not memories. Photographs are representations of memories. It is important to have the experience as well as click the camera shutter. With mobile (cell) phones and digital cameras the temptation is to use the device as a companion rather than engaging with ‘real-time life’ and people who are present. So before you whip out your camera or reach for your mobile consider the balance between ‘capturing the moment’ and ‘being in the present moment’.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire)

Gary’s book Unlock Your Confidence’ covers mindfulness, goal setting and how to feel comfortable in your own skin. It is out now. Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA

Links:

Practise Mindfulness and Reduce Your Phone Bill! (. . . and Build Confidence)

Social media has made social commentators or us all

Living in the modern world is not necessarily living in the present moment. I went out with a group of people recently and one person periodically reached for his phone to post a series of updates, a running commentary on the night’s proceedings. It begs the question of whether he was really there at all.  Observing people on their mobile phones and hearing about their astronomical phone bills has made me think about needs, motives and mindfulness. Can being more aware of life make you happier, more confident and save you money?

Experiencing the moment rather than observing

I ran an experiential team building course as part of a university’s management development programme. Part of assessment for the course required the students to keep a reflective diary. The whole aim of the course was to experience team building rather than sitting and listening to theories in a ‘chalk and talk’ format. So there were lots of group activities. One person just hung around at the edge of the activities writing things for her reflective diary. Despite being encouraged to join in she kept gravitating back to her diary which had really become an observation of other people since she contributed nothing. She successfully avoiding being in the room so what could she really reflect? She was just a passenger. It reminds me of the time when I was a passenger in a car, travelling back from a night out in another city  (in the early hours of the morning). The other passengers took the opportunity to go to sleep leaving the driver ‘alone’. I also started to fall asleep until the car swerved. It seems that the driver had the same idea too. I suddenly became pretty mindful and participated in the journey. Despite being tired, being in the present moment was infinitely preferable to the alternative!

Do we text so we don’t have to talk or just to fill time?

Routinely I see people alone on buses who spend most of the fifteen minute journey phoning anyone and everyone but not really saying anything. Much of the conversation, at best, involves a running commentary of the bus journey.

I’m often amazed when some people tell me how much they spend on their mobile phones. Even with staggering allowances they still manage to pay double their monthly tariff. Most of the money goes on SMS (text) messages. Every month they seem genuinely surprised by their phone bills. One of the biggest ‘culprits’ is the text conversation in which numerous texts are exchanged, one for each line of the conversation. Sometimes a text will just say ‘yes’ or ‘lol’ or a smiley face emoticon. Actually calling the person would be easier, more efficient and cheaper. Texting has become a way to keep in touch without really communicating. It’s seen as more convenient because you don’t want to spend too much time talking to someone. Ironically, there is no time saved as lives are put on hold waiting for the next line in the ongoing text saga. Time is not saved. Money is just wasted. It just creates the illusion of connecting. Often it’s just a way of pimping someone else’s time.

People run up huge phone bills because they aren’t really paying attention to the world around them. They are either trying to alleviate boredom by killing time, alleviating loneliness or blocking unpleasant emotions. Practicing mindfulness can help to deal with unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Present Moment Awareness

To be surprised by a huge phone bill means you haven’t been mindful of what you have been doing.  A pivotal moment in my own personal development was going on holiday alone. It was before mobile phones had become an integral part of our lives. I carried a paperback book and a notepad around with me. I’d guessed that sitting alone having a coffee might be awkward so I could read a book or pretend to read a page then gaze of into the distance thinking about the page I’d just ‘read’. Alternatively, I could scribble things in my note pad. Effectively I was keeping a reflective diary without actually having done anything to reflect about. After a while, I got a bit tired of getting the books out and just decided to sit there and enjoy the present moment. After all, I was sitting over looking a beautiful harbour. I credit this moment as the discovery of my confidence, my true inner confidence. I wasn’t concerned about other people and what I imagined they might be thinking. I just looked out to sea, the boats, the sky, the sounds and so on. That was enough. I realized that doing this I’d become totally comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t occur to me that the experience would be heightened by ‘sharing it’ with someone back home. That would have taken me out of the moment.

Being Mindful, Being Happier, Being More Confident (and saving money)

We hear a lot about the practice on mindfulness and usually it’s about taking time out to be still and just observe our breathing. If our minds wander we simply bring our attention back to our breathing. Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness can increase our sense of well-being including optimism, confidence and happiness. It also has a beneficial effect of stress levels and strengthens our immune system response. There are however other types of mindfulness. There are many types of mindfulness apart from being mindful of your breath in a mediation exercise. If you go for a walk in the park you can practice mindfulness of nature. A tree is no more or no less because someone has texted another person about it. It just is. Switching off the TV and paying attention to what you’re eating is mindfulness of food. Being ‘in the zone’ and being engrossed in a hobby is never made better by getting out of the zone. Indeed, the state of being totally immersed in a task is known as ‘being n flow’. The more time you spend ‘in flow’ the happier you are.

Here is a simple mindfulness exercise taken from my book Unlock Your Confidence that I use for the basis of confidence building:

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodClose your eyes, take long slow deep breaths and simply focus your attention on your breath. If intrusive thoughts pop into your mind, just acknowledge the beginning of the thought and then observe when it ends. Then bring you attention back to your breathing. That’s all. If you want you can name the thought and then let it go. You will notice that the thoughts become less frequent and the periods of stillness increase.Do it for ten to 20 minutes each day.

Ideally, commit to trying this out everyday for a month to assess the effects on your relaxation, confidence, happiness and, of course, on your phone bill. Spending more time practising being in the present moment may mean will help to still the mental chatter and intrusive thoughts so that you don’t need the distraction of endless text messages.

To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders – Lao Tzu

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Overhearing Telephone Conversations in Public: The Annoyance of the Halfalogue

Why we are forced to eavesdrop on phone conversations in pubic

We have all had experience of the annoying people on their mobile (cell) phones chatting loudly in public spaces usually about nothing of particular consequence. These overhead half-conversations have been dubbed ‘halfalogues. Spend a great deal of time travelling the UK, I often encounter the halfalogue on trains particularly in the so-called quiet-zone of the train. The perpetrators may protest that their mutterings on the phone are not as distracting or as annoying as people chatting. And, yes there are some people who have two conversational volumes on trains: (i) Look at me and (ii) Seriously, you really need to look at me I’m being interesting. More often than not, they are not. However research has shown that we do find overhearing a halfalogue more distracting and annoying than overhearing a full conversation. The main reason for the increased stress to a halfalogue is that our brains are drawn to the unpredictable and try to make sense of the information. With an ordinary conversation all the information is present. With the halfalogue it is not. So it is worth being more aware of people around you. Because of our psychological make up, we can’t help but try to make sense of the overhead half-conversation. So on a long train journey, other people are held captive in the physical and psychological senses. You may think you are just being sociable by chattering away on the phone for hours on end about nothing in particular. However, what you are really doing is torturing everyone around you.

Halfalogues are annoying but are they dangerous?

On a recent bust bus journey there was a young man on the back seat of the bus intent on letting everyone on the bus know how intelligence and informed he was. As he was proudly broadcasting his views to the person on the other end of the phone, he uttered a few phrases that brought gasps, tuts, dirty looks and exclamations of ‘oh please’ and ‘for god’s sake’. On a busy bus, people were only able to hear the bits he emphasized. At one point he blurted out ‘the Germans had the right idea’ and ‘I know it’s drastic but we have just got to do what the Germans did and get rid of a few. . .’ The problem with the halfalogue is that it requires us to work hard to make sense of the information. We can’t help but trying to make sense and so employ a strategy of cognitive economy. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way, instead we apply scripts, schemata and stereotypes as heuristic devices. In short, we make educated guesses based on insufficient data. It’s often difficult NOT to jump to erroneous conclusions.

Context and communication

When I heard the ‘Germans had the right idea’ phrase, my contextual cues to interpret the halfalogue were the people at the front of the bus who turned around, tutted and scowled in disgust. My guess was that they had assumed some kind of racist, ethnic cleansing diatribe (halfatribe), or maybe that was tapping into my own stereotypes. After all, I only had a few phrases and audience reactions to go on. It was only after I continued to listen to the halfalogue that he uttered the phrase ‘on the terraces’. Immediately the context changed and the reactions of my fellow passengers on the bus became amusing. Although, if they had not heard the new information I just became a man on the bus grinning at someone on the phone proposing genocide. I was compelled to listen to halfalogue-man. It transpired that he was commenting on the new initiative in some German football clubs to remove some of the seats in the stadium and reinstate the more traditional standing on he terraces. So nothing to groan or grimace about unless you find football tedious in the extreme.

Lessons from the halfalogue?

Fortunately for the football commentator on the bus, the other passengers only had the weapon of ‘the dirty look’ and the ‘tut’ and the eye-roll in their arsenal. However it’s easy to imagine how this situation might have escalated. More than anything the mobile (cell) phone has done more to shatter the boundaries between public and private. So for the habitual halfalogger, it is worth remembering the impact on other people. Just be more socially aware. Our brains have not developed the capacity to avoid the annoyance of the halfalogue and probably never will. Rarely are people impressed with anyone’s analytical skills on the back of a bus or on a four hour train journey. People aren’t glancing over because they have discovered one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century. It’s annoyance that they have to subjected to drivel and further annoyance that they seem unable to drag themselves away from the witnessing the social skills equivalent of a road traffic accident.

[Gary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to put a bit of social conscience back into self-help]

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Gender Stereotypes and Confidence

Confidence & Media Myths

Our concept of what it means to be confident is sometimes distorted by gender stereotypes. Confidence is often seen as a masculine type trait. This is partly because we confuse confidence with bravado. Some self-help gurus don’t help this assumption. Often the proof that someone has gained confidence is the ability to engage in daredevil stunts. However, stunts such as walking on hot coals or bungee jumping have more to with recklessness than confidence. Reality TV shows are also all about contestants putting on a show. Being brash and ‘making an entrance’ is often equated with confidence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

True, inner confidence

True, inner confidence is more about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s a lot quieter than the over-the-top displays we associate with the traditional ‘blokey’ stereotype. In fact, confidence begins from a position of relaxation. It’s rooted in quietness. The traditional female stereotype is associated with nurturing. This is another aspect of confidence. Truly confident people put others at ease. If someone’s ‘confident display’ makes other people feel uncomfortable or intimidates then it isn’t true confidence.

Book Cover: The Psychology of Gender by Dr Gary WoodTrue confidence is the mark of a well-rounded human being

The masculine stereotype could be characterized as ‘assertive’ and the traditional female stereotype as ‘nurturing’. So true confidence is a blend of these two qualities.  If you develop your ability to relax and your skills at putting others at ease, these provide the perfect platform for assertiveness. If you’re stressed and angry and just think about yourself then the result is aggression. True confidence is the mark of a  balanced, well-rounded human being. It’s positively contagious, so pass it on.

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Pic: Ad for confidence and self-esteem coaching with Dr Gary Wood