Bah Humbug. Why It’s Okay to be More Like Scrooge at Christmas

The name Ebenezer Scrooge, the principle character from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has become synonymous for embittered miserliness and especially for someone who does not embrace the ‘spirit of Christmas’. At the start of his journey he cares nothing for people and is only interested in money. By the end of the story Scrooge was a changed man. He discovered the true meaning of Christmas. His name became synonymous with altruism and generosity. He was Mr Christmas.

A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption. It is a tale of values and how to focus on what truly matters in life. It was set in a bleak time of abject poverty and the social injustice of the casualties of the Industrial revolution. The story has resonance with modern-day austerity cuts where the most vulnerable in society have had to pay for the mistakes of the most affluent (. . . steps off soapbox. . .) Back to the main point.

humbugChristmas seems to start earlier every year. Cards and decorations appear in the shops around August. It has little or nothing to do with the values that Scrooge rediscovered by the end of the tale. Modern-day Christmas is driven by the values of the pre-enlightened Scrooge. In a perverse twist and turn around, those who decry commercialism are branded ‘Scrooge’ or ‘Ebenezer’ or chided with the statement ‘bah humbug’.

It’s true that Christmas is a real hugger-mugger of a festival and means different things to different people. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens did a lot to bring together disparate traditions and associations surrounding the Yuletide season. He helped us to re-embrace the pagan and yet at the heart of the story, there is a universal sense of humanity. So we have a pagan festival, hijacked by the Christian Church, in part, unified by Dickens and now hijacked by commercialism. Christmas is something that can now only be purchased and if you don’t have money then you are excluded. No doubt it will continue to evolve and mutate with more ‘traditions’ added. Hopefully, somewhere in the mix there will be space to re-discover what Scrooge discovered: If it’s not about people then it truly is humbug.

Happy People-mas

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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. Contact Gary by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

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Self-Help, Personal Growth and the Reluctance to Take Action

You can have a bookcase full of self-help books and attend all the top personal development courses but if you don’t put them into practice then what is the point?

My approach to personal and professional development is solution focused and action oriented. It’s often said that if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching. Goals need action plans but to mean anything they have to be followed through. Of course many people get this. People approach me for coaching because they are fired up and ready to go. However, occasionally, I get inquiries from people who are more interested in how I can magically transform them and instill instant motivation and preferably just bring about change without ‘the pain’ of action. The short answer is ‘I’ll work with you and help you to achieve your goals but I won’t work against you!’

My first insight into the ‘transformation by reflection’ rather than action came in the review of my book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It’. Some bright spark reviewer on Amazon described it is an average self-help book because ‘you do need to apply the advice within if you are to gain something‘. At the time I was surprised at this review. Since this I have encountered similar sentiments in different arenas. I have had inquiries from potential coaching clients who state boldly that they know all about goal setting but ‘just lack motivation’ and don’t know why. When I mention values they usually reply that they know all about values too. Maybe some people are invested in being enigmas or maybe there is just a stronger motivator in their lives other than achieving their goals. Maybe some people feel the need to explore and analyse their feelings and delve into the past. That’s fine but it ain’t coaching.

In my confidence workshops, I use warm-up exercises. These are low threat opportunities to have a little fun and build group cohesion. Occasionally, someone will decide to ‘sit these out’ or on occasion pretend to go to the toilet and never return. For the majority of the people who do take a chance they usually reap the rewards. They feel connected to the group and usually have a good laugh in the process. There’s nothing like a laughter as the perfect platform for learning. Over-reflection and rumination are not the solution they are more likely to be the problem. We need to balance reflection with some action.

I was asked to run a staff development session on how to motivate other people. So I thought I’d offer some skills on motivational interviewing. However the word came back that they ‘don’t want motivational interviewing. We’ve already done that’. My immediate thought was ‘so why don’t you use it then?’ I soon found out why. Instead I offered to do solution-focused coaching skills. The word came back that this sounded fine as long as there was no role play, ‘they don’t like role play’. Role play is the mainstay of coaching and counselling training. I suspect that the motivational interviewing training didn’t contain any practical exercises. They never got to experience the techniques in action and so judged their efficacy on incomplete knowledge (just their thoughts and feelings). I don’t know anyone who ever learned to ride a bike by hearing about it and thinking about it. You have to get on the damn thing and fall off a few times!

Often the solution is to go against our pre-judgement (prejudice) and just try the techniques out anyway. It’s part of the approach of treating new learning experiences as personal experiments. It doesn’t matter if they don’t totally work for you. It’s just important to get some feedback. It’s true that we are not all the same but there are basic psychological principles that apply to us all. We discover our unique way of learning without a broad psychological framework. A key principle is that at some point we need to take action.

Coaching offers a tailor-made personal development programme and at the heart of it is co-operation. It’s a collaborative process. It shouldn’t be the coach working against the client. The coach is the co-pilot not a hostage negotiator! Most of my coaching training involved experiencing the techniques in training. I even went through coaching to support my training. I didn’t have to do it. I just seemed logical that I had to fully experience the process from the perspective of a client.

Much of coaching and training is about attitude change. The three components of attitudes are: feelings, thoughts and actions. Sometimes people focus too heavily on feelings and so avoid moving outside their comfort zone. However, it is only by taking action that we get to fully explore our feelings. Feelings and thoughts are internal. Actions are external. Actions represent fresh input to consider. They can help us to redefine our sense of ourselves. That’s when change can take place.

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Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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10 Point Confidence and Esteem Building Plan from Social Psychology

In my earlier post I introduced the idea of ‘Treating Low Self Confidence and Low Self Esteem as ‘Self Prejudice’‘ and coined the term ‘auto-prejudice‘. This is a form of an ongoing negative auto-biography, a story that you tell yourself (and others) about yourself. It frames your view of the world and acts as a filter for your experiences. If you look at the world through a muddy lens you are not going to get a clear picture. This is a form of ongoing negative auto-biography, a story that we tell yourself and others about yourself. Challenging the attitudes you have towards yourself is at the heart of my confidence building approach.

Auto-Prejudice Reduction Plan (with the Confidence-Karma Approach)

This is a ten-point plan to reduce self-prejudice and in so doing to boost self-esteem and build confidence.

  1. Build confidence in others – this is the master-key in my confidence-karma approach. It could be as simple as making more of an effort to pay compliments, praising, expressing gratitude and listening to others.
  2. Communicate clearly – adopting a communication style that is clear and unambiguous is part of being assertive. Don’t drop hints or sulk and expect people to be mind readers. I recall two friends. One would always get upset when people forgot her birthday. The other friend made damn sure that no one forgot.
  3. Positively stated goals – to support your strengths and values. Focus on what you want to move towards rather than what you want to move away from.
  4. Look after your health – this includes making time for relaxation, exercise, drinking water and eating a varied diet. It’s more difficult to feel good about yourself and pass on positivity if you are dehydrated, have heartburn and no energy. A piece of cake may give you an instant high but a little exercise can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals and boost your metabolism. People who are ill look inward not outwards.
  5. Do your bit to save the planet – don’t be put off with doom and gloom arguments that it makes no difference. Do something anyway. It’s a natural extension to building confidence in other people. It’s a way of thinking outside of yourself (and bigger than yourself) and making a difference.
  6. Join a social group and share a common interest – making friends with like-minded people can boost self-esteem it can also help to develop and maintain social skills and communications skills. Connecting with people is a key way of building psychological hardiness.
  7. Find opportunities to laugh and have fun – it’s difficult to ‘have a downer on yourself’ when you are laughing.
  8. Take a course on absolutely anything and learn something new – it doesn’t really matter what you learn. Don’t be put off by people who say ‘it’s a waste of money’ or ‘you’ll never make any money doing that’. Do not underestimate the knock on effects of learning something new. It helps to create different perspectives and gives you a sense of achievement.
  9. Travel – again it doesn’t really matter where. Getting out of your routine is the important thing. A change of scenery can bring about a change in perspective. You may find yourself doing things that you wouldn’t normally do which makes you re-evaluate who you are and what you can do. Experiencing different customs and values may inspire a reappraisal of your own.
  10. Broaden and build – focusing on investing time in positive emotions to create a buffering effect for stress and a broader pool of possible responses in stressful situations. When under stress we have a very narrow view on the world. One of the easiest way to build positive emotions is to practise gratitude.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI introduce this ten-point plan mid-way through my book Unlock Your Confidence. It acts partly as a mid-point revision of what you’ve already learned and a preview of what follows. You don’t have to commit to the whole plan, all at once. Begin by picking two or three points and try them out, as a personal experiment, to assess their effects. In all personal development it is important to take a scientific approach by trying things out and using the feedback. People often use the phrase ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail‘. However it isn’t possible to build confidence and boost self-esteem by doing nothing. Both need action. It is the results of our actions that help us reassess our attitudes and how we view the world. That’s how we break down our self prejudice and so create a better foundation to build something better.

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Treating Low Self Confidence and Low Self Esteem as ‘Self Prejudice’

‘Having a downer on yourself’ means that you put a negative spin on your appearance, abilities and competencies in various situations. It’s essentially a form or prejudice directed towards your self which colours how you view the world, including self-confidence,  and what you do in the world.

Why self prejudice?

What is auto-prejudice?

Reviewing my notes after a session with one coaching client, I saw that I had scribbled ‘prejudice’ in the margin. However it wasn’t in the way that we usually understand the word.  It wasn’t negative attitudes towards a target group. Instead, I noticed a pattern of the deeply ingrained negative attitudes that the client directly towards herself. For this I coined the term auto-prejudice. This is a form of ongoing negative auto-biography, a story that we tell yourself and others about yourself. It frames your life.

Prejudice literally means ‘to pre-judge’, and as with all forms of prejudice , auto-prejudice forms a perceptual filter by which we process all information about ourselves. So the stuff that affirms the negative view is readily accepted while anything that contradicts the negative is either ignored, discounted or explained away. Defining negative attitudes to the self as auto-prejudice opened up a whole body of research that I could bring into my (life) coaching practice. One of the things I’m particularly pleased about in my book Unlock Your Confidence is that I was able to draw on training programmes that address discrimination. The only difference is the target of discrimination is your self.

The Social Psychology of Coaching

My earliest research in social psychology had been in attitudes, stereotypes and the way we view the world. In particular I explored the impact of The Authoritarian Personality by Theodore Adorno and colleagues. The main factor I explored was the concept of Intolerance of Ambiguity (researched by Adorno’s colleague Else Frenkel-Brunswik). To put it simply, some people have a stronger need for certainty and black-and-white thinking than others. For some people it causes distress when things don’t fit into discrete categories. Sometimes this distressed is reduced by denying the grey areas to create cleaner boundaries.

The tendency to make cognitive distortions is a key feature of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These are basically logical errors in the interpretation of what life presents us with. Sometimes people select only the evidence they consider relevant, that is consistent with the negative attitude. Sometimes they go beyond the evidence to reach conclusions that are not supported under closer scrutiny. Part of CBT treatment involves a logical disputing by checking the evidence to gain a sense of balance and challenge distorted views of the self and the world.

It’s part of our psychological make-up to think in stereotypes. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way. Instead we operate on cognitive economy. Stereotypes create a framework to reduce cognitive overload. The problem is that often they contain false assumptions. Often a stereotype operates a filter that leads us to accept things that confirm the stereotype and reject or modify things that refute it. This is particularly pertinent to self-esteem. Many people are also burdened by a strong cultural mantra that ‘self praise is no praise at all’. So what we have is a strong tendency to evaluate ourselves in a negative way.

What do attitudes and confidence have in common?

Many people declare that they would take more chances in life if only they had the confidence. The implication is confidence precedes action. To a certain degree this is true. The study of attitudes reveals a link between thoughts, feelings and actions. The literal meaning of attitude is ‘fit and ready for action’. So, life-affirming feelings and thoughts are more likely to lead to life-affirming actions. Part of being confident is having the courage to take action. However it’s a circular model. Taking actions can change attitudes (thoughts and feelings). Taking action can build confidence. This is at the heart of the ‘fake it ’til you make it model of confidence. My approach is to take a three-pronged approach to work on thoughts, feelings and actions to build confidence.

My job as a coach to help clients reassess the stereotypes they hold about themselves. This is achieved by a logical, rational approach to help you to reassess the data they use to form and maintain your negative attitudes. Auto-prejudice will sift the evidence to find things to maintain the negative view and convince you that ‘if you don’t try then you can’t fail‘. Auto-prejudice focuses on the problem so that the problem just gets bigger and bigger. Coaching provides the antidote by exploring solutions.

Solution Focused Coaching

In a typical coaching session I will spend 20% of the time with you exploring the problem and 80% of the time exploring solutions. When I was undergoing my coaching training during a coaching session my coach I got locked into describing a problem in the finest of detail. After a while my coach asked quite bluntly ‘where are we going with all this?’ At least that is how I heard it. However, it gave me the jolt I needed to switch to solution thinking. It’s clear the coaching works better if the coach and the client work together. There is little point if the client’s aim is to convince the coach that ‘life is crap and all action is futile’. My own softer version of the intervention is ‘I’ve got a really clear idea of the problem and what you want to move away from. What’s less clear is what you want to move towards? Perhaps we could spend some time on that?’ A simpler intervention is ‘So what do you want instead?’ For me coaching is about helping people engage with a different view of themselves in the world. It is also the main aim of this blog and my books.

Putting pen to paper and putting things into practice

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodUnlock Your Confidence is my attempt to bring together my academic background with my coaching and teaching practice. It’s my personal and professional journey in confidence building. I often say that it took me longer to live it than it did to write it. It’s also a very collaborative affair. I love the idea that the reader continues to write where the author left off. I’m aware that some people like to adopt a more analytical approach and so I have included material that I wouldn’t necessarily bring into a coaching session such as defense mechanisms and elements of Transactional Analysis.  The aim is take things a bit further than the average self-help book. So what I’ve attempted to do is to distill the essence of theories and concepts to generate new insights that will inspire you to action. In this way, the book maintains the 80:20 rule. It’s still mostly concerned with tackling auto-prejudice and entertaining solutions rather than incubating problems. What is explicit throughout the book is the use of solution-focused language. The aim is that by repetition you will learn and embrace an alternative way of viewing the world and your place in it.  As you challenge your own self-limiting attitudes there is always a knock on effect. So the book also provides a blue-print for passing on these insights to others. It’s what I call Confidence Karma. You gain confidence by building it in others.

A key theme in the book and in my coaching approach is ‘Little by little, a little becomes a lot’. So if you have enjoyed reading this blog post please share it with friends and colleagues on your social networks. 

Follow on post: Adapting Prejudice Reduction Plans from Social Psychology to Build Confidence

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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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Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science?

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science? No, that’s not a joke. Watching confident, established comedians ‘trying out new material’ reveals the use of scientific methods. This approach is also taught on stand-up comedy courses. In this post I’ll outline some key issues in science, how comedians adopt these principles to hone their craft and how this approach can be applied to all areas of personal and professional development.

Science is all about probabilities not absolutes

One of the biggest misconceptions about science is that it deals in absolutes. It doesn’t. Scientific method is all about probability. Scientists don’t prove anything but simply demonstrate, statistically, that there’s a slim possibility that their results occurred due to chance. Scientists design experiments to control for noise, those extraneous variables that may confound results. The aim is to demonstrate a strong probability that there is a cause and effect between variables (by eliminating chance). For the stand-up comedian, the aim is to demonstrate that a joke causes laughter.

Objectivity versus subjectivity in science and comedy

It’s often stated that science is all about objectivity. In my own research work (as a social psychologist) I challenge this notion. I maintain that science is about bounded subjectivity. If you claim to be objective you are still taking a stance. This is not objectivity. The only true form of objectivity is indifference. Scientists as human beings will have a vested interested in the outcome of their research. There is a whole body of research in psychology to demonstrate experimenter effects. Sometimes scientists are blinded by their own unconscious biases and see the results they want to see. The idea of ‘bounded subjectivity’ is a useful concept for stand-up comics. It’s ludicrous to suggest that comedians don’t care about the results of their efforts. However, it’s helpful to control for unconscious bias. This is achieved by trying jokes out in front of different audiences, at different times and in different places.

The science of stand-up comedy

Watching professional (and gifted amateur) stand-up comedians emphasizes the value of taking a detached, scientific approach. A stand-up comedian begins by writing some material (jokes) and then tests them out in front of an audience. It begins with what makes the comedian laugh (subjectivity) and then the hypothesis that ‘this stuff will make other people laugh’. Testing the material yields results: people laugh or they don’t. People may laugh in unexpected places. This feedback is useful in refining comedy hypotheses. Of course it’s important to replicate the experiment and test the material out on a number of samples and in different contexts (bounded subjectivity). In research terms this is similar to controlling for confounding variables. With this approach, it’s the smallest of changes that can make a joke work on a more consistent basis. I have seen comedians who repeated try out a joke (that they particularly like) without a change and without a laugh, over and over again. If they took the time to use the feedback they might see where to make the adjustment.

The art of not taking it personally

I’ve heard my scientist colleagues complain that they got bad results, which emphasizes the lack of objectivity. Science is often built on a determination to get the ‘right’ results. ‘Mistakes’ in science can be expensive. I’ve also seen comedian friends allow a ‘bad gig’ to send them into a ‘depression’ for days. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for comedians is The Eleven O’Clock Rule by British stand-up comedian, Sarah Millican. Put simply, after a gig, you have up until eleven o’clock the next day, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘disaster’ or a ‘triumph’. You can either whine or gloat until then. After that, you move on.

One comedian who also adopts a scientific approach is Tom Stade. I was lucky enough to attend a new material night and Mr Stade turned up as a special guest to try out new material. He takes to the stage and switches on a digital recorder, places it on a stool and then he’s off. After ‘bringing the house down’, he turns, switches off the recorder and off he goes. I saw him perform the same material in a more polished form a few months later and get even more laughs. Many comedians would have been overjoyed with the first attempt. I suspect there were a few recordings between the first and subsequent version. Tom Stade is economical with words. He doesn’t waste them. Pauses and gestures and tone all wring laughter from the material. Another more extreme example of a scientific approach is Emo Philips where not a single word is wasted. His idiot-savant like manner disguises the absolute precision.

Some comedian friends adopt  a scientific approach and record everything, as you are advised to do on comedy courses. Others ignore the advice and keep delivering the same punch lines in the same way and come off stage bemused and frustrated when they don’t get the laughs they think it deserves. One comedy friend set himself the goal of coming up with a great five minutes of material and continually honed this material. His persistence paid off as he persistently wins gong shows up and down the country. I’ve seen others, randomly throwing together sets and complaining when it doesn’t ‘go down a storm.

The scientific approach just doesn’t have to apply to the material but also about other aspects of the performance, such as what needs to happen for me to have fun at the gig, relax and create rapport with the audience? The science shouldn’t take the heart out of it, just help to encourage continuous development and help to create a bit of distance, a buffer zone between the disciple and the discipline, the art and the artist.

Extending the scientific approach to personal and professional development

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI went on stand-up comedy course, in part, as research on my book Unlock your Confidence. The same approach works for all goals in any area of personal and professional development. Use personal experiments to ‘try things on for size’ with the threat of failure. It’s all about the feedback. There’s no beating yourself up when things go wrong or taking things to personally. Just as with the stand-up comic, the lack of a laugh (‘the right result’) shouldn’t reduce you to tears. Neither should it be taken as an indication of self-esteem. It’s just a sign that you need to make adjustments and try again. Building confidence in anything takes two types of courage: the courage to take the first step and the courage to persist (in line with feedback). Confidence is a process.

Be scientific, be detached, be persistent, collect data, use the data, refine your approach, have fun!

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Attitudes and the Karma of Confidence

Bringing social psychology into coaching for confidence

Attitudes, karma and confidence and are not three concepts that obviously go together. However, they are connected. It was making this connection that helped me bring my expertise in social psychology into my coaching practice to create a unique approach to confidence and esteem building. What karma, attitudes and confidence have in common is ‘action’. Ultimately, to build confidence means to increase our courage to take action. To build anything requires action otherwise it remains a fantasy. So where do karma and attitudes come in?

Karma = Action

We use the word ‘karma’ in everyday life to mean ‘what goes around, comes around’ usually in the context that people will eventually pay for their misdeeds in one way or another. However karma literally means ‘action’.

Poster: What is Confidence Karma?I’d noticed in my own career that when I worked with mature students I focused on more intently building confidence in them. It was the beginning of my coaching career. The by-product was that my confidence in my own abilities also increased. In confidence terms, what goes around comes around. And so, the concept of confidence-karma was born. Often we get the idea from reality TV programmes that we gain confidence at the expense of others. We see people making themselves look better by putting others down. This is not authentic confidence. It’s not even assertiveness. It’s actually a form of aggression. At the heart of aggression is the inability to assert oneself in a productive way. Truly self-assured people put others at ease. Fake confidence is all about the self; real confidence is all about the social.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThis became a guiding theme in Unlock Your Confidence. It may sound a bit grand but I wanted to put the social conscience back into self-help. All too often self-help books are a bit ‘me me me’. Building assertiveness, esteem and confidence in other people puts the focus outside of the self, but still keeps the self at the centre, only in a more productive way. Passing on confidence always has a knock on effect. It’s positively contagious. So where do attitudes come into the equation?

Attitudes make us ‘fit and ready for action’

In social psychology one of the key areas of study is attitudes. The word attitude means ‘fit and ready for action’. It is through out attitudes that we make sense of the world, they comprise our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. To increase the likelihood that our behaviour will change we can work on our thoughts and feelings. Attitudes are the ‘get ready’ before the ‘go’. In confidence building, I take this triangular approach and bring social psychology into my coaching practice. Ultimately one of my main aims as a coach is to get people to re-appraise their attitudes towards themselves. In so doing, you jettison attitudes about yourself that do not support your values and goals. You also get to consider attitudes that do. This builds courage. So, are you someone who seeks to build others up?  Do you compliment, praise and show gratitude? Do you have the courage to nurture and encourage?

Building Confidence is Always Good Karma

Confidence-Karma is about having the courage to see the bigger picture. We shape our social world as much as it shapes us. We can make a difference just by taking control of this cycle of influence, even if just in a small way. Just as there’s no such thing as an insignificant random act of kindness, there’s no such thing as an insignificant act of confidence building. An attitude worth adopting is: building confidence is always good karma – and for it to have real meaning to take action on it.

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For more information about coaching to build confidence contact: Gary Wood. Coaching is face-to-face in Birmingham and Edinburgh, via telephone in the UK and worldwide via Skype.

Was Little Boy Blue a Gender Stereotype or a Gender Bender?

The poem Little Boy Blue (from around 1744)  is sometimes offered as evidence for early gender colour-coding of ‘blue for a boy’ but a close reading of the text shows that it’s exactly the opposite! Until the early 20th Century blue was deemed a delicate, feminine colour and that’s what the poem demonstrates.

Picture: Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue being not particularly ‘boyish’

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?

Under the haystack
Fast asleep.
Will you wake him?
Oh no, not I,
For if I do

He will surely cry.

Little Boy Blue appears to have a rather delicate constitution. He doesn’t have the strength to blow on his horn, he’s  sleeping on the job and easily prone to bouts of hysteria! This is not behaviour typical of the male gender stereotype. So, if the colour blue is to be associated with anything here it’s ‘effeminacy’. It was until the 1920s that the colour-coding switched (to blue for a boy, pink for a girl) and there is no convincing reason as to why this happened. However what the colour-switch does show is that colour-preference is not ‘hard-wired’ but is a cultural convention.

Other gender related blog posts:

Is it Racism, a Culture Clash or a Breakdown in Communications?

Recently I saw a picture posted on Facebook that prompted discussion. On the face of it the offending item looked like out-and-out racism but a former colleague offered an interesting analysis that made me recall a tense moment in the classroom when teaching group formation (in-groups and out-groups) in social psychology. The picture is of a bench near a river with a sign on it reading ‘No Eastern Europeans’.

Racism, Culture Clash or Communication Breakdown?

The newspaper story reporting the incident highlights the issue of fish theft, which is also a contentious phrase. What does that mean? My former colleague writes on Facebook:

This looks like simple racism – but its actually just a culture clash. British coarse fishermen never remove fish from a lake – unless its simple theft, which is rare. Game fishermen will often take trout and salmon home to eat, limited by local regulations. This is a convention.

Many European fishermen – French, German and eastern European – expect to take fish home. They see catching fish to eat to be the motivation for going fishing. But British fishery owners are not aware of this, and see it as theft.

Just a little ignorance on both sides.

Now I admit that I do not know enough about coarse fishing or any other type for that matter. However this analysis does strike me as a better way forward than bandying about terms like ‘Eastern European’ and ‘racist’. It’s always important to remember that any communication involves a message, a transmitter of the message and that the is encoded. On the other hand, the message is received and then decoded. It’s never straightforward. There’s a great deal of scope for mis-communication.

If the aim of the sign is to enforce the rules of the game then it makes little sense to ban a whole team. If the message is to be correctly decoded we first have to consider the context for the encoding.

All of this reminded me of a lecture in group theory. I asked the class members to select a sticker from a choice of four colours (red, green, blue and yellow). Based on this basic criterion we created a number of groups to problem solve. However, a by-product of group assignment was that people started to defend their groups and how their group was superior to the others. They hadn’t been asked to do this. This effect illustrates what is known in social psychology as the minimal group paradigm. It demonstrates that the flimsiest of distinction between groups can be used as a basis of discrimination (‘us’ versus ‘them’). We discussed the principle, had a break and all students returned to their original seats. It was only then that I noticed something about the class dynamic.

I asked the group ‘Has anyone noticed anything?’ A student replied ‘Yes, and I don’t like it’. Everyone had noticed that all the ‘white students’ were sitting on one side of the room and all the ‘students of colour’ were sitting on the other. Apparently it was this way in other classes too and we set about discussing reasons for the arrangement. It transpired that skin colour was not the main reason for the division. All of the white students lived in halls of residence, they were all from different parts of the country. The students of colour were all local and all lived at home. This unexpected part of the lesson became a catalyst for the group to integrate more fully.

Now sometimes racism is unambiguous racism. Sometimes it’s an unconscious bias or a breakdown in communications. At other times it’s just ignorance, plain and simple. Sometimes communications and attitudes require outright condemnation. Sometimes we just need to be clearer in our communications, focus on behaviours not stereotypes and consider the broader context of the big picture.

A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

See also: