The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

Imagine you have just taken part in a 360º feedback process and become aware that your references to “the girls down in sales” are reducing your credibility and degrading the level of trust within your team. With this feedback in hand, your goal is to stop using sexist language; however what should you be thinking about when in order to make this change? The answer will perhaps seem obvious to those of you who use Appreciative Inquiry in your practice: don’t think about what you want to do less of, instead find what’s working well and do more of it. The late Daniel Wegner’s theory of the ironic processes of mental control is one attempt to explain why trying to stop doing something can be so difficult:

“Humans are thwarted not just by a frequent inability to think, want, or feel what they desire but by the all-too-common discovery that their efforts to control these things go beyond failure to produce effects diametrically opposed to their original intent…It is not just that we cannot sleep, for instance, or that we cannot stop thinking about food when on a diet; the problem is that the more we want to sleep or to banish food thoughts the more we fail. We stay awake worrying that we cannot sleep, and we spend all day mentally in the refrigerator when we are hoping to diet. The agony of mental control is this oppositional quality that always seems to haunt attempts to direct our minds.”
Wegner, 1994 p. 34

“When capacity is reduced for some reason (such as distraction, cognitive load, stress, time pressure, and so on), however, the intended control does not merely de- cline to some uncontrolled baseline or zero level. Rather, mental control exerted during mental load will often produce ironic effects, resulting in mental states that go beyond “no change” to become the opposite of what is desired. Desired happiness becomes sadness, desired relaxation becomes anxiety, desired interest becomes boredom, desired love becomes hate, and so on.” [italics added]
Wegner, 1994 p.35

Knowing that your word choices have offended others seems very likely to be a condition which creates stress. In addition, the workplace is liable to create significant cognitive load and involve serious time pressure and frequent distractions. This is a recipe for an ironic or counterintentional effect: you plan to avoid terms like “girls” and with all of the other mental activity you have to juggle, this plan actually increases the frequency with which you use such terms. As I alluded to above, the existence of ironic processes of mental control suggests that if you want to stop doing one thing, you need to think about what other thing(s) you do want to do, instead of thinking about the thing that you don’t want to do.

Thus, in the example above, the best approach after learning that comments like “the girls down in sales” are undermining your effectiveness is to create a positive intention detailing what you want to do. If you are trying to coach yourself to form a new speech habit, you need to imagine and rehearse using inclusive and empowering language to refer to women, rather than expending energy thinking about how to prevent yourself making the offending comment again. Indeed, doing the latter, according to the research behind Wegner’s theory, has a good chance of producing the opposite outcome to that which you had hoped to achieve. In other words, to leave the ironic to the stand-up comedians, it is almost certain to be more helpful to devise ways to create new habits instead of focusing on breaking the bad ones.


 

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

Developing our healing muscles

“When we polarize light and dark, our healing remains partial and obsessive, easily undone.” p. 27

I turn again this week to Miriam Greenspan’s work Healing Through the Dark Emotions. As this opening quote suggests, for true healing we need to do more than classify our emotions, experiences and thoughts into good and bad or positive and negative. Indeed, as Greenspan argues, failure to recognize that these are dynamic polarities can stymy our attempts to learn and grow.

What makes clinging to static, polarized categories unproductive? Why does such an approach slow or limit our healing? One key reason is that it keeps us stuck in a fixed mindset. As I’ve described in Do You Seek to Demonstrate or Develop Diversity, the fixed mindset keeps us reliant on external motivators such as tangible rewards or punishments and puts us at risk of only taking action when someone is compelling us to do so. This damages our chances for healing because typically you only gain the approbation of the external world if you get over your hurt quickly and move on with your life.

In line with the fixed mindset, the wider world is attuned to the demonstration of healing and considers it a one-time thing. Furthermore, the all-or-none outlook of the fixed mindset says that you are either well or ill, healed or still hurting. However, the work of learning from challenging feelings, events and ruminations occupies the liminal space between broken and healed rather than neatly falling into either of these two categories. As such, at the present moment there is little respect for such healing work and perhaps even less support for people trying to find their way to a broader-based sense of what is good and bad. Returning to wholeness, however, is a continuing process, one which requires you to construct a fuller and richer sense of your place in the world and the world’s within you. Embracing a growth mindset when it comes to healing means that one seeks to uncover the value in the pain, the good that not only can be recognized but also developed.

“When we can broaden the story of our suffering…emotional alchemy happens quite naturally. We learn that suffering | does not have to deaden; it can also enliven. It does not have to weaken, it can also strengthen. It does not have to diminish but can enlarge us. We go to ‘shrinks’ to reduce our suffering, when what we need is to open to it and let it expand us.” pp. 26-27

As I discussed in Educating Our Palates About Development, adopting a fixed mindset has another disadvantage: it can often mean giving up when the going gets tough. You see yourself as having only a fixed amount of strength or capacity to engage in the healing process. And when that process does not flow smoothly and easily, when you can’t cope perfectly with new or existing setbacks, you may decide that there is no way forward because something internal to you is eternally broken. From this position you cease to strive for clarity in terms of your emotions and beliefs and instead begin to process things through the lens of the passive victim. In this state, all of your energy and zest for life dissipates.

“Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of self beyond the suffering ego, an awareness that comes from being mindful of life’s difficulties, rather than disengaging from them; to arrive at a wider and deeper perspective not limited by our pain but expanded by it.” p. 27

Because despair, fear and grief are a part of being human, so too is healing. When we face tough situations, be they ugly and unpleasant words and actions or major shifts that force us to reappraise our lives from the ground up, we are not powerless. We can use the lens of diversity and inclusion to build bridges that join the positive and the negative into a greater, healing whole rather than erecting walls that divide us from ourselves and others in our suffering world. That is the diversity dividend.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

Developing our healing muscles

Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

It’s in the news and yet it is not new that physical characteristics such as skin color, gender, age and even height impact how people treat each other. Indeed visible diversities, including certain signals of religious identity or disability status, frequently have an influence on the way an interaction between individuals or groups unfolds. That is, certain ways of being, indexed by visual characteristics, are considered good, correct or proper. Those who fit the set of physical/visual norms that are valued in a particular culture, group or environment will find themselves privileged. Those failing to fit the norm are typically stigmatized, marginalized and subject to harms ranging from micro-aggressions to murder.

What may be less well explored in the media coverage is that privilege is typically a multiplier due to how our cognitive systems process information. My looking right has a powerful effect on assumptions about my worth in a particular social context. Based almost exclusively on a quality that does not reliably confer virtue—my physical appearance—I will be granted additional positive qualities (the halo effect) and someone lacking the desired or prototypical look will be assumed to be lacking other qualities as well (the horn effect).

There are at least two reasons that the halo/horn effect deserves deeper consideration. First, it is an example of how first impressions, based on minimal and/or superficial information, set the stage for an interaction. I look at the driver of a car I’ve stopped for a broken taillight and I see that he is black. Black skin confers the horn effect and my mind automatically begins to ascribe negative traits to him and react to his subsequent behavior with these assumptions in place. In the harsh light of the negative attributions engendered by the horn effect, were anything a bit out of the ordinary to occur, I am unlikely to be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Second, the halo/horn effect highlights our tendency to treat new information in ways that conform to beliefs we already hold. The candidate sitting across from me in a job interview is male. Maleness activates the halo effect and he therefore has less to prove and any evidence he provides tends to be construed in line with positive expectations I already have for how effective, competent, driven, etc. male workers are (see this piece by Joan C. Williams for examples of what she calls the Prove It Again problem). As I ask my questions, rather than testing his fitness for the post I am trying to fill, I am seeking to confirm the suitability that his maleness, by virtue of the halo effect, has already cemented in my mind.

The good news is that we can mitigate the halo/horn effect if we make the effort to do so. We can’t stop at first impressions, nor focus solely on those factors that support our case. We need to check our assumptions and expectations against reality and we need to be aware that our version of reality is only our version and seek the opinions and feedback of diverse others. Finally, we can presume that others are always trying to do their best and allow this attribution of good intentions to create a halo effect of its own.


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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

Words can make a difference – #ArmsR4Hugging

The way you talk about something frames what you see and how you react. Your choice of words is often a signal of your attitude toward to person, situation or topic. Several therapy modes derive their efficacy from helping people to shift the language they use to talk about themselves, their feelings and their lives. How we refer to something also creates expectations — social justice movements reclaiming pejorative words, the effect of grouping people into categories as in Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise and the self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in the nocebo effect are all examples of the how the way something is described can impact our beliefs and our behavior.

There is power in the words we use; labels direct our attention to certain characteristics or aspects of the people and circumstances we encounter. While calling something or someone by a particular name may not make it so, it does influence how this thing or person is perceived and that perception can come to be seen as the truth. Furthermore, euphemisms can facilitate avoiding the acknowledgement of hard truths about the reality we are living.

As we struggle to come to grips with multiple tragedies across the globe, we may wonder, can our words really make a difference? I want to embolden you to try to answer that question in the affirmative with a small thought experiment:

What if “small arms” were what children use when they hug someone?
What if being “well armed” meant you were set up for hugging at any time?
What if “arms dealers” were offering more and better hugging options?
What if the phrase “bear arms” applied only to teddy bears, etc.?

Perhaps these examples seem trivial or silly, however, doesn’t it strike you that people whose heads are filled with thoughts of children, people hugging and cuddly toys are less likely to be promulgating hate, dismissing dialog and collaboration, or using deadly force? If so, join me in a small act of reappropriation with #ArmsR4Hugging.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Words can make a difference – #ArmsR4Hugging

On care and understanding

 

My stretch this week is to practice openness, curiosity and appreciation when the news is filled with stories that see these qualities trampled. Below are a few links that help me remember there is energy around understanding and caring for each other. If you’ve seen or read something hopeful recently, please let me know or add your links in the comments.

MN librarian creates #BlackLivesMatter booklist for teens
http://www.slj.com/2016/07/books-media/librarian-creates-blacklivesmatter-booklist-for-teens/#_  (Shout out to Susan Thurston Hamerski for sharing this)

The Southern Poverty Law Center responds to the violence
https://www.splcenter.org/news/2016/07/08/three-days-violence-baton-rouge-st-paul-and-dallas

A dear friend and colleague keeps it personal in response to Orlando and the death of Ali
http://www.transformativeleadership.net/thoughts.html

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

On care and understanding

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

Encountering a situation where diversity is not respected, where we feel excluded or shamed or stigmatized simply for being who we are, or for striving to be who we want to become, is typically accompanied by painful emotions. Being made to feel less than due to membership in a particular class of people, possession of, or a failure to possess, a particular characteristic or trait, or identifying with a cause, creed or group, results in feelings of grief, fear and despair. According to Miriam Greenspan, “…we are schooled to endure, deny, bypass [or transcend], avenge, and escape painful emotions. These five common ways of coping have their strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part they aren’t conducive to healing and transformation” (pp. 58-59, Healing Through the Dark Emotions). Understanding how utilizing any of these five coping strategies can block our growth and well-being, will help us to create ways to work with and through our painful emotions instead.

Endurance is the ability to withstand suffering without collapsing” (p. 59). Endurance can be a valuable skill in the short term, allowing us to survive long enough to reappraise our situation and regain our strength. However the longer we simply put up with things that cause us suffering, the more we give up our power and our agency, our ability to be the authors of our own lives. In addition, if we don’t question the system or individuals whose actions we are enduring, we may never learn that there is the possibility for change.

Denial is the unconscious detachment from emotion and the truth that emotion holds” (p. 60). Judicious use of denial can help us to accomplish tasks that might otherwise appear to be beyond our capabilities due to fear of failure or concerns about our performance. However when we push our suffering away, we are unable to hear the messages that our painful emotions hold, messages that let us know that we are being harmed. When we can process these messages, we can ask for the help we need.

[Spiritual bypass] denies the evils of earthly existence and declares that only love and light are ‘real’…” (p. 60). Privileging the good things in our lives can lead to an increased sense of gratitude and stop us from limiting our dreams and desires. However when we restrict our focus to what is positive, we may mortgage our present for some ideal future that will never arrive because we have not properly assessed the challenges and obstacles before us.

In vengeance, we neither bury nor rise above our suffering; we get mad and we get even” (p. 61). When we avenge a wrong by concentrating on how we can make the world a better place, we can build a stronger community that is able to learn from the suffering of its members. However by turning our attention outward, to the other, we can miss the impact our painful experience had on our souls, we may fail to see how we were diminished and that we need time and space to heal and rejuvenate.

Buying, owning, using gadgets, consuming experiences — these are the hallmarks of a culture of escape; so is the inability to tolerate silence. The most extreme forms of escape with the most devastating consequences are addictions” (p. 62). Distraction can be a powerful tool when we use it to give our minds and souls space to work through difficult and troubling experiences outside our conscious awareness. However, unlike all of the other coping mechanisms that begin with some acknowledgement, no matter how fleeting, that something bad is happening, distraction is an escape from the recognition that we are hurting. When we mask our pain with action and make no time for quiet reflection, we may be undermining our ability to recognize when we are suffering and immerse ourselves in distractions even when life is good.

When things are tough and grief, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we can turn to one of the five coping strategies above. We can also decide to look at our experience and sit with the feelings it arouses. By allowing ourselves to process the dark emotions rather than endure, deny, bypass, avenge or escape them, we have the opportunity for learning. To help us achieve wisdom and transformation, Greenspan (p. 268) suggests asking ourselves:

  • “Out of knowing and being with my (fear, grief, despair), my task is to…
  • When I view my dark emotions as teachers I learn…
  • Instead of avoiding dark emotions, I can use them creatively by…

Respecting rather than replacing our fear, despair and grief can repay us in dividends of self-compassion, joy and healing.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

The ABCs of diversity and inclusion

A is for acknowledgment. Working toward an inclusive organization involves acknowledging that different styles exist and that different approaches can be equally valid and effective.

A is for appreciation. Acknowledgment is an important first step, but an inclusive organization goes beyond tolerance of different styles to appreciation of the diverse talents of all its members.

A is for action. Appreciation on its own is not enough. We need to take an active role in shaping an environment that offers the space for the diverse talents of all to flourish.

 

B is for breadth. Working toward an inclusive organization involves realizing the benefits of being broad-minded and open to the full range of knowledge, skills and abilities that a diverse workforce presents.

B is for belonging. When we see differences, we need to move to an inclusive outlook where all the breadth that is present is seen as a reason for belonging, rather than an excuse for exclusion, distancing or distrust.

B is for bravery. We can believe in the value of others, however without the bravery point out when that value is being dismissed or people are being asked to compromise parts of themselves to belong, the inconsistency of our words and our deeds will sap our energy.

 

C is for conscious. Working toward an inclusive organization involves becoming conscious of privilege and marginalization and the organization structures that perpetuate these status differences.

C is for curiosity. Awareness on its own can make diversity and inclusion seem like someone else’s problem. We need to get curious about our personal diversities and how we are privileging or marginalizing aspects of our multi-faceted selves.

C is for creative. Once we open ourselves up to the wondrous variety within and without, we have the engagement needed to create new ways of being and working that promote wholeness and acceptance.

 

To do diversity work well, make no assumptions, do your best and see the best in others and be compassionate because becoming more inclusive is a process.

 


Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The ABCs of diversity and inclusion