Do you find yourself in heated conversations in certain situations? Do you ever wonder why those interactions trigger you and how you can slow down and respond differently when they do? Identifying the feeling is the first step in mindfulness practice; we need to recognise our emotional states to move away from them.
Graham Lee joins us in this episode to discuss our emotional states and ways to apply simple mindfulness techniques to change them. Most conflicts are rooted in unmet needs. When we admit those needs, we can instantly change relationship dynamics. Graham also shares tips on what to do during stressful situations where your emotions cloud your judgement and thinking.
If you want to use mindfulness practice to be more aware of your emotions even during difficult situations, tune in to this episode.
Graham Lee is a leadership coach, coach supervisor, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. As a coach he works with senior leaders and their teams across a range of sectors, and as a psychotherapist he has a private practice seeing individuals and couples.
His focus is on fostering others to be skillful and authentic in their work and personal lives, and his approach integrates a focus on embodied awareness, psychological insight and pragmatic behavioural change.
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Graham Lee: Some of the triggers and difficulties in relationships come from not acknowledging our relational. There’s a beautiful phrase from a writer called Harville Hendricks, he says, ‘Every relational complaint or criticism is a tragic expression of an unmet need.’ But you think about when we are fighting with people, we’re really triggered. And we pause and think, ‘Oh, what I’m really longing for.’ And then we find ‘Oh, it’s about actually feeling like you’re listening to me, that you value my contribution, or that you respect me.’
Rachel Morris: Do you ever find yourself getting more and more rattled in a conversation until it’s difficult to think straight? Perhaps you feel a bit stuck in patterns of behaviour, which you recognise are unhelpful, but are difficult to change. Or maybe you wish your colleagues could be more emotionally aware and stop causing you to react so badly. It may be easy to figure out what we’re feeling in the cold light of day. But when we get hot under the collar, and our emotions are running away with us, it can be incredibly difficult to identify what’s really going on, and why we’re feeling quite so fed up.
This week, I’m joined by Graham Lee – executive coach, leadership-professional psychotherapist, and author of a new book Breakthrough Conversation for Coaches, Consultants and Leaders, published by Routledge. Graham talks about how to recognise when we are in our red emotional state, and then how to apply some simple mindfulness techniques to help get you out of red and back into green—making a radical difference to how you deal with relational issues both at home and in the workplace.
We discuss the important difference between primary and secondary emotions, and how our unmet needs can be at the heart of every issue. Graham brings some fascinating insights from his work in team coaching and couples therapy and has some simple suggestions for what to do when we quite literally see red.
So listen to this episode. If you want to be more aware of your emotions, thoughts and feelings, even in the midst of difficult situations. Understand the difference between primary and secondary emotions. Why this is so powerful when resolving interpersonal conflict. Listen if you want to get some simple techniques to get you out of your emotionally charged red zone and into your calm and wise green zone.
Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, the podcast for doctors and other busy professionals who want to beat burnout and work happier. I’m Dr Rachel Morris. I’m a GP, now working as a coach, speaker, and specialist in teaching resilience. Even before the coronavirus crisis, we were facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been described as frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water. We hardly noticed the extra-long days becoming the norm and have got used to feeling stressed and exhausted.
Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two options: stay in the pan and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. It is possible to craft your working life so that you can thrive even in difficult circumstances. And if you’re happier at work, you will simply do a better job.
In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues, and experts—all who have an interesting take on this. So that together, we can take back control and love what we do again. We talk a lot in the podcast about the zone of power and other coaching productivity and resilience tools and principles, which I found have made a huge difference to me personally, and also the teams which I worked with.
I put all these principles and tools together to form a Shapes toolkit. This is a complete package of resilience, productivity, tools and training for doctors, healthcare teams, and other busy leaders. We’ve been delivering Shapes toolkit courses all over the country in the form of keynote talks, webinars, workshops, online memberships and courses and full or half-day live programs. We’ve been working with GP training hubs, new to GP fellowship programs, returned to practice programs, trainers groups, health and wellbeing projects and many more organisations.
We’re now taking bookings for summer and autumn 2022 and have a few slots left for spring 2022. So if your team are feeling overwhelmed with work, one crisis away from not coping, and want to take control of their workload, feel calm and work happier to get in touch to find out how we can help.
It’s wonderful to welcome on to the podcast today, Graham Lee. Now, Graham is an executive coach and a leadership development professional. He’s got over 30 years of experience doing this. And he also combines this with a parallel track of being a psychotherapist, for couples, and individuals and also teaches mindfulness. So a lot of different things there Graham.
Graham: Yes, they are, exactly.
Rachel: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Now, I really wanted to get Graham on because I was very interested in the work that he’s doing. Because Graham, you don’t just focus on the benefits of mindfulness, and getting people to meditate and all those sorts of things. But you focus also on how we get people to be emotionally grounded. Also, you’re talking about how we do this in the middle of conversations, rather than just on our own. So Graham, can you start off by telling us how and why did you get into this in the first place, and who the sort of people that you work with?
Graham: Mostly what we’ve got is his clients who are patients who are trying to deal with some situation in a more effective way. And they’re being derailed to some extent by emotional triggers inside them, some of them from their history, some of them from other things happening in their lives? But there’s, there’s a sense of, ‘How can I help this person become more emotionally regulated in order to kind of to meet the challenges of their lives more effectively?’ Yeah, so that’s the kind of starting place.
I suppose—I’ve trained in psychoanalysis, I’ve trained leadership coaching, and I’ve done mindfulness, lots of different things, and I suppose increasing, what I’ve found, is that, whilst mindfulness is in is incredibly useful, the skills when it when I run eight-week courses, and people have done mindfulness, they do get a lot of benefit out of it. But if you follow up, and then you ask them, ‘Okay, so how much mindfulness you’re doing?’ The majority would say, ‘I haven’t been doing any mindfulness, it’s nice to know, I can do those skills. But I still get triggered. And actually, I feel a bit bad about myself for not doing more mindfulness.’
I increasingly found myself thinking, What can I do in the session then and there as I talk to somebody even coaching or it’s like a therapy session. What can I do here now, that supports them to find right here, as we talk to each other, that kind of spaciousness and groundedness that you’d expect in a mindfulness experience, just through me directing them to pay attention? The posing someone says to me, ‘Oh, I’m feeling really concerned about how to manage some of the difficult relationships in our GP practice. These are difficult relationships. I don’t know how to confront this, I feel I can’t really speak up.’
I would say, ‘Okay, so what is it’s getting in the way of you really vocalising what you want to want to say?’ And the person would say, ‘I like harmony, I don’t want to upset things, and I’m not sure it’s gonna be received very well, these kinds of things.’ So what’s unusual then in my approach is I would say, ‘Okay, and as you think about the struggle to speak up in that way, what’s the like to pause right now? Just bring your awareness down into your body, just to have a sense of your feet on the floor, the breath in your belly? What do you notice as you think about the struggle to actually really speak up?’
The person might say, and they might take a while to get it, they’re not even sure what I’m asking them to do. That takes them some coaxing, and some invitation and some suggestions. And then they say, ‘I’m feeling tight in my belly, and actually a bit tight in my jaw as well.’ ‘What does that associate with?’ ‘I should feel quite angry, angry that I can’t find that part of myself to really fight for myself.’ ‘Okay, so what’s it like just to notice that where you are with your anger, there you are with your sense of frustration?’ And can you see that as I’m doing this? I’m simply inviting them to do exactly what you were doing in mindfulness practice. My experience is people are remarkably good at doing it, if you invite them to there, and then—remarkably good.
They have a sense of, ‘Wow, it’s really interesting to notice this kind of anger. And as I noticed this anger and stay with it, now I’m feeling rather sad.’ ‘How does that sadness show up in your body?’ ‘Oh, it feels rather heavy. And there’s a bit of something behind my eyes as if I might start crying a bit of a lump in my throat?’ ‘And what does that linking to for you?’ And they might possibly they might say, ‘It makes me realise that sometimes, my dad could be a bit rough and I find it really quite difficult to really speak up and say, I disagree with him or something, or really pushed my point of view was the sadness that I realised that I hadn’t actually sort of gloss over that particular inhibition in myself.’
Do you see how there’s quite a lot of awareness that comes very, very quickly through this kind of going down into the body experience? So it’s like, we are doing what mindfulness does, yeah. Which is to observe our emotions, observe our thoughts, observe our body. We’re doing that in the service of then saying, ‘Given all this awareness now, how might you have your conversation in a more useful way, with this colleague at work who you think you can’t confront?’ Does that paint you a picture?
Rachel: That’s really interesting and I’m just thinking, I’m sure that emotional awareness would really help in that conversation. But how does that then really play out? What would then be the difference in the subsequent conversation that happens, compared to if they hadn’t really gone down and analysed emotionally where they were with? Would there then be a difference? Does the awareness itself make the difference of the conversation or do they then have to choose to do something different?
Graham: I mean, a bunch of methodologies that I introduced in the book, which people do find quite helpful. So one of them is a sort of red amber green traffic light way of just looking at one’s own body-brain states, and looking at one’s emotions and looking at the conversations that we had. So somebody in this situation might say, ‘Boy, I get anxious, and then my conversational style is rather timid.’ Or ‘I’m reticent, or I don’t say or I’m a bit kind of accommodating or appeasing in my style, or back down too quickly or I speak quietly.’
They’ll kind of give you all these kinds of markers of what this red conversational style is, and what this red body-brain state feels like. And you kind of give them a lot of space, just to really be with that. But then I would say, ‘Okay, so think about when you’re most productive? When you’re most powerful?’ When you somehow feel you really communicate with assertiveness and confidence, and conviction, and you get your point across, and you feel really satisfied by that. And so what I’m talking about is then shifting into what we call a green state, this is described, which is a kind of reflective state, that allows us to harness our resourcefulness and our strengths.
In a way, we’ll be talking about it from a neuroscientific point of view of switching from a limbic system, and a sort of triggered polyvagal system that’s more stress your cortisol-based system. Yes. So again, from a red system like that, I talked about the neuroscience in the book, over to a green system, which is going to be a prefrontal cortex. And what we would think of as the social engagement system, from polyvagal theory, given other positive hormones that oxytocin, dopamine flowing. So I don’t over labour, this kind of scientific base to it, but there is a whole chapter about—look, for those people a bit sceptical about getting you to do this.
Which you kind of come across plenty of managers or medics or whatever, who would say to you, ‘Can I just try to solve this problem, I don’t need to kind of have anyone inviting me to kind of notice the feelings in my left foot or something.’ And you can see where they’d be a bit sceptical if you’re very cognitive in your way of thinking, and solving the problems of the world are the challenges of your job. So I would then use the neuroscience to sort of tell a story in that way. And then simply ask them, ‘Would you allow me to just give you an experience and see what that’s like for you in terms of making sense of what’s going on?’ Recognising what’s a red, conversational style, and shifting over to a green style. And I would say 95% plus of people like you, I do this with and say, ‘Wow, that’s really helpful. I feel much more resourced.’
Because the act of choreographing their attention in this way—I mean, the very act of saying to somebody, ‘How do you feel right now? What do you notice in your body? Can you bring your attention in close to that? Can you stay with that? What’s it like to really examine flow with this kind of ever-changing pattern of sensations in your body?’ When you say that to them, they might be looking at a red triggered part of themselves. Curiously the part of the brain that has to do that is actually the prefrontal cortex.
That you’re inviting the green capacity, the mindful capacity, the reflective capacity to observe a part of the self, which is actually a more triggered part of ourselves does that making sense as this kind of almost like, in that is a description really, of what mindfulness is actually what I just said to you?
Rachel: That makes huge amounts of sense and I was just thinking that the similarity between—well, it’s identical in our training that we do around resilience with doctors and other professionals and really high-stress jobs. Talk about the amygdala the whole time, your amygdala can hijack you you go into your fight, flight or freeze. Adrenaline response, which you would get called the Red Zone, I call it being backed into the corner where you literally can’t make the right decisions, can you?
Because the blood is diverted and I think a lot of us quite a lot of the time are just operating from those red zones all the time and particularly when it comes into those conversations. Your thinking becomes very black and white. You don’t make good decisions. You can’t be creative. But it’s then, A, getting people to recognise when you’re there when they’re there like you said, and then B, helping people to get out of that red zone into their green zone. So I guess the parasympathetic, rest and digest so that they can then have better conversations like you said, think with their prefrontal cortex.
To me, the difficulty is how do you help people get from your, from red to green ,in the heat of the moment. Because it’s much easier to do that if you can take a break, if you can go off, if you can reflect if you can, chat to a friend, if you can have a good night’s sleep, and then come back to it in a much calmer situation the next day by actually doing it in the moment. That’s really difficult. So I’m really interested in hearing you saying that just by observing what’s going on, can help you get into that state. Have I understood that right?
Graham: Yeah, because rather than saying to somebody, ‘Look, here’s a good skill, learn to notice when you’re in red, and cultivate a capacity to move into green’, which we might say, as a kind of mindfulness activity, or reflective activity, or count to 10 and go or go for a walk around the block, or whatever it is, all those things that we get people to do. I mean, they’re fine. But as you say, that’s quite difficult. And people can stay very triggered, and they can actually in those pauses, just continue ruminating and getting more and more wound up. And they think they’ve got calm, then they start the conversation, and they’re just in red instantaneously. So this is one of the challenges.
This is why my emphasis, when I’m training people or coaching people, is where actually doing quite a lot of illustration of doing it in real-time with somebody facilitating it. Let me give you another example, actually. So I’d often get two managers together into the room. Well, if I was doing some work, actually, in a local GP practice, where there was one or two difficult relationships, particularly between the manager and the two partners, the GP partners. What we did is I would meet with one and had maybe a session and then on the other and have a session, and then we’d bring them both into the room together to talk about some other difficult things that they were trying to resolve they’re always triggering for.
Then the question becomes, how do you help two people at the same time, notice what state they’re in, and access a kind of the red to green kind of thing. So then there’s another model in the book called The Nine-minute Form. It says, we’re going to begin with one minute, where each of you will just pause and just tune into ‘How am I right now? Am I red, amber, or green? In relation to the prospect of this conversation?’ So beginning with one-minute with self-reflection.
Second minute is you’re each going to share what you noticed about that. They might say, ‘Oh, I’m feeling amber in the sense I’m feeling just habitually okay.’ That’s how the number one is sort of like a habitual state or they might say, ‘But I noticed as we think about this kind of knotty issue we’re talking about, I do feel a bit red’, or they might serve real quick. So there’s this kind of honest naming of that experience to each other. Now, that immediately changes in a way, there’s something about the conversation that’s got a self-reflective potential in it. Does that make sense?
There’s a sort of green container for looking at these difficult emotions that might arise, then they go into a bunch of minutes where one person speaks, the other person listens, the other person reflects back and stuff, the other person then just says yes or no to what’s been said, that’s the full nine minutes have gone by. Then we do it again and switch roles. But once again, start with the one minute pause. And then noticing whether we’re in red, amber, or green. Now you do two or three cycles like that. Initially it starts out a little bit, seems a bit weird for people. And then they start having really—because it’s much slower, to have really honest conversations around what’s going on between them.
Just to give you illustrate that paired process, we have the two senior people that are at loggerheads, everyone in the organisation knows them in loggerheads about the strategy, one thinks it should be the strategy and things be that strategy. They’re both very kind of influential. They’ve both got their allies. It’s just causing confusion in the organisation. I’m told this, nice, I should meet them beforehand. One guy has incredible confidence in his attitude towards solving these things. Great conviction. He’s very clever and he keeps on pushing his argument thinks ‘If only I can get you to see it properly, then you’ll see that my argument is the best way of doing it.’
We have that kind of guy. Now the other guy is a little bit more kind of open to listening. But he also is very intellectual. He’s got lots of good little suggestions about how to solve it. See it all from his view. But he never feels listened to by his colleague and he gets increasingly frustrated, keeps on justifying it trying to make his case. One of them was about a recruitment decision, he felt he hadn’t been consulted around a recruitment decision. And the first guy says, ‘Well, I thought it was such an obviously good choice. Why would I need to probably need to waste time, we just need to make sure we secured this person.’ And this guy kind of puts his argument again, again, what about this? What about this person, these other people, and then he gives up talking to this person.
He eventually just gets to the place, but you’ll never listen to me. I can’t be bothered to actually explore this. So in this nine-minute form, this guy is not feeling not being listened to. ‘Okay, what’s that? What’s going on for you? When that happens? And you suddenly give up?’
He says, ‘Well, I just feel I’ll never be listened to.’ ‘And what does it make you feel?’ ‘It makes me feel really furious.’ ‘I get that it makes you feel really furious. What is it like? Help me understand what that’s like like in your body when you feel really furious?’ See, we again, bring the mindfulness bit in. Because we’re not just trying to stay in a cognitive story. We’re trying to bring a mindfulness dimension in that says, ‘In this here and now moment, as I talk about this experience, I actually have these tensions and contractions in my body.’ That means we suddenly have different self-awareness, a relationship to this, this experience, he’s getting that experience he talks about that.
‘Okay, so you’re really feeling frustrated, you’re feeling contracted in your body? What’s it like just to sort of notice them and stay with that for now?’And he says, ‘I realised this makes me think of how much it’s important to feel respected. I come from a culture, this particular culture, where in the family culture where respect is everything? I realised that I feel like he doesn’t respect me. He doesn’t listen to my point of view.’ So that’s okay. Can you communicate to him something about this experience?
This is where I use some of my couples therapy experience. So the typical style of communication. So let me help you think about how you might communicate this. The guys there hearing me say this? Yeah. So he’s about to do it. But the guys there I say, ‘Okay. So, if you were speaking to him, you’d say, you might say, is this right?’ I’d ask him. ‘Do you know, when you keep pushing your ideas that day? And I feel like you don’t listen to my ideas? I get really annoyed, I find myself getting really annoyed. I just push back and push back and push back with you. And eventually, I just give up and you see me disappear. I just withdraw from you, I avoid you at all costs. What you don’t see is actually in your lack of listening, lack of really attending, I don’t, I don’t feel respected by you. And that’s actually really painful for me because it’s important to feel respected by others.’
When he communicates that, I didn’t ask him to actually use his own language to communicate that, but she does, that the other guy is astonished that he’s having this impact on him. And he melts. Because his colleague has spoken with such harsh around his longing to be respected He says, ‘Could I get it, because I want to be respected too. And I hate to think that I’m behaving in ways that actually undermines you..’ And they move through to a very—I mean, there were a number of different sessions like this. But it really shifted that converse, that that relationship in such a fundamental way. Because the mindfulness practises slowed things down, which enabled us to look at the kind of underlying relational needs that these people have around working together.
Rachel: The mindfulness practice of— slow it down. What sort of state are you in there? Where are you feeling in your body? Yes, so it gets you out your cognitive let me rationalise this to actually what am I feeling? And then you go from what am I feeling back up into? I’m feeling like that and that brings up almost like a deeper level of the cognitive stuff. Is that what happens when you go into your body and you work out where you’re feeling those emotions and things like that then triggers some recollections?
Graham: Well, it may not be recollection, it’s quite helpful. You kind of want me inviting me to kind of lay it out perhaps in a more kind of sequential way. It’s quite useful I think. So yes, there’s the behavioural piece that we’re thinking about here? What’s actually going on or the circumstances the cognitive stuff. Often what we’re— this comes from Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, EFT for couples, okay. This is the kind of couples therapy that I do.
A distinction is made between secondary and primary emotion. Secondary emotions are often harder, protective emotions or styles of behaviour that actually adapt designed to protect us. Anger is often what we see. But some people don’t use anger, they might passivity, silent withdrawal or something. So people’s protective aggravation comes out in different ways, if you use the term. But we call that a secondary emotion. In EFT, we would then talk about primary emotion and the primary emotions are often vulnerable emotion. So the reason somebody feels angry is because they don’t- they feel hurt, hurt that I don’t feel respected. So the primary emotion is the hurt, or the sense of hopelessness, or the sadness?
It’s like we’re moving down into from the secondary emotion through into the primary emotion, and then connecting it to a primary need. So what’s the primary need relationally? Usually, it’s to be seen, it’s to be heard, is to be valued. It’s to feel connected, to feel trusted. I think there are actually relatively few, really primary relational needs that people have. I’m referring to relational needs, not all the broader needs of a life, but our relational needs.
Often, the triggers and difficulties in relationships come from not acknowledging our relational needs. There’s a beautiful phrase from a writer called Harville Hendricks, he says, ‘Every relational complaint or criticism is a tragic expression of an unmet need.’
Graham: That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? But we think about when we are fighting with people, anybody who’s, if a partner in our lives apart from fighting with one of our children about something, we’re really triggered, and we pause and think, ‘Oh, what am I really longing for right now?’ And then we find, ‘Oh, it’s about actually feeling like, you’re listening to me that you value my contribution, or that you respect me?’
Well, that you actually mutually want to feel connected and express a sense of love together. Yet, these kinds of things that people are really drives their behaviour, actually, I think that they lose sight of it. And they get caught into cognitive justifications. Look, this is the reason and we got to solve it this way. And in some ways, some of that gets to be a bit of a distraction. Now some of this is I’m talking about what happens in the personal domain. In the work domain, it isn’t such primary attachment needs I’m necessarily talking about this very often about respect by colleagues, very often about respect or feeling valued. or feeling like there’s a potential for collaboration.
Rachel: Yeah, I 100% agree with that the amount of times, I’ve had feedback from my colleagues seeking general practice in medicine that they don’t feel valued. And that is their primary need at the moment is to be valued. For the extra work, they’re doing, etc. Oh my gosh, there’s just so much in this and it’s reminding me of the nonviolent communication stuff, which is all about all communication is an expression of what you need. And so this idea that you can just stop in a conversation go down by noticing your emotional state will then help you connect better with that unmet need that you’ve got. You can then express to the person is.
Wow I think that would change so many of the different conversations that we have. Because when I think about the various conflicts that I’ve been in or the various times that I’ve find it very difficult to have a difficult conversation, or I’ve been upset, and like you said, anger about is this for that secondary emotion that we’re seeing all the time, isn’t it. And if you feel sad, you get angry, if you feel annoyed, you get angry, if you feel hurt, you get angry. So there’s a lot of very angry people around which is covering up a lot of these unmet, these tragic, I love that, quote, ‘Every relational criticism is a tragic expression of an unmet need.’ And you can just say, see that in conflict, can’t you?
Graham: You really, can. Yeah, and perhaps I can emphasise that I do think the nonviolent communication approach is very, very interesting. And I’ve done training in that part in the past, and actually, I remember going along there with my partner and doing a weekend of it, and it was coming out of there. We don’t know how full two days and down in Brighton and then having a big round. And I was kind of really curious that I really liked this model. And yet it somehow hasn’t helped us find a way through here. Why is that?
I think what I want to emphasise here is it misses for me the NVC piece, but maybe not now, I haven’t updated myself recently on what they’re saying. But certainly when I learned this decade or so ago, is really crucial for interrupting the cognitive stream. To go straightaway to your unmet need, without really processing the emotion, but if you’re feeling frustration, just to sort of like cognitively say, ‘Okay, of course, that frustration is just about an unmet need. Let me think about my own unmet need.’ In a way, there’s no fair process to your own. It’s like, we almost need to hear ourselves and allow ourselves to have that kind of that secondary frustration.
I mean, it’s fascinating working with people where you kind of really meet them, say, oh, I can hear you’re really, really feeling frustrated by this. Yeah, it’s really triggering for you. And, I can hear there’s a part of you that’s really fighting for yourself here. The reason that emotion is there, it’s good, saying, ‘My boundaries are being cut across some values being cut across, this matters to me.’ So in some ways, we need to celebrate that emotion. We’re not kind of crush it. We’re trying to say, ‘Yes, this is an emotion that looks after you, it’s fighting for you, it happens that if you then communicate from that place, it probably won’t serve what you’re trying to achieve.’
There’s a sort of validation at one sense. The validation actually makes it easier for the person to then get in touch with the deeper longing and the emotions around that need not being met. If that makes sense. I put a lot of value on that kind of noticing that this be angry emotion, then coming to the body. Then coming to and staying there. What’s it like to stay with this stone-like tightness in your belly? Okay, and the person says, ‘It’s not very comfortable.’ ‘Well describe it to me, is it large sit like a grapefruit? Is it little? Pebble? Is it tentacles?’ Then they kind of get really curious about this.
That’s exactly what you do in mindfulness practice, you sit in quietly by yourself. And you think, here I am trying to breathe, or now some kind of big emotions come up. I’m thinking of a conversation I had with somebody and how they really annoyed me. And now I’ve got this tightness in my belly. Or can I just be with the tightness in my belly and just breathe with this experience? And as I do that, what happens next? That’s what we do in mindfulness. All by ourselves, if we’re experienced practitioners, we get good at just meeting whatever comes up.
But it takes a while to get good at that was people just do it instantaneously, if you invite them into it? And you were there attending and ask him to speak out loud? As the experience changes for them?
Rachel: And then how do you go from ‘Okay, I’ve noticed that there’s that tightness in my belly’ to ‘Oh, I’m really sad.’ Or ‘I’m feeling not valued?’ Or how do you—just one thing, noticing what’s going on your body? And how do you then make that step to? Okay, this is my primary motion, and this is my need?
Graham: Well, I think there’s a couple of options here. Firstly, not trying to do anything other than be present to what’s there. Okay, that would be the mindfulness sort of story. So you’re simply with what’s there. And if it stays in a kind of stone, like, angry kind of place with them, we notice for a while, that’s what’s happening. We might then choose to invite the person to shift their attention. We might say, ‘Okay, so I want you to sort of step back and let go of that kind of difficult conversation. Maybe bring to mind something that actually really evokes a sense of ease and flow, and maybe even joy for you, like walking in the woods, or lying on a lilo in the sea, or whatever it might be having that first cup of coffee in the morning, whatever.’
We can actively invite people into a more resourceful state. ‘How is that in your body? What’s it like?’ And then usually, what you’ll find is they’ll describe a more flow state in the body, more spacious state in the body. So we can just actively move people between these different states, if we think it’s kind of unhelpful, just to stay in a stuck, difficult state for too long, they may move people on in another way. Then we might say from that resourceful state, ‘Would you imagine from this resourceful state dealing with this difficult conversation?’ There is a choice we can do there. But going back to your question, very often what I find is you simply invite people to be with that experience. The difficult emotion just moves into something else all by itself.
You can pick it up, because you can say, ‘Oh, I noticed you’re really kind of tuning into the sense of anger that unless you do that. What’s that like for you?’ Someone might say ‘Do you now actually feel weirdly really at peace? Now I’ve seen it’, or ‘Actually I feel really sad’, or, ‘I actually feel excited that it’s possible to observe this without being kind of completely overwhelmed by it.’ There’s lots of different things that might people might experience and we might just choose to flow.
If there’s a sense of the thing moving all by itself, we can just stay close to it. There’s a metaphor I really like, that sometimes people have about all the emotions as like waves, up and down, peaks and troughs. And if we can just bring our awareness onto the surface of the wave, like a surfboard, and we just surf them, then we’re doing mindfulness. Things won’t stay the same, everything is impermanent, it will just change into something new. So that’s one option, or we do this kind of actively stepping from the red into the, into the green, and inviting a more resourceful state. So we have these options, in a way.
Rachel: I was listening to a podcast the other day that this person was saying that they had all this therapy, and it hadn’t really helped them, whatever. But the thing that really had helped them was this noticing your thoughts and noticing the feelings, because it moves you from being the thoughts of the feeling to observing it and realising that you don’t have to stay in that zone, or you don’t even have to take notice of it, or you don’t have to do anything with it. So recognising you’re not the thought you are the observer of the thought. And you’re saying that actually doing that automatically gets you more into green than red? Is that right?
Graham: Yeah, exactly.The way the Buddhist would say it, I remember a couple others, Jack Kornfield are one of those amazing American Buddhist teachers. I’m having this kind of like, blinding insight what he said. Actually, he said, ‘The thing is that if we’re feeling angry, and we notice ourselves feeling angry. And then we step back and observe this experience of anger, the part of us that’s observing the anger is not angry. Or the part of us that’s observing the anxiety is not anxious. Or indeed, the part of us that’s observing the joy may not be completely consumed with joy, it might just be a calmer space.’
That’s what the Buddhist mean by equanimity is like, I have the equanimity to observe the highs and lows, the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows of life, but somehow maintain my calm centred sense of here I am, admit to this experience. I don’t have to be overwhelmed by any of these experiences. So yeah, I think you describe it well, that kind of sense of. I mean, getting to that mindful relationship to thoughts is actually much harder than the mindful relationship to sensations in the body. I would do thoughts last in a way, I would say, ‘Let’s go to sensations first, let’s bring in some vocabulary and emotions, and just help people move around those experiences.’ And then we can notice the thoughts that are arising as well.
But the sort of the phrase in the mindfulness training is like, thoughts are not facts, and it comes in week six of continuous practice because the idea is that actually is quite a difficult place to get to where you observe your thoughts without sort of somehow getting enmeshed with them.
Rachel: Interesting. Thoughts are not facts. Also, feelings are not facts either.
Graham: Exactly. I mean, we’d say all phenomena, basically, in this kind of way of thinking are, passing through the content, know that there’s a sort of content of awareness, and there’s awareness. People sometimes talk about the metaphor of all the contents might be like the clouds in the sky, and your awareness is the sky. Or we might say that awareness is the blank page and then our thoughts are written onto the blank page, or the thoughts or feelings or sensations. So you can use various metaphors to help people kind of get what we’re pointing towards.
Rachel: Gosh, there’s so much in here that I want to ask you about. But I want to ask you if we can get down really practical with this. So it’s one thing having a difficult conversation with a coach present that can talk you through it, right? It’s another thing when you’re there, you’ve got, say, a really difficult patient, you can feel yourself in the red there or you’re having a difficult conversation with a colleague and you know that you’re both in red. What can you do yourself in those moments using these red and the green things? That will really help?
Graham: Okay, that’s a good question. I think the first thing we’re trying to develop is this capacity to pause and even notice how I am. To be in red is not the same as to notice I’m in red. If we’re just in red and just speaking in a kind of clipped and abrupt way with our colleague we’re just doing red at that moment, aren’t we? What if I notice I’m in red? That is a really important step is a crucial step in a way.
Because when I noticed, ‘Oh, we’re going red right now. Now, this is not a place to have a conversation from’. We might simply choose to say, look, I think I’m gonna take, I’m just gonna take five minutes, or I’m gonna go and have a cup of coffee, or whatever it is, let me come back once I’ve actually taken a moment. So that’s the first step. You can teach people the absolute basics of this very, very quickly. Then you can send people say, ‘Okay, what I want you to do, and then in the week, before we meet again, what I want you to do is just to notice, as best you can, when in the week, you find yourself in a red state. And when in the week, you find yourself in the midst of a red conversation. You might choose to then say, but also knows when you’re in a green state. And when you’re having a more flowing, easy conversation.’
So we’re just inviting people just to notice something and maybe take a little note somewhere, not to do practises, particularly not to do mindfulness, particularly if people want to great you know, I’ve got nothing against mindfulness, that’s fantastic. But, in this approach is simply just notice red, amber, or green, my experiences, people will come back to you, after one week, and they say, ‘Oh, I was in the middle of this red state’, they’ll just use the language instantaneous, it’s become part of their, their lexicon within the space of one week, actually. So that’s a huge step forward, they’ve all now got a language for these different states, particularly between the red and the green, the amber is a bit more complex, sometimes to get clear about their habitual, but they got no language for that.
And then now you know that I’m noticing I’m in real estate, and then you have some strategies for dealing with that. You can people have different ways of wanting to kind of some people find that it’s actually taking a pause. Some other people would say, to their colleague, ‘Oh I feel like this is turning into a red conversation.’ Because they both have the same language, they say,
‘Oh, yeah, you’re right. Come on, let’s just take a walk around the block together and see what goes into the, the side in the meeting room and just have a chat for 10 minutes. What is it we’re asked to do, or we’re asked to say, what’s really important for me here, that’s not being seen?’
And then they start, they’ve got some pointers to a different conversation, the main point being, don’t try and solve your problem from here. This is not the place to solve the strategic issue or the patient issue or the kind of conflict. The first thing is to attend to yourself, tend to what’s really going on, share a little bit with each other, hopefully, if you both learned about it. And given that we know, how might we address.
Rachel: I think that’s, that’s such a good point. Don’t try and solve this issue when you’re both in red. Because it’s not going to go well. We were teaching the Lead Manage Thrive course with Whale, with GP leaders, and we talked about a particular model of behaviours that you can notice in a meeting: the owl, fox, donkeys, sheep, model. We would always say that, whenever we were then in a meeting after that, if we realised we’re behaving a bit in the sort of donkey fashion, just having the word donkey flit across our consciousness would help us change our behaviour. So do you find that with the red thing, just having red either just suddenly becoming aware that you’re in that red? That in itself is a little bit therapeutic and helps you get out?
Graham: I think it is. Yeah. I mean, I would say that actually, you’re kind of observing your experience at that moment. You’re not so identified with it. So it’s like a little mini mindfulness trick, isn’t it? In a way, just having this little very simple diagnostic categories? This is a little bit similar in some ways. I don’t know if you know the Chimp Paradox.
Rachel: Yes love that work, talk about it all the time. Yes. Yeah.
Graham: Yeah. I mean it’s very good. And I think, what I would say about this is that people just remember the red, amber, green even more easily. It’s just so obvious what the red is. It’s so obvious what the green is. They actually literally get it within one speaking of this. In this approach, this probably much more emphasis and most I’ve seen on and ‘Now let me ask myself, how is this in my body? Yeah, I’m in a red state. Oh, how do I know this in my favour–’
Rachel: Bringing mindfulness to the chin, basically aren’t we?
Graham: Mindfulness, and then more relationality to it. Yeah. So those two things. Yeah.
Rachel: I love the fact you do this and in the basis of conversation, and you can bring up the fact ‘Ohl we’re having a read conversation here.’ We’re nearly out of time. So grab I’d love to ask you if you would like quickly, maybe giving us three tips and a few strategies when you do notice you’re in red. Because I think sometimes you’ve already mentioned quite a few different things that you can do like go for a walk or, or do something. But what are some quick and helpful strategies you can use if you notice you’re in you read on your own, or you notice you’re in red, in a conversation with people that you found that really work for people?
Graham: So I think I mean, the first thing I’ve said already is noticing you’re in red, and actually even congratulating yourself on the fact that you’ve noticed. This strikes me as such a significant achievement, just like that. Noticing is the difference between war and peace really. Let’s not minimise the significance of that moment. I actually say to people, when they come back and say, ‘Oh, I noticed I was in red.’ I don’t just ignore that, I then celebrate that. And I really invite people to celebrate that a lot to themselves and say, ‘Oh, did you notice that? What enabled you to do that? What else might support you to do that?’
And so the notice thing is really key, it might be that they say, ‘Do you know, what I’ve learned is the early warning signal for me of being red, is I suddenly get this little stirring sensation in my belly or I noticed that I’m getting sort of tightness in my cheeks, or I start to clench your hand or something, or—’ people will have their own markers. Yeah. So again, I would say it’s that kind of emphasis on ‘Oh, I’m in red, I’m noticing red.’ And I think part of my noticing red, is this kind of embodied knowing. Yeah.
That’s really powerful. I think if somebody is able to stay with that a bit more, a very important bit would be then to say, what’s the I’m most longing for? What am I most needing? So I’m in read, what am I most what’s the deepest need that, you know, my kind of body and mind are kind of somehow calling for, and it’s not such a big repertoire to be looking for? It’s probably going to be something about being seen or respected, or valued in some way, or to have recognition? Sometimes it might be to feel safe?
Actually, we’ve had a lot of issues around safety, of course, in recent, last couple of years or so. It’s a primary primary need, and somehow you’re making me unsafe. So when people see that need, and they realise that needs not being met. That’s a significant thing to seeing. And definitely might really support people to have a more self compassionate attitude towards this part of themselves. The reason I’m in red. Is not that I’m just an angry person. And I shouldn’t be bad about myself being angry.
No, it’s actually that something is really, I’m longing for that’s not being met. And that’s really scary or frightening, or I feel hurt in some way. Can I really kind of bring self compassion is that experience? We sometimes teach people self compassion practises that really kind of breathe into that. So that’s really powerful. For the third one, it will be actually asking people in your repertoire of experience, what is it that helps you find you can calm yourself down? A lot of men will say to me, sometimes women as well, but an awful lot of men in financial services, they go off to the gym, and do lots of heavy kind of gym work. And they say, ‘God, I just feel so calm after that.’ Or some people will go for a run, or exercise discipline exercise is very common.
Some people say actually, I just need to go and speak to a friend. Another person says, I will I just like to write in my journal. So and of course, I distinguish with them between those activities that feel like unskillful activities, like I’ve just been saying, or the ones who say I go and have open a bottle of wine, which sometimes might be if you’re moderate, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the idea that it becomes a treatment for red states is really not a terribly skillful way of you know, it’s very different going having a nice bottle of wine and if you’d like to enjoy yourself, and want to kind of get rid of stressful feelings. Is that giving you a bit of a flavour?
Rachel: Yeah, those are strategies there I think. Yes, I’m just thinking that bottle of wine, you’re sat there with a bottle of wine they’re like ‘Okay, so red day today.’ Yeah, but I love all those things. I think I’m like, for me the question ‘What am I most needing?’ is really cool because I think I go to What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this? Rather than what am I? What do I need? What’s the unmet need there that this emotion and and the idea that the second I would probably go first might get straight to my secondary emotion.
I’m feeling anger or upset, but then thinking okay, what’s the emotion and of that? Why is that there? Because what am I needing and drilling down to your needs? And it’s much easier than to share your needs with somebody. It’s much less triggering for them, isn’t it? Because you’re not accusing them of anything, you’re just saying, This is what my need is. And that is the basis of the lot of the nonviolent communication stuff, isn’t it that you’re not being judgmental to them? You’re just feeding back what you feel and what you need. Right?
Graham: Yeah, exactly. It can make people quite vulnerable sometimes to be expressing their needs. It’s not always easy to do. But you’re right, I think it’s quite pivotal when they can, it can really change what’s going on. But the risk is that you put out your need, and the other person says, ‘Yeah, but you’ve never been satisfying my needs.’ It’s not a panacea. If you’re working with a pair of managers or indeed, a couple of in psychotherapy is what you’re seeking to do is to show how the red trigger is kind of self reinforcing, you get to what’s called a negative cycle, or a red cycle, I call it.
Neither person’s needs are being met. You’re just kind of one person, typically one person’s a bit more on the front foot and of being a bit more angry, the other ones being a bit more silent, a bit more distant, that’s a very common pattern. But they’re both wanting to find, to be valued and to be respected, to find collaboration in some way. They’re just using different strategies, and see if you can sort of simultaneously diagnose what’s happening in a pair like that. I mean, it truly is the basis for a breakthrough conversation, because you deepen the trust so quickly and I can honestly say, this is true of couples as much as it with managers.
My experience is that I can have one session with people for an hour and really warring pair through this process of mutually people bringing down and showing them the dynamic of the negative cycle, the red cycle, pulls them into a green cycle. They walk away saying, it may not solve the relationship, but they have a real deep sense of hope that, ‘Oh, this isn’t a bad person I’m trying to work with this isn’t a hopeless case, I can really see a way through here.’ So it’s sort of, it’s sort of magical, actually, as well, I love this approach so much, it’s kind of magical. If you really help people mutually see each other’s needs, it takes some skill to do that really well in a way that holds people safe and see the cycle together. But if you do that, it lays the pathway to a much more positive relationship very, very quickly, actually,
Rachel: I can see that it’s totally about understand the other person, but you can’t do that when you’re in your red zone. So if I’ve got one more question, then we do need to finish. What if you are perfectly fine in green? And then you notice that another person, the other person is in red? What should you do? Should you say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re triggered, your chip is out, you’re in red’, because presumably, that might not go down? So well?
Graham: Well, I think if you are in green, and you stay in green, you might find it fine to let them just express their red. Yeah. And supposing you’re really angry with somebody. I suppose, and we’re talking, you get really angry with me. I’m thinking, something’s really upset, Rachel, I wonder what it is, but I’m just not feeling triggered by it, then I can sort of say, ‘Wow, I can hear something really important. You want to tell me. And because I’m so open to you, you will, after expressing you might rage for a while, but you will move into a more amber or green state? Because I’m not triggered.’ The problem is very often, the other person gets triggered into their own red state as a defensive kind of thing. But it’s fascinating.
Rachel: Wow. Wise words. Oh Graham, thank you so much. I think there was so much in there that we can take away just those little nuggets of wisdom. And also for me, I think it’s just about recognising who you are in recognising your red and then go, ‘Okay, where am I feeling this in my body? And then what do I really need?’ That’s half the battle. That’s fantastic. I know that you’ve written a book all about this, what’s the book called? And how can we get hold of it?
Graham: So it’s called Breakthrough Conversations For Coaches, Consultants and Leaders. It’s published by Routledge, and it’s available from Amazon, all the bookshops.
Rachel: Right. So I encourage people to get hold of that if people wanted to contact you, what’s the best way to get in touch to find out a bit more about your work?
Graham: Probably the best way would be to contact me through LinkedIn.
Rachel: Great, so we’ll put the link to your LinkedIn profile in the notes and people can get in contact and message you through that. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. I think we had to get you back again, at some point to talk a bit more about this. I’m sure people have lots of questions. If you do have questions you’d like to get to Graham, or any questions about any of this, please do email in to us hello@youarenotafrog. We’d love to know what it is people are struggling with. So do get in touch with us. Graham thank you so much for being with us, it has been really fascinating. So thank you go well.
Graham: Thank you very much thanks for all your wonderful questions and the opportunity to share some of this. Thank you.
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