19th October, 2021

3 Conversations Which Will Get You Unstuck with Annie Hanekom

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

Listen to this episode

On this episode

Annie Hanekom joins us to share the three important conversations you need to have — with yourself and with others — to help you get unstuck. We discuss the importance of having meaningful conversations and the weight it carries on your mindset and wellbeing.

Episode transcript

Dr Rachel Morris: Are you and your team overwhelmed and scattered right now? Do you feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees, and are you finding it difficult to clearly see the way forward? Do you wish you had a magic wand that would get you unstuck and make things happen?

In this episode, I’m joined by Annie Hanekom, team coach and leadership specialist, to talk about the three crucial conversations, which will help you and your team get unstuck when you’re feeling overwhelmed. We chat about the transformation that asking the right questions and answering them can bring. We discussed the key principles that have helped us personally and the teams that we’ve worked with. Listen if you want to find out the three key questions you can ask yourself or your colleagues when you’re stuck. Listen if you want to know how a conversation can really transform how you feel and how to take control, improve your focus and change your response to an overwhelming workload.

Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, the podcast for doctors and other busy professionals if you 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 a 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 cross your work in 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’re delighted to announce that the doors to our Resilient Team Academy online membership are now open until the third of November only. By joining our community of busy leaders in health and social care, you’ll get the shapes toolkit core training. You’ll get monthly webinars, which you can join live or watch in your own time. You’ll get bite-sized videos and team resilience-building activities, plus coaching demos and much more.

The Resilient Team Academy will give you simple tools so that you can support your team for resilience, productivity, and well being, help them deal with overwhelm and get you a happy and thriving team without burning out yourself. You can join individually, or we have special deals for organisations such as PCNs. Find out more in the show notes.

It’s really wonderful to have with me back on the podcast today, Annie Hanekom. Hi, Annie.

Annie Hanekom: Hi, so happy to be back. Thank you for inviting me again.

Rachel: Now, those of you that haven’t met Annie before, Annie is a team coach. She’s a leadership specialist, and she co-hosts The Resilient Team Academy with me. It’s a great pleasure to be working with you, Annie. I wanted to get you back on the podcast because we’ve been talking a lot recently in the Resilient Team Academy about conversations, haven’t we?

Annie: Yeah, we have. In fact, an interesting one, where the nature of conversations seems to have shifted in people’s minds. I know, Rachel, you and I’ve spoken about that so indeed, it does feel like a really relevant space to be focusing on. Because it’s so simple, we almost overlook it.

Rachel: Yeah, as we were saying earlier, what is leadership or leadership is? About the people that you’re leading, which is about relationships and how do you do relationships? Well, it’s conversations, isn’t it?

Annie: Yeah, it’s so often you hear people saying, ‘Yeah, I just had a really rubbish conversation with my husband, or with my partner or with my boss.’ We find that yeah, we just have these terrible rows all the time. It’s on that, that Susan Scott and her work Fierce Conversations that I think it’s pretty much her life’s work is just really clear about the fact that the conversation is the relationship. The quality of our conversations really do matter. I know certainly when I heard that for the first time, many years ago, it struck me back in the middle of the eyes just suddenly going, ‘Actually, that just rings so true.’ And so the attention that we put into our conversations really does carry a lot of weight. So it’s worth some thinking time.

Rachel: Yeah, well, the conversation is the relationship. You were saying to me earlier that you think we are just out of practice.

Annie: A funny thought. Exactly. Even hearing you say that now just feels strange. But Rachel, I know you’ll have come across this as well and the work that you’ve be doing, where there are hybrid teams; there are people that are fully remote still; there are those that have actually been back in the office for maybe even the whole way through this pandemic and strange time we’ve been through.

But in general, people have been less connected. So even if they’ve been in a space, they’ve been socially distanced. It’s been an interesting time with the pendulum swung right across to actually taking your distance and being even mentally more remote from others. Really, there is that case for many. You have been physically remote and working virtually, there’s almost a laziness to engage in real, meaningful conversations.

Rachel: I noticed that at the beginning of the pandemic, the conversations were very much around, ‘How are you? How are you coping? How are things?’ And as things have gone on and we’ve got busier and busier, they tend to be much more task-focused now.

Okay, what we got to do, let’s get down to business and we have forgotten about some of the… Well, even just the sort of small talk aspect but how important that is. Even if you really hate small talk, I know loads of people are completely allergic to it. But it’s not small talk, actually, it’s really important talk.

Now, I know that you’ve been working with lots of teams. I’ve been working with lots of doctors and people in high-stress organisations. And we’ve both been working with people in the Resilient Team Academy. What do you think people are particularly going through right now that isn’t really being addressed by their leaders, by the people who should be listening?

Annie: Yeah, that’s such a great question, Rachel. I wish I had a firm, clear, absolute answer to that. Certainly, things that I have been picking up is an overwhelm of feeling quite stuck. Although there’s that light at the end of the tunnel, life’s returning to some sense of normality, there’s a lag of how people are behaving. That’s almost thinking back to what we were talking about in terms of being out of practice. As much as meetings are set up in ways that are now that much more social, and together, and we’re thinking about the road ahead, there’s energy in some senses about things returning back to some sense of normality, and we’re back out there again.

There’s an exhaustion that has followed that, that I guess is the lag. With exhaustion, I think, comes almost the laziness of dragging ourselves. I’ve definitely sensed that from people of feeling heaviness, as they come into meetings, or their own work, or even their creativity. That’s almost a topic or concept that’s come up more often than, I suppose, I’ve heard before of just how to be more creative? How can I think about things differently? What is the new way of engaging?

Because of, I think, just the ways I’ve always done things just don’t work as well anymore. But what I can sense lying beneath that is a bit of apathy, a bit of exhaustion, and real tiredness, which is almost a feeling of need to shake it off. I guess what’s worth mentioning here is, that doesn’t necessarily mean people are not taking leave. ‘Just take a good holiday, and you’ll be good.’ But actually, there’s quite a big difference between fatigue, which is physical fatigue, ‘I’ve been running too hard. I’m exhausted,’ leaves really going to sort this out. And it might well. A week taken with good intent, and good rest and having good night’s sleep really can serve one.

But I think what’s being overlooked at the moment is what we would call depletion. It looks similar, there’s fatigue. Yet, what we need is almost the opposite of a week of rest. We need social connection. We need to fill up our cups. Now, that looks different for different people. It could be meditation. It could be exercise. It could be a Friday night drink at the pub or pizza night with our mates.

But the point is to identify that. I think once we can, then we start to get clearer about what are the solutions I need to be looking for here? But that certainly has been in private clients and in the corporate space. I’m interested to know, Rachel, because I think you’ve alluded to it earlier, what you’re seeing with GPs and in medical practices.

Rachel: I think, yeah, that word, ‘overwhelm,’ definitely. And when you are overwhelmed with the workload and overwhelmed with the demand and just the sheer volume of the tasks you’ve got to get through, then everything falls by the wayside. The tasks and the work become your only focus. And having those conversations and making time for informal connections just doesn’t happen. So people feel really, really isolated.

That and the fact that they are often just stuck in a room doing stuff virtually or semi-virtually seeing a few patients or them being on calls and then the meetings rather than face to face often are virtual. Or if they are face to face, people are so busy that they haven’t got time to hang around. Every minute you spend in a meeting or conversation seems a minute when you could actually be getting on with your tasks.

No wonder, nobody can be creative, right? Because it’s very difficult to be creative when you know that there’s so much stuff you need to do. That in itself puts you into your stress zone, into your fight-flight-freeze zone. You go into your sympathetic zone. Then it goes around, and the heartbeat goes up. You can’t really think creatively. I think that’s what I’ve seen. And this isolation, which absolutely leads to depletion, it’s not just the volume of work, and having to work hard and going to bed late that makes you tired. It’s this depletion.

I know many of you have been talking a lot about this depletion and what people can do about it. I think we still come up with three main questions you can either ask yourself or conversations that you could have one to one with a colleague or with your team, which I think are just going to help people get a little bit unstuck when they are feeling like this. They’re based on some of the shapes toolkit, which we use in all the training and particularly, with the Resilient Team Academy as well.

I just wanted to talk about this on the podcast. Because for me, I think they are a way to start to deal with the overwhelm, and then get a little bit underneath it and work out what’s going on. The first one, really, the first conversation to have with people when people are feeling stuck is ‘What’s in your control? What can you do about this?’ Why is that such an important one to start off with?

Annie: It’s such an interesting one, Rachel. It’s one that is so deceptively simple, and yet has such enormous impact. It gets me every time when not only I see that in others, but I revisit that concept myself. I think the power in it is almost the relief when people go, ‘Wow, the elements that I can just let go, I can just let go of.’ And that concept of letting go mentally is such an enormous one to allow in people that mental freedom of ‘I don’t have to carry at all.’ Reminds me of one of Greg McKeown’s three principles and essentialism of ‘I could do anything but not everything.’ I think that’s linked here.

It gives people almost the how. So looking at what’s in your control, look at the circle of control, the zone of power, and what’s lovely about it, as much as we mentally let go, is almost physically going ‘Draw a circle. Draw it on a page.’ It’s really tactile. People do it. You could do it right now. Anyone out there listening, just draw a circle on an empty page, doesn’t matter how big or small the space is. Inside that zone of power are all the things that you really can impact, the things that you can control, the conversations you do have, the relationships you can impact. If we just focus on there, the circle might feel quite small, particularly if we’re feeling that overwhelming depletion, Rachel, that we’ve talked about.

But actually, if we start to just focus in on what we can control, we can really grow that circle, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it. It’s an in-growing, and that’s why the circle of power, the word power is so useful here. ‘I feel more powerful. I feel more empowered as I grow that circle.’ I think as one feels that more, even if you just close your eyes and think about what is in your control and what you really can impact, our sense of having a useful conversation grows with that. Actually, if I’m feeling the simple scenario of ‘I feel so frustrated because my kids keep coming home and being in a mood, and it just upsets the whole day. I just wish they would be more tidy or less moany.’

I’ve also had a long day at work, and we can feel so out of control of that situation. Indeed, I can’t make my children be another way. But if for a moment I just stop and I go, ‘What can I do? What can I control? Well, I can control myself. And I can just put a lid on any frustration I might be feeling. I’m not saying I’m not restricted. But I don’t have to let it all out. I can control that. I could then have a conversation with one of my kids and just really connect it, just slow things down, change the environment possibly. Take a walk down, ‘I need to go buy some flour, maybe I’ll take them with me. Yes, I can control that. And slowly, we start to create the environment, the tone of the conversation, the way in which we engage with someone.

I haven’t changed the whole scenario, but I’ve certainly started to engage in a way that actually could have an impact on how I’m feeling about it in general. It’s a very simple little scenario. But you can think of that in terms of your patients, you can think of that in terms of your colleagues, or a client who’s losing the plot that actually as much as we get wrapped up into that space, particularly when we’re feeling this fatigue that’s all around us, is that we really can step into that control, into that feeling of ‘I have more power than I might have thought I do initially.’ It’s a simple concept that can have a huge knock-on effect, I think.

Rachel: Yeah and for me, this concept of the zone of power, what can I control? If anyone’s listening, not entirely clear about how you do this, literally get a bit of A4 paper and draw a circle in the middle. The circle is all those things that you can control, that are in your control, which is basically what you do, what you say, how you organise your life, etc., etc. Then, there’s stuff outside which you can’t control, which is basically other people, and Coronavirus and patient demand, all those sorts of things.

The really helpful thing about this is actually recognising what’s outside that circle because it’s so overwhelming. And that’s where the overwhelm comes, when you start to feel responsible for the stuff outside the circle, yet there’s nothing you can do about it. The Serenity Prayer talks about being granted the courage to change what’s in your control and the serenity to accept that stuff. But you can’t change. That’s outside your control.

I do remember a while back when I was trying to set up a course. I felt like I hadn’t been given enough time to do it, or enough people to help or enough resources, and I went to see my boss going, ‘Well, I’m really stressed. What am I supposed to do?’ He just said to me, ‘What can you do with what you do have?’ ‘Well, I can do this, this and this.’ He said, ‘Brilliant. Go and do that.’ Like you said, I felt the weight dropping off my shoulders. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do that. I’m in control of that.’ So you do feel much more powerful now. For me, it was just then shedding what I couldn’t control, just dropping it.

Now, that can feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes because there are some things that we wish we could. But you’re then fighting reality. If you fight reality. 100% of the time, reality is going to win. So that acceptance of all that stuff outside my circle. Interestingly, I was listening to a couple of podcasts the other day. One was about stuff that someone was doing and the changes they could make and giving tips and stuff. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s really great.’ So I was really energised.

Another podcast I was listening to, basically, at the end of it, there were 10 minutes of the host whinging about how dreadful things were, and about what was happening, and about all that demand out there, and how things needed to change, and things needed to happen, and the government should do something and someone should do something. At the end of it, I felt completely depleted and really depressed and thought, ‘Yeah, that is the difference between focusing on what we can control and focusing on what we can’t control.’ It’s a good way, isn’t it, to get unstuck when you’re feeling a bit depleted?

Annie: It is. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the stuckness and feeling like ‘I just can’t do anything about that’ is overwhelming. But it’s also because we’ve worked over our heads how we would want to try and control it or how we would want to impact or shift it. What invariably often does happen when we just focus in on that zone of power, that space that we really can control, we end up impacting those things we thought we couldn’t control in a completely different way by just showing up in a different mindset or having a conversation with someone, and they’re able to impact it quite directly. That’s the power of just focusing on those things that we really can control and just trusting the process, trusting ourselves in that.

Rachel: You also mentioned creativity earlier. I think it’s much easier to be creative when you’re in your zone of power. So another question you could ask, once you said, ‘What’s in your control?’ Very simply, ‘What else? What else is there? Are there things you’ve not yet thought of?’ Just make a massive long list. Doesn’t mean you have to do them. But there may well be things that you’ve thought of now that you hadn’t thought of before, and that’s when you can start to be creative and just think of different options.

This leads us quite nicely to the next conversation, the next question. We talked about focusing on what is in your control. The next question when people are feeling overwhelmed is quite simply, ‘Where is your focus? What are you focusing on?’ We’re talking quite specifically now about prioritisation and tasks. How does this work in terms of getting over the overwhelm?

Annie: Yeah so here, we look at the prioritisation grid. I think many people are familiar with the grid, working with what’s important and what’s urgent. Even as we’ve been talking in the introduction here, what people are facing and what our current environment looks like, the business is often driven by an internal sense of urgency and really feeling that there’s just more and more and more need to achieve and more and more and more I need to do and demands on my time and the busyness of my calendar and my diary and patient demand and all of that. That just doesn’t seem to stop.

Again, we can’t slow all of that down. But what we can do is just step back. I think it’s so important in the space of prioritising. What we’re focusing on is just to get a sense of, ‘Well, hang on. Let me just get a handle on where I am with this.’ We look at ‘Well, are the things that I’m focusing on here only of an urgent nature? Or are they also, the important camp, are they things that are really driving me forward towards those things that really matter? Am I serving people in the best possible way? Am I staying focused on that?’

We can get so caught in the treadmill of urgency and actually call it the urgency trap that although we might be doing those things that are both urgent and important and really are linked to our roles, our KPIs, and it’s serving people in the best possible way, when we get stuck there, and we don’t step back and just catch ourselves to see that we are already doing the work that is over the longer term, really of service and that we’re in the best state to be doing that, we can start dropping into the less important things.

They might be serving someone else but in an area of work that’s not your expertise. Or you’re just be used as a packhorse almost to just be the hands that anybody could be learning and growing from, but actually your expertise has been wasted because you’re doing stuff that’s not serving your area of expertise, or your KPIs, or goals or the patients that are needing you specifically in that area.

What’s really important about using the prioritisation grid is allowing for that discernment to actually go, ‘Where am I focusing? Am I just caught in a sort of speedmill here where I’m just doing, doing, doing?’ But not asking the question of ‘Is this serving the needs that I am committed to, the goals I have and for those that I am doing my work for and with.’ That, in a nutshell, is how I would, at a high level, talk about the grid.

Rachel: Yeah, now, I know that you’ve talked before about this. The good feelings that doing the urgent stuff all the time produces. And that was interesting to me because I thought, ‘Oh no, I hate feeling really overwhelmed and just working on the edge and stuff.’ But actually, that was very insightful. How does it make us feel when we’re doing that urgent stuff?

Annie: Again, this will be different for different people. But certainly, there’s always the addiction to the adrenaline, the mover shaker, the achieving stuff, the taking off the to-do list, the credit that we might get for doing a job whether it was important or not, ultimately, to us. No one else necessarily knows. So sometimes it’s the praise that comes with us that we get addicted to. There could be different things for different people. I almost want to say, sadly, we build up fitness in essence, and so we get quite good at being busy.

We feel important, and we feel like we’re really achieving stuff. It’s almost part of our self-worth. We can get attached to how busy we are, how busy we seem to be. Don’t get me wrong, it absolutely is. There are some good endorphins there. I think, and actually medical, Rachel, you can speak to this more accurately than I can, but certainly, there are those feel-good factors of ‘I’m busy, and I’m achieving stuff, and my work matters, and I’m of value.’

Now, the challenge is that that absolutely works on hold in the short term. But if we consistently only hold in view the short term, what we’re not holding in view is the long term impact of that. The challenge with being in that short-term spin of just doing and achieving and feeling great about it, we don’t feel great if we keep doing that over a long period of time. As I was saying, that period of time could be a week for some; it could be three months for some.

It depends what the work is and the nature of how we operate. But certainly, there’s an endpoint, and that can look quite scary. I think many of us have heard about burnout and the real serious fatigue that has almost forced people out of the workforce because of just being stuck in that, but felt like a feel-good factor but almost became an addiction. And then we keel over.

Dr Rachel: Yeah, and then you get the flip side. You then start to feel a little bit guilty if you then are focusing on the important projects that aren’t necessarily urgent. I know, this morning, I tried to shuffle my stuff down and just work on these important things I needed. But I knew though, there’s other stuff calling me. I thought, ‘I should be doing the other stuff,’ but actually no.

The longer-term stuff is the stuff that makes the real impact, and whether that is working out workflows for delegation, or being soft appraisals, or building your team, or things like that, the things that aren’t crying out urgently but boy, did they make a huge amount of difference if you do that in the long term. I am always quite struck by leaders when they say that they use the urgent, important grid with their teams. Ask your teams, ‘Actually what is in your important but non-urgent quadrant? What are you really focusing on now? Have people got completely different ideas about what they should be focusing on?’

I don’t think we’re having that conversation with each other enough. What are you focusing on right now? What is the really important thing for this team? Maybe one person thinks it’s this; one person thinks it’s that; one person thinks it’s the other thing. You get completely scattered. I was talking, I can’t remember who I was talking to, a lady the other day, and she’s very creative. When she was talking to one of her team members, she had come up with all these amazing ideas, and then the team member would go away thinking that they had to do it all.

They’d come back, and ‘Well, I started on that, and I started on that and that on that.’ And the person’s like, ‘Oh, no, no. I was just sort of putting stuff out there.’ They hadn’t agreed what their focus was going to be. I think just since checking in with your team, with your colleague, with your boss, again, ‘What is the important stuff that we’re going to focus on right now?’ And then stick to it.

There’s a really helpful book called Free To Focus by Michael Hyatt. He suggests, every day you sit down and you write your three priorities for the day, and those are the things that you do. I know this is a bit nuanced. If you have a surgery, and you’ve got loads of patients to see, then maybe, one of your priorities is ‘Get my surgeries done.’ My second priority might be to finish that, and then, the third priority might be blank.

You’ve got to decide what it is depending on what day you’ve got. Then, you don’t just do that for the day. You do that for the week. You do that for the month and even for years. ‘For this year, my three priorities are blah blah blah.’ I remember this time last year, I was working out with my daughter where she was going to go for sixth form. That was a priority for the family that we were thinking about. So just even writing those down and getting that straight in your head can just help some of the other stuff drop away, perhaps?

Annie: Well, I think what’s very important to recognise, Rachel, is that you’re not doing the important stuff at the exclusion of the urgent and important stuff. This links me back to what I was saying about how you achieve things might look different if we just focus in on our zone of control, our zone of power, and we look at the things that are important. Now, classically, if you look at what lives in that quadrant of important things but they’re not necessarily urgent, generally, it’s relationships; it’s our health; it’s things like recruitment, delegation. Things that take a bit longer.

They’re not urgent. ‘Oh, it’s quicker if I just do it myself.’ ‘Oh, I need to hire someone, but there’s a whole interview process and vetting and… Yeah, I’ll get to it. I’ll get to it. I’ll get to it.’ Now, if I was to say, imagine you nurture the relationships around you, and your team, and your family, your close network, you’d hire that extra person that you knew would really help you out in your work. You’d manage to delegate some of the harder tasks that the last few months you’ve been putting time into that.

Now, if I go back to that scenario, you were talking about, Rachel, of like, ‘I want to focus on my important things, but I’ve got this, this, this and this that need to be done.’ Are any of those things, might they have been solved by that extra recruit you had, by that bit of delegation you put in place, by that strong relationship you have in your colleagues to say, ‘Would you mind picking this up for me today? Because I know that I helped you out a couple of weeks ago’? You wouldn’t have said it like that but certainly…

Rachel: You went in too strongly wrongly.

Annie: The relational capital that we built, and we hope that doesn’t just keep happening if we don’t put the time in. Can you see that time when the important serves the urgent in the longer term, but when we keep our focus in close, that becomes a lot harder?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. You’ve got these urgent goggles that is really focused. You’re just going to get those off and get the long-term glasses on. For me, I think this whole thing about what I’m focusing on what’s really important, I find it quite hard to work out just sitting down by myself. I do find it takes a conversation. I know we’ve talked about thinking partnerships in the past.

I think it was Nancy Kline talks about thinking partnerships where you can just get together with another person and you talk for 25 minutes, they listen. And then, they talk for 25 minutes, and you listen. I think the basis of this is the quality of my listening determines the quality of your thinking, and it can be really powerful just doing that.

Annie: Really powerful, and it’s a practice. So what I will say is it carries enormous power and insight. It’s almost a gift to yourself, but you’ve got to allocate the time. That’s the first trick, is put the time and don’t kind of go, ‘Oh, Rachel. I’ve got a meeting. Should we use 25 minutes each way?’ It’s like, ‘Oh, no but we’ve got so much we need to cover.’ You’ve got to come in knowing that’s what you’re going to do.

First of all, allocate the time. And then, there is stick with the process. It’s that trust in the process because we always feel uncomfortable going, ‘God, Rachel [inaudible 31:48]’ The principle of it is so powerful in that my first thoughts are the thoughts that are easily accessible to me. They’re the ones that I can reach for quite quickly. But as I sit for a moment, and I know I’m being listened to, it’s amazing how it just inspires a level of thought or contemplation that I wouldn’t naturally do by myself.

Then, I start reaching for much deeper things of ‘Actually, I’m not sure that is what’s going on here,’ or ‘I’m not sure that is what I really think,’ or ‘I grabbed that solution but let me just think of that’s practical or if I’m actually committed to that so if that’s what I really want to do.’ ‘Actually, I don’t care about that at all. That’s not what’s important here. What really matters is x.’ It’s a conversation with someone but almost more with ourselves. It’s got a whole different nature. It’s not something we do naturally until we get more practised at it.

As you were saying, Rachel, it does take someone who will think with you, therefore called a thinking partnership. Actually, I have a thinking partner in Geneva, and we go through times where we’re busy and not. We don’t hold to it absolutely, but when we’re going through good periods every two weeks, we will spend an hour together, and we will just think. So we’ll each have at least 25 minutes. And it’s unbelievable how much self-solution comes out. This is one of the other powerful principles of the thinking partnership is…

In our usual conversations, so Rachel, if I was having a conversation with you, and you were trying to solve the conundrum, there’s almost an arrogance in me that I feel I’m here to help you solve it. I’ll come up with solutions. You’ve got the conundrum. It’s 99% certain that you’ve got a solution. But I just need to help you get there. That’s the power again is it’s allowing you to uncover what you are seeing as a solution to the conundrum that you were holding. You’re much more likely to come up with a sustainable, useful, viable approach that actually, you’re pretty likely to follow through because it’s your thinking.

It’s almost a radical way of thinking about it and yet, so deceptively simple again. These aren’t tricky things that we need to invest loads of money and time in. We have them available to us. We just need to make the commitment to give it time.

Rachel: One of the things I think that happens in these conversations is we start to uncover the stories that we’re telling ourselves in our heads. This is the third conversation that I think we need to be having with each other is ‘What story are you telling?’ Because a lot of the overwhelm, well, it’s just work, isn’t it? It’s just things that are coming at us? But it’s what we’re telling ourselves about the work that’s causing our stress.

We might be telling ourselves, ‘I’m never going to get this done,’ or ‘This isn’t fair. They shouldn’t be demanding this of me,’ or ‘I’m going to make a mistake, and everything’s going to go pear-shaped,’ or ‘I cannot carry on like this. It’s going to be awful. I should be dealing with everything on the day. They shouldn’t be criticising me,’ or ‘There’s a lot of angst out there at the moment. It’s really unfair what they’re saying about GPs.’ And yet, yes, yes, some of that might be true. But actually, there are other things as well that are more true, particularly with the criticising of GPs. I think why they’re doing it, it’s not because they are a person trying to get to you. It’s because they’re upset and angry about coronavirus, about what happened nationally over the last 18 months. They might be upset that they can’t get exactly what they want at exactly the time they want. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad doctor.

All those different things. The story we’re telling ourselves is just such a powerful motivator or demotivator, isn’t it?

Annie: Yeah, I think it’s a sad reality that we are almost wired to go there. It’s about human nature. Sadly, we can find so much evidence for the stories that we are telling ourselves. ‘Oh, see. I knew they don’t value me around here. Yep, they’ve just gone off and had lunch together and haven’t invited me, so yeah, I knew it. Absolutely true. I am not valued around here because they did it.’ Then, I can find another three or four reasons why that is the case. It’s a crazy twirl we can get into.

In fact, I’ve seen such a great antidote to it with two colleagues that I worked with. We worked very closely together. Actually, when this sort of concept of ‘Gosh, there’s a story in my head. Maybe it’s a story, maybe it’s not reality’ is they got into the habit of when they addressed each other, and there was something that they were not happy about or were stuck on, they almost became unconscious of the fact that they were starting the engagement by saying, ‘So the story I’m telling myself is that you’re not liking what I’ve done here, or this isn’t a very good piece of work. So the story I have of myself is that I’m underperforming here, and this is going very well.’ Now, by just saying those words, ‘The story I’m telling myself,’ we’re already starting to do the work of ‘Hmmm, this might not be true. Not all stories are true.’ That’s the first part

The second part is that the other person is not feeling attacked, going, ‘You don’t value my work. You don’t think I’m underperforming. Actually, I’ve admitted it to my story.’ They can go, ‘Oh, wow. That is so not how I see it.’ Or they could go, ‘Gosh, it’s interesting you’ve got that story in your head. I don’t think it wasn’t your best piece of work, but I certainly wouldn’t say…’ And suddenly, it’s an easier conversation to engage in because we’ve just even used those words. ‘The story I’m telling ourselves’ or ‘The story in my head.’ Very powerful.

Rachel: Yeah and the problem with a lot of the stories, like you said, we’re wired to look for the negative because it’s protective, right? When we were living in caves, it’d be quite protective to think, ‘That person is coming towards me. They’re not smiling, therefore they could be about to attack me with the club.’ We tell ourselves that to be ready to run because the story, these negative stories put us into what I call being backed into the corner into our fight, flight or freeze zone, where we’ve got the adrenaline going, where we’re not thinking straight. It’s very hard to be creative.

Like you said before, we cannot be creative when we are in the corner, in our fight, flight or free zone because quite literally, the blood is drained from our brain and into our muscles so that we can run away. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, the story is ‘I’m not good enough. I’m never going to get through this. This is never going to go away. It’s always going to be like that.’ Actually stopping yourself and say actually working out what’s true. ‘I am good enough. Actually, nobody would really be able to cope with this level of work. I will do my best, and my best is good enough.’ And starting to get those things that are actually true helps you get out of your stress and helps you cope with the overwhelm more and also then helps you say no a bit more as well.

Because if you’re telling yourself the story, ‘I can’t possibly say no to that person. They’ll think I’m a bad person. They’ll make a complaint, blah blah blah,’ then you’re never going to say no. You’re going to keep your urgent goggles on, and go for the short term, and go for the route of least resistance. But in the long term that’s no good. If you change the story to the truth, which is it’s okay to say no, they might get a bit hacked off in the short term but long term, they’ll understand. Then, you’ll be able to do that. I guess the key to that sort of thing is buying yourself a little bit of time and space to be able to process those stories, and the truth and what’s actually true.

But I think it’s like you said, Annie, this gets really, really powerful when it’s in the context of a conversation, whether it’s about something that’s going on between us, or it’s about an issue but you actually need to uncover that story and just getting someone else to feed back on. I remember I was walking along with a friend recently. I was just telling her about something. She said, ‘Gosh, you’re really angry about this, aren’t you?’

I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know I was in the corner about it.’ And then I thought, ‘Okay, why am I angry? Well, okay, well, this is a story I have in my head. Let’s check this out and see.’ It was really, really helpful because I hadn’t spotted that myself.

Annie: Yeah, it’s interesting, catching oneself. Again, language is so interesting when someone just throws it back at you. So that, as the power of observation, is massively useful. As you were talking there, Rachel, what occurred to you, and I’ve spoken about this, what also is so good and I think, as you were saying, that catching ourselves or having someone just almost stop us in our tracks. What’s also useful in this scenario, because as we were saying, we can get spun around in story.

Our human nature is to go there, is also to just go, ‘What is my intention for this conversation? What is it that I want to achieve in this powwow I might be having with my husband, or my colleague or with someone in the practice with me? What is it that I want to achieve?’ Because when we’re in a place of stuck in a story of just wanting to lash out, or feeling out of control or stuck in urgencies, if you look at all of those scenarios that we’ve talked about always the downside of just feeling under the pressure of it all, if we can just stop and go, ‘What is my intention for this engagement with my team, or with this patient or this person that I’m speaking with? What is it I want to achieve here?’

Because when we are under pressure and we’ve got so much going on and we’re stuck in a story about someone else or about ourselves, we can just want to lash out. If we think about, ‘Well, if I’m lashing out. What’s the intention there?’ Then quite quickly, we can catch ourselves going, ‘As much as it’s tempting to want to give someone a piece of my mind and have them feel as bad as I’m feeling right now, that’s not actually my intention. That’s not really what I want to achieve here. I actually just want their help. Or I would love to know if what I’m doing is on the right track. Or I would love to just have a conversation that builds a relationship because actually, we’ve been missing each other. If that’s what my intention is, how do I go about this?’

That’s quite a good anchor then, from which to move and to go, ‘What is it I want to achieve here?’ And as you were saying, Rachel, it’s just the catching oneself and then moving through that because even that would help you to identify that you might be stuck in a story, which is not very useful.

Rachel: Annie, we’re nearly out of time. If you were to give your three top tips for how to have some of these conversations that are going to get people unstuck, and we’ve talked about the zone of power, what is in your control, what’s in my control, we talked about the prioritisation grid, thought about where is my focus, where is your focus. We’ve talked about that in the corner sheet really about what story are you telling yourself. By the way, if people want to download this, I’ll put these three conversation canvases and links to be able to download those if they would be helpful for you guys. What are your three top tips for even starting to have these conversations with people?

Annie: The first one I think is, and you’re going to love this, Rachel, because it comes up for me so often is pause. Just catch yourself. There’s such power in just going, ‘Before I jump in, before I react, before I get pulled into my own story, feel overwhelmed, just breathe. Pause. Whatever that looks like.’ That’s the first thing.

The next thing that comes to me is pay attention. ‘What am I seeing? What is my intention? What is needed outside of me? What signs can I read that I would otherwise miss because I’m just on a freight train moving ahead?’ Conversations really matter when I can pay attention. As you were saying, the quality of my attention really impacts other people’s thinking. It’s pause, and then pay attention and notice.

Then, I suppose the third thing is play the long game. Think about the long term here. Try and lift your focus from the direct here-and-now to think, ‘What is really possible here on the longer term? if that’s what I really want for myself, my team, my patients, my clients, what does that come back to the conversation needing to be right now?’

Rachel: Thank you. I think for me, this is all about being able to get out of a rescuer role with each other, with our patients, with our colleagues. Don’t feel that you have to fix it. We talked about the drama triangle before in the podcast; people might want to go and listen to that one. That really, as leaders and doctors in health and social care, often, we do feel the need to fix it for everybody. We feel that we’re the only person that can do it. And in conversations, we feel the need to fix it for people as well. But actually, if you can get out of that rescue role and get more into a… I guess it’s a coaching approach, isn’t it, about listening and helping that person solve their issues as well?

If anybody wants to learn a little bit more about the shapes toolkit and a little bit more about how they can get out of that rescue role with their teams, that they’re not trying to do everything and fix everything, then I have a membership called The Resilient Team Academy. It’s for busy leaders in health and social care. In it, we teach the shapes toolkit core training. We also have monthly webinars where we do a deep dive into these things in much, much more detail. People get the opportunity to interact as well.

We provide little bite-sized videos and team-building activities. We actually provide conversation starters for teams. There are lots of other resources and bonus stuff and things like videos of coaching demos. I think the main ethos really, Annie, is teaching people how to take that coaching approach, so they don’t feel overwhelmed and so that they can be better leaders.

Annie: Absolutely, even if I was thinking about my top three things, I was going, ‘Well, that’s what we need in a coaching approach. Absolutely.’ I think what’s wonderful to see is we’re coaching with those people who had the funds, and the time and the inclination to do 2, 3, 4 years of training, they did the coaching. But it’s wonderful to see how that’s just come right down to actually, we all can do it; we all need to do it, is to take a more coaching approach. It’s in the way that we have conversations so absolutely, so critical in all the conversations we have.

Rachel: We know that you guys are really, really busy. So this is all broken down in bite-sized chunks. There are different ways of consuming. You either come to the live webinars, watch them, listen to them on audio, or just dip in and out when you need to. All of these are just delivered into your inbox with no hassle for you. If you’re interested, do click on the link in the show notes, have a look at see what you think. We only open the doors to this membership twice a year so that we can take people through it out.

We’d love you to join us if you’d like to. So do check that out. Annie, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. We are going to have to get you back. I’m thinking actually doing a little bit more a longer one about the pause button. I think the pause is so powerful. Of course, we’ll put everything, all the links about how you can find Annie, how you can get in touch with us, everything will be in the show notes for you guys as well, as those three conversation canvases if you would like to have a look at them. Okay, we’ll see you soon. Thanks, Annie. Bye.

Annie: Thanks, bye.

Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You Are Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast, and if you have enjoyed it, then please leave me a rating, wherever you listen to your podcasts. So keep well everyone. You’re doing a great job. You got this.