Resolving Resolutions

Did you do dry January? Or start a new exercise regime after the festive excesses of December? Or resolve to eat less chocolate? If your resolutions were to do any of these, or similar, chances are you won’t make it to mid February.

Doomed to failure

Around 80% of people fail to keep their new year resolutions for longer than six weeks. Why? Because we consider our goals to be arduous and therefore allow ourselves get-out clauses, and because doing something we think we ‘should’ do is a lot less appealing than doing something because we want to do it.  

It also seems we only have so much willpower at our disposal. Some recent research showed an astonishing 20% decrease in physical ability after a short time spent trying to avoid eating sweet treats, versus others who weren’t trying to avoid such temptation. Avoiding what we want is hard work on our brains and our bodies.

In addition to all of this, our brains aren’t very good at dealing with negatives - if you’re told “don’t think of pink penguins” it’s pretty certain that’s exactly what you will then think of. So, when we tell our brains “I won’t eat chocolate”, our brain hears “chocolate”.

Is there anything you can do?

January is often a time when articles and blogs give tips on how to work around these limitations in order to achieve our resolutions. Focus on what we do want (vegetables?) rather than what we don’t want (chocolate?). Work towards a goal, ideally with the added peer pressure of roping a friend into your plans. Build on positives rather than fix negatives. And so on.

There is another way. Give up on resolutions. Instead, just do more of what you love, less of what you don’t. Just enjoy being who you are, as you are, perfectly imperfect, and utterly human.

‘There is no solution because there is no problem’ (Duchamp)

Good will to all? What does your brain think?

Green recycling bins devour discarded wrapping paper, tinsel is packed away for another year, and pine needles are swept up. As another year draws to a close, and the world’s problems continue to dominate headlines, I’ve been reflecting on the season of good will. How can we alleviate the suffering of others? How can we best respond to pain, in a way that is generative and useful to all concerned, rather than being exhausting or depleting?

Perhaps it is useful to use the lenses of empathy, compassion, and altruism. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are subtly different, and there are important neurological differences involved too.  

Empathy, Altruism, Compassion

Empathy is when we see someone suffering, feel an emotional response to this, but take no action to alleviate it. Empathy raises negative emotions in people, and can lead to withdrawal and an increase in stress. In neurological terms, ‘I feel your pain’ can literally bring us vicarious pain. Two specific areas of the brain (a portion of the anterior angulate and a part of the anterior insula) are activated whether we are directly experiencing pain ourselves, or vicariously feeling the pain of others. In short, our brains don’t differentiate when it comes to empathy.  

Altruism is perhaps at the other end of the scale from the inactivity of empathy, as altruism is when we try to alleviate other people’s suffering, without any regard for ourselves. A selfless concern for the wellbeing of others is an unsustainable approach, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Altruism easily results in feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, and puts us at increased risk of depression.

Compassion is essentially empathy plus action. It involves seeing someone else’s misfortune, feeling an emotional response to that, and then taking steps to alleviate this pain…although not to the detriment of ourselves. Checking our own resources is an essential part of compassion, akin to fitting our own oxygen mask before helping others. Compassion is a pro-social behaviour, which is generative and positive for both the giver and the recipient. It enhances positive feelings and can also bring lower stress levels and better health.  

The science bit

So, compassion sounds like the way ahead. But what does your brain think?

From a neurological perspective, different parts of the brain are involved depending on whether we respond with empathy or compassion. One fascinating study showed an immediate increase in self-reported negative feelings after empathy training. In other words, being trained to put yourself in another person’s shoes and feel their pain resulted in the volunteers feeling worse! The same volunteers then received compassion training which resulted in a reversal of their negative feelings, as well as an increase in their positive emotions such as joy, alertness, and everyday wellbeing. So, compassion training allowed the volunteers to feel better themselves, as well as resourcing them to alleviate the pain of others.

The two different trainings also showed that different areas of the brain were used during compassion training as opposed to empathy training. Compassion and empathy, then, are different both psychologically and neurologically. This is particularly exciting as compassion is better for individuals, can enhance positive social emotions and resilience, and enables us to care for others. Our brain’s ability to adapt and change through neuroplasticity can further embed these positive outcomes in our brains.

Compassion, then, elicits positive, sustainable responses which can be resourcing, sustainable, and endorphin-inducing for all involved. Good for each other, good for our brains, and good for our communities.

Peace on earth, good will to all. 


Self Compassion

Earlier this month, I facilitated a day’s workshop on a leadership retreat at Henley Business School. The delegates were all MBA final year or alumni, arriving on a crisp wintry day from the UK, Finland, and Romania. Following a mental health and improv sessions, my workshop was on compassion.

We briefly looked at religious and philosophical perspectives on compassion, examined the construct of compassion more fully, and did some work together on enhancing compassion for the self. This final exercise quickly revealed that self-compassion was an unusual experience for most, which has prompted my wondering about how much pain is ‘normal’. How often do we wait for pain to be visible before we respond? How much pain can we continue to operate under, to the detriment of our own mental and physical health? And how can we be in a useful place for others if we aren’t compassionate with ourselves?

Self compassion is a strength, a kindness towards ourselves that we more typically only show to others once their distress becomes obvious. The benefits of self compassion are wide ranging, and supported by social, neuroscientific, and medical research. Benefits include reduced stress, increased peace of mind, and enhanced feelings of wellbeing. In an organisational, sporting, and individual context, self compassion has been shown to improve performance after failure – a much more effective approach than ruminating over what went wrong. In the brain, a self compassionate approach allows us to operate from our rational, thoughtful, pre-frontal cortex rather than the reactive ‘fight or flight’ amygdala. Self compassion increases social connection, thus lowering anxiety and depression. And from a systemic perspective, self compassion allows us to be more mindful of our own impact, and aware of the needs of those in a wider view. The impact of all of these benefits on individuals, organisations, leaders, and systems have never been of greater importance.

One of the delegates commented afterwards that he had been worried that the compassion workshop would be a waste of time, but instead he found it to be incredibly powerful to him personally and in his leadership role. Nothing, it seems, is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.


“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete

(Jack Kornfield)


“Compassion without intelligence is no virtue, but intelligence without compassion is not good management”


Trick or treat?

Today seemed an appropriate moment to consider trick or treating. Not the type which involves small scarily-dressed children repeatedly ringing the doorbell until they are given sweets. Rather, the decisions we make about our responses to other people. Do we trick? Or treat?

In Nietzsche’s words, to live is to suffer. In different ways, to different extents, and with different reasons, everyone suffers sometimes. Leaders often see the effects of this, and the response they have to suffering is both noticed and amplified across organisations.

So, as a leader, how do you decide your repose to pain? To trick, or to treat?

The easy answer might be always to treat - to take a compassionate view of the situation and responding with kindness for another human being. This isn’t always possible, and may not even been appropriate. If kindness reinforces a victim position, casting the leader in a rescuer role, then it may be in the best interests of all concerned to choose a different, more enabling response.

Noticing our preferences is a useful initial step - do you notice pain where others might not, or do you need it to be highly visible before you become aware of it? Is your response to rush in to help, or to stay back, or even hope the issue resolves itself? These examples are, of course, scales along which there are a multitude of possibilities. There’s no right answer, no one way to be, and no perfect response to any situation. Awareness of our own preferences, and how these might simultaneously assist and impede us, is a useful lens through which to consider our own behaviour and choices.

If you always have a treat, how will you ever know the squeamish horror of a trick...and if there are only tricks, when do you taste the intense sweetness of a treat? Perhaps the leadership ‘trick’ lies in balance:

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.”


Beginner’s Mind

The consulting world is a paradox. Clients procure our services on the basis of our skills, education, and training. We bring the experience we have developed and the insights we have learned in order to facilitate change with our clients. And yet, each of our clients is unique. One size doesn’t fit all; usually it suits no one.

So how do we bring our training and expertise to new clients whilst simultaneously staying open and curious to what is new and as yet unknown?

Some consulting practices don’t. I overheard a consultant on a plane journey recently, explaining to her colleague that the company’s “formula works, because all organisations are basically the same”. Some leadership development programs apply a ‘six-step approach’, implying that regardless of who the client is, what their unique challenges are, and what systems they are operating in, somehow a ‘sheep-dunk’ approach to development will result in the right answer.  

The Tangerine Thistle approach to change is different. There is no one answer, and every client is unique. We bring frameworks, experience, and skills – and then we see what unfold, afresh. Most importantly, we bring a beginner’s mind: an attitude of openness and curiosity, even when working at an advanced level. This allows us to work more systemically, seeing our clients more fully, and developing lasting change solutions as a result.

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few’

(Shunryu Suzuki)