Julie Verner-Mackay has been presenting her outstanding successful Choices Program since 1974. Her company is VM Learning which is located in Brisbane, Queensland. I spoke to her about her program which has produced transformational changes in thousands of men and women.
Julie, what is the primary objective or outcome of the Choices Program?
In two words, conscious choice.
How significant is that in terms of the person’s life and managing stress?
The tendency for most human beings is to react rather than pro act in a situation. For example, most people who have experienced an extremely busy day tend to just automatically start saying “I’ve had a busy day, I’m really tired and stressed. Their self-talk propels them into a greater level of stress. They often don’t realize that there is a gap between stimulus and response and that they can actually choose another way of looking at things.
If you ask some very busy people how they keep going, my father-in-law is a perfect example, retired from medical practice at 65 but didn’t retire started mentoring and assisting others and then set up a horse stud and so on. He doesn’t see work as a chore, he sees it as a passion and so if he has had a really busy day his way of dealing with it is to say to himself “I’ve had a great day and got so much out of it”.
What we have as human beings is a choice continually and some of the choices that we make in terms of our self-talk are not altogether helpful for managing stress.
A person taking charge of their life and making choices, is it all about just internal self talk?
Now I think it also relates to the external choices that we make. The choices that we make in terms of the people that we befriend and the health of those relationships. Our choices in terms of the decisions that we make to do at any one time, like deciding to meditate or opening a beer and sitting quietly in front of the TV.
We are making choices all the time and I believe that our whole existence here on earth is basically the sum total of the choices that we make continually whether it be internal or external. I mean they all start internally but they impact on how we act externally.
So what guidelines do you give people to make the right choices?
What I try to stress is that it really is about stopping and thinking and asking yourself relevant questions. To do that you have to be in the moment asking yourself what is really going on for me right now. Asking what am I thinking, what am I feeling, what am I doing. To take a second out and think about what is actually happening, to become actually conscious of what is going on inside you. Developing that level of self-awareness.
So it is becoming conscious, first of all about how they are thinking feeling and acting, and then learning the art of reframing. If they find themselves sitting at work tense up against the computer thinking “Oh my God I’ve got so much work to get through, I’ve gotta get through, I’ve gotta get through” then that is not going to be very helpful because it is consuming the energy required to get through and it is causing them to become even more stressed. They get emotional about it which only sabotages their ability to finish it anyway.
Learning to say something a little bit more helpful like:
“I can only do what I can do”
I’ll do the best that I can”
“I can only do what is humanly possible and I’ll just pace myself and I’ll just keep going and I’ll finish what I can finish and if I can’t get it all done then it will be there in the morning”.
These statements take the foot off the accelerator of fear really, because that is often why we end up in a stressed state. We are perceiving something as difficult and the consequence of that is often as stressed state.
When people come to your Choices Program what do you teach them?
I give them some strategies in how to become more self-aware. Most of us are aware in terms of issues in our relationship with others but are not so aware of the issues in relation to ourselves. We tend to have a more external focus.
So often I explain the anatomy of a dispute or an emotional situation that occurs between people, an argument for example, and the process involved in that and then I get them to come out of that recognizing that we contribute to the relationships we have with other people.
I get them to go beneath the surface in terms of understanding what is going on for them. So get them thinking about the last time they had a dispute or difficult time with someone else. Initially they’ll explain it like “I went somewhere and I saw this person and she said this and then I got upset because she did that”.
I use a model called the Ladder of Inference and then get them to come down the ladder and try to imagine their contribution in it. So the first step in developing that level of self awareness, for example, is to ask “what was going on to me, what was I saying to myself at the time and how did that contribute an external situation that I have with another person”.
So if you get them to focus firstly on their relationship with others then it is much easier. If you look at a challenging time with another person you can usually start to understand the dynamics.
A large part of the program is understanding themselves, understanding their beliefs, and their core values. What are the things that push their buttons. We use language that people are comfortable with. Then I give them strategies for how, when they feel themselves reacting to situations, they can manage themselves.
I use an adapted model from Goleman. He talks about traffic lights and he’s done this for kids. So he talks about stop, think and choose. He uses the lights red, amber and green. He says when you see yourself starting to react you stop, then you think about “what’s going on with me why, am I feeling this response, what’s coming up for me? Is it that I am feeling that I’m being undervalued because the person’s not listening to me? Where is this emotion coming from etc.” and then recognising that you could think about it in a different way.
Mind you this is all very easy in theory, it’s very easy to talk about but the hardest thing to do because we have developed in this habitual way of thinking, we have got these thought patterns that have just gone for years – this happens, bang, I think this way!
So it’s about unlearning. It’s about a weakening of those neurological pathways in the brain so that we can start to get a different response, or a less automatic response. I give them some strategies around that.
Part of the program is also about empathy – how to get out of my position only and into the position of the other person. That’s really important training because some people have not really developed the capacity to imagine what is going on for another person and the more rigidly they stick in their position the more damaged their relationships will often be. That rigidity of thought often prevents them from making good choices.
A lot of people have developed coping mechanisms of saying “Well that’s the way she is and I can’t do anything about that – this is how I feel and this is what’s going on to me.” That reluctance to get over and try and see what it might be like for that other person. It is a human tendency to stay in our own position.
We do quite a bit of work on assertiveness and core communication skills.
On Day One they do self management and focus on developing a bit more self awareness and some self regulation using emotional regulation tools and strategies. Then I set them some work in the week between Day One and Day Two. When they go back home they have to journal, they have to record their running up the ladder and going and getting emotional and try and unpack it and look at things like:
- what happened to me;
- what was the trigger;
- what was the activating event;
- what was the belief that came up;
- what were the consequences and if I disputed those beliefs and saw it differently what would I say to myself (which is a bit of a reframing exercise);
- how did it feel when I explained it to myself?
The purpose of these activities between week one and two is that they start to actually develop some thinking strategies that they’ll put into place to stop themselves from automatically running up the ladder.
We know that this is a long-term process but I try and get them to a point of becoming conscious of their thinking strategies.
They often come back with remarkable stories. It is surprising when people take the information away and just even with the slightest attempt to think through their behavior they get a different result. So they can come back very excited. But I’ll come back and say “Well I totally stuffed this, I just lost it, but then I did I did it again” so they know that it’s one step forward three steps back.
On Day Two we explore managing emotions in others and managing your relationships with others when they are under stress. That’s where the empathy and assertiveness training comes in.
Thank you Julie.Trackback URL