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Lost in Translation: How to Avoid Miscommunication

Did you ever play Telephone as a kid? It’s the game where someone whispers a phrase into the ear of the next person, who whispers it to the next, and so on until the message, completely bungled by this point, gets to the last person. They say it out loud, and everyone laughs at just how far off it was from the original. “I like apples” somehow morphed into “ladybugs and tassels” or some other nonsense.

If only real-life Telephone scenarios were as funny. 

Where miscommunication happens

Humans are inherently social creatures. We exist within networks and communities, and all of our interactions hinge on communication. So much disconnect, tension, and outright conflict stems from things getting lost in translation. In any interaction, there’s what I think I’m saying, what I actually say, and what you think I’m saying. In other words, there are several opportunities for our meaning to get lost in translation. But it’s easy to avoid miscommunication.

That’s not what I meant to say

The gap between what we think we are saying and what we actually say can be surprisingly wide and can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, especially within close relationships, we make a thinking error by expecting them to understand – without full explanation – how we feel, what we want, or what we mean. When we fall into this trap, we may not verbally express what we mean…then get upset when the other person just doesn’t get it. 

Another barrier to actually communicating what you need and want has to do with willingness and effectiveness. Are you willing to experience the discomfort that may arise by saying what you need to? Do you worry that the other person will react negatively? Do you feel like a burden? Is it awkward or uncomfortable for you in some way? If these or similar sound familiar, learning how to accept difficult emotions and building the psychological strength to be effective in the face of them is important.

Speaking of effectiveness, that brings us to another barrier in communication: do you have the skills to communicate effectively? What you say and how you say it can dramatically affect how the message lands. For example, “You’re inconsiderate” v. “I would appreciate help with the kids this evening” may both stem from you wanting to communicate frustration to your partner about an unmet need, but the latter is more likely to get you the outcome you’re looking for.

A few quick tips for communicating more effectively:

1. Don’t expect anyone – even those who know you inside and out – to read your mind. Spell it out.

2. Use non-defensive language. This formula is a good cheat sheet for communicating clearly and effectively: I feel _____ when you _____ because _____. I need_____. 

3. Use eye contact and facial expressions to show you are paying attention. This builds trust in your communication partner. 

Be a better listener: Avoid Miscommunication

On the other side of the communication coin, there can be a mismatch between what someone actually says and what we hear them say. More aptly, the problem lies in the way we process and interpret what they say, and thinking errors come into play here, too. We may make assumptions about what they meant or add unintended implications, or we may fill in the blanks based on our own mind’s agenda rather than theirs. Have you ever been a part of a team and the project manager tells you what to do? Team members may feel put off just listening to the request if they make assumptions about what the project manager is implying. But face-to-face active listening and focus on the manager’s verbal cues, tone of voice, or body language may tell a different story. 

In any case, the effect can be destructive if we react to misinformation. Imagine what might ensue if your friend tells you he has to cancel dinner plans but you “hear” he doesn’t want to have dinner with you and you assume that he’s annoyed by you. 

One of the most helpful ways to avoid miscommunication in this translation problem is to strengthen and transform your listening skills. First, adopt the mindset that you are listening to understand, not to respond. That means that your primary objective is to listen to what is actually being said and make sure that you understand the message as intended. You can do this by fact checking. Paraphrase what you understood and ask if that is correct before moving on to your response. That alone can clear up a lot of misunderstandings

Level up your communication skills

Because communication is such an essential part of healthy relationships and healthy relationships are one of the biggest predictors of life satisfaction and wellbeing, our next Quarterly Psych Strength workshop (April 2022) is centered on this topic. We’ll be covering communication styles and ways to use this insider knowledge to avoid miscommunication in your life. You won’t want to miss this impactful event.

“Remember that misuse of language can lead to miscommunication, and that miscommunication leads to everything that has ever happened in the whole of the world.” 
– Joseph Fink
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Peak Mind Pro: Enhancing Relationships

Strong relationships are a key aspect of well-being, for individuals as well as workplaces. While lots of attention gets paid to critical relationship skills like conflict resolution and boundary setting, we see surprisingly few conversations about the other end of the spectrum. Developing skills that actively enhance relationships is equally as important. 

It turns out that how you acknowledge and celebrate victories matters. In fact, it’s more predictive of strong relationships than how you handle conflict (according to research from UC Santa Barbara). While some people seem to naturally bask in others’ glory, this doesn’t always come easily, especially in the workplace. Fortunately, these are skills that can be learned. 

When it comes to responding to good news, positive psychology research tells us to consider two dimensions: active v. passive and constructive v. destructive. 

Active v. Passive

This factor relates to your degree of involvement in your response. Active responses are more engaged and robust, including animated facial expressions and detailed verbal content. Passive responses, on the other hand, are more, well, passive. They are characterized by neutrality, distraction, and disinterest. You might assume that an active response is preferable because it strengthens your relationship more, and you’d be correct, with a big caveat.

Constructive v. Destructive

That caveat lies with our second dimension, which captures whether the response adds to or detracts from the relationship health. Constructive responses add to – think of them as positive. In contrast, destructive responses tear down the relationship; they are negative.

Putting It Together

Taken together, the way you respond when coworkers, bosses, subordinates, partners, friends, family, or your kids share good news can fall into one of four categories:

Active Constructive – You are fully engaged and interested. You acknowledge the victory and expand by asking questions. This is what we’re shooting for. Active constructive responses are like making deposits in the relationship bank account, building strength, and promoting goodwill and collaboration.

Passive Constructive – While you acknowledge the victory, you do so in a generic way, typically in a neutral tone or while distracted. This is better than the alternatives below but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to strengthening the relationship. 

Active Destructive – You give an active, involved response…that is negative, finding some way, perhaps inadvertently, to tarnish the victory. This response is damaging to the relationship.

Passive Destructive – You pretty much ignore the good news altogether. This response is also quite damaging.

Tips to Try

Consider times in the recent past when someone at work and someone in your personal life shared their good news. How did you respond? If your response didn’t fall into the active constructive category, see if you can revise your response. Can you reframe how you thought about or looked at the victory? What might you have said or done differently to enhance the relationship? What can you do to improve your relationship? 

Reflecting on your interactions after the fact and taking the time to revise your initial responses to be more active and constructive can help you cement this skill. 

Helpful Hints

  • Make eye contact.
  • Put down your phone.
  • Be specific. A generic “good job” is nowhere near as powerful as a specific “You did a really great job navigating the demands of this project.”
  • If praise feels inauthentic for you, try appreciation instead. “I like how you formatted that report” or “Thank you for your attention to detail. That really made a difference in the outcome here.”
  • Ask a follow-up question. Questions convey curiosity and interest. This can also open up pathways to bond over the long term. 

Communication Styles

Celebrating victories is one important aspect of building healthy relationship skills, but there is so much more to learn! In our next Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop Series installment (April 2022), we’ll be focusing on communication styles and how to use that information to level up your interactions and enhance your relationships further. If you’re interested in learning more about how your team can participate in this powerful learning experience, email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com.


Peak Mind is proud to be a featured speaker at the first Humanity At Work conference hosted by A Deeper Way. This 3 day event will be held in Minneapolis in May, 2022, and virtual tickets are available as well. 

“Celebrate the success of others. High tide floats all ships.”
– Susan Elizabeth Phillips
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Self Criticism: Would You Be Friends With You?

I’m going to ask you to do a little thought experiment with me. Think of your dearest friend. Don’t just gloss over this. Really take a couple seconds to call their face to mind. Think about why you’re friends and why you care about this person. 

Now think about a time when they were struggling. Maybe they were going through a rough patch or had too much on their plate or made a mistake or regrettable decision.

How did you respond to your friend? How did you show up for them? Recall not just what you said or did, but how you said and did it. What did your face look like? How did your voice sound? 

Now think about a time when YOU were struggling. Maybe YOU were going through a rough patch, having a hard time handling things, or maybe YOU made a mistake. 

How did you treat yourself in that moment? How did you show up for yourself? What did you say to yourself? How did you say it? 

Are there any differences between how you treated your friend and how you treated yourself? 

What would happen if you treated your friend the way you treated yourself? What would happen if you said the things you say to yourself out loud to another human, especially someone you care about? Real talk time. Would you still have a friend? 

So many people treat themselves with harsh criticism that they would never dream of directing at someone else. You deserve to be treated with the same respect and kindness you readily give to your bestie! 

Why we self-criticize

We’ve all fallen into the trap of self-criticism at some point for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s because we were taught to self-criticize, either by others criticizing us directly or by hearing them criticize themselves. Regardless, we internalized that mental habit.

Sometimes, self-criticism stems from a misguided effort to motivate or drive ourselves to excellence. We may have critical thoughts or beliefs that make us think that being hard on ourselves is the path to success. If I don’t beat myself up, I’m letting myself off the hook. I’ll lose my edge and not accomplish my goals. Sound familiar?

The downside of self-criticism

While criticism may fuel motivation initially, it actually tends to backfire. You may have had some firsthand experience with this. Have you ever had a boss or friend or family member who constantly put you down? What happened? Perhaps you worked to gain their approval, without success, or perhaps you stopped trying as hard, figuring what’s the point? Either way, it didn’t bring out the best in you and help you succeed long term.

Our brains perceive criticism as a threat to our sense of self, and the result is that our fight-or-flight response gets triggered. A little stress can provide motivation, but prolonged or chronic stress actually zaps motivation. This self-criticism can contribute to a fear of failure, holding us back from taking risks or keeping us from being able to learn valuable lessons from mistakes (we don’t learn well when we’re in fight-or-flight mode). 

Be a good friend to you

The antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion – essentially being a good friend to yourself. I implore you to treat yourself with the same care and respect you show others. Think of how you value your interpersonal relationships. You would never talk to your friend the way you talk to yourself. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it, too!

Self-compassion (the practice of empathy + kindness for yourself) is a psychological superpower. It brings so many wellbeing benefits (like more happiness and resilience), and it helps us recover and learn from mistakes more quickly, leading to more effective outcomes. You can learn more about self-compassion in our Ascend program (there’s an entire bonus module dedicated to it). For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite ways to be a good friend to yourself and build self-compassion.

Of course!

These two little words, “Of course!” These magic little words. In the face of a hard situation or a mistake, start with “Of course.”

Of course I feel this way! Who wouldn’t feel XYZ in this situation? It’s hard! 

Of course I overlooked that. I’ve been so stressed lately that I’m not firing on all cylinders. That’s understandable.

Of course I’m anxious! This is a stretch outside of my comfort zone.

Of course helps you show up with care and support in your hardest moments, when you need it most. Whatever it is, start with “of course” and see if that doesn’t change the way things go from there. You’ll not only feel better, but you’ll be better able to take effective action because you won’t be spinning out in fight-or-flight mode. You need to hold yourself to high standards when it comes to showing yourself some compassion! 

“The most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always be with yourself.”
– Diane Von Furstenberg
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How to be Happy: 15 Practical Tips

You may not know this about me, but I’m a giant nerd, truly a scientist at heart. That means that when I got really serious about figuring out what it takes to be happy in life, I delved fully into the science of happiness by reading, learning, thinking about, and testing out everything I could get my hands on – studies, theories, philosophies, memoirs.

There is still much to learn, but certain themes keep coming up again and again. While I don’t believe that the quick fix/instant gratification route is necessarily the one to lasting happiness, this cheat sheet will get us well on our way.

1. Be nice!

Don’t be a jerk, and don’t let your children be jerks. That statement right there sums up a lot of the ones below, but let’s be a little more specific.

2. Do something for someone else.

Small scale, big scale. Doesn’t matter. Acts of kindness make you feel good mentally and physically. Believe it or not, altruism can even lower your blood pressure! You’re also making someone else’s day, so there may be ripple effects. 

3. Move!

Seriously, you have to move your body. Our lifestyles are so sedentary these days, yet our bodies weren’t designed that way. You can’t expect your brain, a (very important) part of your body to work optimally if you’re not maintaining the system. Besides, tons of data coming out suggest that exercise has antidepressant and antianxiety effects. 

4. Similarly, eat real food.

Real foods (with ingredients you can pronounce and without added sugar) will nourish you and keep you full longer. Hanger is real. You’re not happy, and neither is anyone around you. Moreover, see above for the whole brain/system running optimally argument.

5. Stop complaining.

Complaining brings you down and trains your brain to notice all of the negative things. Besides, complaining doesn’t usually change or fix anything, does it?

6. Instead, be grateful.

Gratitude is more about choice and mindset than it is about external circumstances (e.g., physical possessions). You can be a billionaire yet unhappy if you’re not grateful, or you can be a prisoner with nothing and yet be happy. Look around. There are so many things to be grateful for! Try focusing on all the things you appreciate, that went well, and that made you happy instead of all the reasons why today sucked, or try this simple exercise. 

7. Connect with people. 

Reach out to loved ones. Talk to strangers. Don’t worry about feeling weird about being judged or stepping out of your comfort zone (which is actually really good for you to do, by the way). And, if you are worried, DO IT ANYWAYS! We’re all navigating this thing called life and probably have more in common than we realize. Taking a minute (or more) to connect with another human being helps us feel less lonely and gives a mood boost. Here are two easy ways:

Basic manners, please.

Make eye contact. Smile (or nod or wave if you’re masked). Hold the door for someone. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Like you actually mean it. It feels good.

Give someone a compliment.

It takes 2 seconds, and I guarantee it will boost your happiness and theirs. By the way, say “thank you” if someone gives you a compliment. Thank you is the appropriate response. Do not let your mind dismiss it with some self-deprecating, “Oh, I’m not really XYZ” comment.

8. Practice mindfulness. 

It’s been around forever, for good reason, and neuroscience and all sorts of other research is now confirming what yogis have known for millennia: a mindfulness practice is good for you. (Please know that I say this as a former skeptic. It took compelling data and arguments for me to really embrace this practice. Now I think it is one of the most critical practices for success and wellbeing.)

9. Get off social media, or, better yet, screens in general.

Maybe not all together, but definitely set some limits. You’ll have more time for other things that are more meaningful or more likely to boost your happiness, and you won’t be getting all the input that increases the icky “not good enough” feelings and concern for the state of the world.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

10. Sleep

It’s hard to be happy when you’re tired. It’s hard to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and anger when you’re tired, and inadequate sleep can compromise our health. Get your Zzzzs.

11. Learn something. Anything.

Be an active participant in life rather than a passive consumer. I firmly believe that stimulation is critical for happiness. Technology makes it possible to learn absolutely anything these days. Don’t tell me it’s boring. Don’t tell me you can’t.

“In this world, you are either growing or you’re dying.” – Lou Holtz (and a bunch of other people) 

12. Speaking of, start looking for the reasons why you can, instead of the reasons why you can’t, do things. 

Don’t let limiting beliefs, circumstances, or other people hold you back. YOU are in charge of your life, and you CAN make choices to improve it, even when the deck seems stacked against you. It is up to you to choose to be happy!

13. Practice compassion.

For yourself (silence that Inner critic) and for others. Operating under the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can really cuts down on anger and negativity. It may not change events or circumstances, but it definitely makes me happier.

14. Spend less. 

There’s a widely accepted cultural myth that money leads to happiness. The happiness that comes from acquiring is fleeting at best. Besides, if you spend less, you need less money, and how many people would be a whole lot better off if they didn’t stress so much about money?

15. You do you, and let me do me.

This is two part. One: be yourself! You’ll be happier if you’re not trying to fit some mold or live up to someone’s perceived expectations. Two: don’t worry about what I do (as long as it doesn’t actually hurt anyone or prevent you from doing you). Accepting others rather than trying to control them leads to a lot more peace, internally and externally.

Simple steps, right? At least in theory! What are your favorite tips and tricks to be happy?

“Happiness is not a goal…It’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
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If You Want to Be Happy, Expect Less

If you want to maximize happiness and cultivate more inner peace, expect less.

As a teenager, I was stoked to watch An American Werewolf in Paris. I just knew it was going to be edgy and scary – a cinematic masterpiece! What it was, however, was a giant let down. It was a terrible movie. 

Fast forward a couple years, and said movie was on TV. I agreed to watch it with some friends despite knowing how much it sucked. Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled, and I realized that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I had rather enjoyed it the second go round.

Same movie, polar opposite reactions to it. What accounted for the difference? That experience was one of the first that really hit home to me the power of expectations. 

The Power of Expectations

Expectations are internally constructed rules and demands for the future — our whats and hows about upcoming situations, events, even people.

Notice the language: internally constructed. Our brains create expectations, these powerfully adhered to artifacts of imagination; they are not tangible facets of reality or valid parts of our external world. Sure, some expectations are mutually agreed upon and accepted by a large number of society (I expect people to wear pants in public, and I venture that you hold the same expectation). Others, however, are more unique to us as individual expectors, based on our histories, personalities, thought patterns, and wants. Unmet expectations, as in my silly movie example, are frequently the source of angst. Think of your most saddening, maddening, or frightening experiences recently. Think of the times when you felt anything but happy. Were unmet expectations, on your part or someone else’s, at the core of the issue?

Expect Less

A pessimist dressed in a realist’s clothing may say “expect less to avoid disappointment.” Set that bar low. Things either turn out just the way you expected, or you’re pleasantly surprised. 

I agree with “expect less,” though in a different way. Expect less. As in expect less frequently. Set fewer expectations period. Don’t set the bar lower, but rather, don’t set the bar at all.  It is the bar itself, not its location, that is the problem. More precisely, it’s the mismatch of the bar and reality that robs us of happiness. So much of what happens around us and to us is, at least in part, out of our direct control. Yet, we strive to control it anyway. These efforts give us the illusion of control but really just take time and energy, keeping us from being fully authentic in the moment. If the mismatch of expectations and reality is what fuels discontent, and we can’t actually control (at least some aspects of) reality, why not focus on expectations? Those ARE within our sphere of control. Since we can’t always predict or predestine events, trying to match expectations to the unknown future is a gamble, and I, for one, am not willing to bet my happiness like that. If we let go of expectations (or don’t make them in the first place) then we are free to experience things as they happen. While not every moment will be an enjoyable one that we’d like to have continue or repeat, our overall happiness level is less impacted. 

Challenge: Practice embracing some uncertainty. Try to enter into some experiences without imagining or planning how it’s going to go. Try to catch and erase your expectations about someone else before you interact. Let go of those shoulds

Expectations and Relationships

The role of expectations within the context of relationships is particularly interesting to consider. How many times have you found yourself saying or thinking, “I’m mad because I thought you were going to do XYZ?” What you’re really saying is that you’re angry because your expectations and reality did not match. Maybe you’ve been on the other side and found yourself apologizing for someone’s disappointment in you…for something you did not agree to or weren’t even aware was an issue? How was I supposed to know that you expected me to notice that you were quiet because you had a rough day at work? I was too busy setting my own expectations about how this evening was going to go…

Can you imagine what it might feel like for you and your loved ones if we all let go of expectations and worked toward fully accepting each other and ourselves for who and what we actually are?

Challenge: The next time you find yourself angry with someone, check yourself. Did they really do anything wrong, or did they just not meet your expectations? And the next time you find yourself apologizing, ask yourself the same thing.

Wrapping It Up

To a certain extent, I believe that we all set expectations. It’s one of those short cuts that allow our brains to process so much information so quickly and to keep us safe. If I expect that running across the interstate may result in me getting hit by a car, I may take precautions. So often, though, we make so many internal demands that we essentially hold the future hostage. Meet our demands or else!

The saying “It is what it is” sounds like a vague platitude, but it’s more profound than you may realize. It is the essence of letting go of expectations, of meeting each moment as it comes, making room for and accepting the ups and downs of life. It is at the core of being mindful and a key for facilitating your own happiness. I expect that you’ll agree.

“With mindfulness, loving kindness, and self-compassion, we can begin to let go of our expectations about how life and those we love should be”
– Sharon Salzberg
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Stop Feeling Bad

How many times have you said, “I feel bad”? How many times have you been asked “What’s wrong?” or told, “Don’t be sad/mad/worried/_____”?

About a million, right?

And therein lies a problem. 

We are taught from early on that certain emotions are good. They’re ok to have. They are desired. Other emotions, in contrast, are bad. We shouldn’t want them, or worse, we shouldn’t even have them. We’re taught to believe that when they show up, there’s something wrong. There’s a problem – our EMOTIONS are a problem – and problems need to be fixed. This leads to working hard to get rid of those “bad” feelings. Unfortunately, avoiding, suppressing, getting rid of, or otherwise fixing feelings doesn’t actually work. Worse, we might even pile on to them by beating ourselves up for having them in the first place.

What most people aren’t taught is that emotions – the full range of emotions – are normal and natural. By virtue of being human, you are destined to feel sad. And mad. And guilty, jealous, joyful, embarrassed, confident, ashamed, happy, disheartened, peaceful, confused, surprised, ambivalent, horrified, empty, excited, etc. You will feel them all, whether you want to or not. In fact, we’re wired to have twice as many negative emotions as positive ones, and we have them for a reason.

Emotions Serve an Evolutionary Purpose

Our brains have the enormous job of processing every bit of data coming in through our five senses all of the time so that they can keep us alive. As a result, they’ve developed a lot of shortcuts. Emotions are one.

Emotions are messengers designed to give us a lot of information very quickly and motivate us to act in certain ways, aimed at ensuring our survival. Think about it. The message of anxiety is danger, and the action urge is to avoid or escape. That’s very helpful when a threat to our bodily safety is near. The message of guilt is “I did something wrong,” and the urge is to make amends. Again, helpful for a social species whose survival depended on being part of the community. Even in present day when we’re not likely to be eaten by predators or die if we are shunned, emotions are incredibly useful…when we understand and have a healthy relationship with them.

Redefining Your Relationship with Your Feelings

Bad is not feeling. Neither is good. Those are judgments, another brain shortcut. Our brains quickly categorize things as good and bad, safe and unsafe, desired, or undesired to speed up information processing. When it comes to feelings, though, judging them is part of the problem. That’s not promoting a healthy relationship with them. Consider this. How healthy is your relationship with that person who constantly judges you?

When we designate natural, normal experiences as “bad,” we’re setting ourselves up to struggle. Feeling sad or anxious or angry or guilty at some point is unavoidable (remember, we are literally WIRED to feel them). Yet, when we call something “bad,” we are saying to ourselves that we shouldn’t have that experience, that there is something inherently wrong with what’s going on inside of us. That would be like saying that having to go to the bathroom or eat or sleep is bad. It’s just a part of being human. We accept those experiences, throughout the course of our day, and move on.

We need to do the same with feelings

When we can learn to recognize the emotions that show up and call them by their proper names, not good or bad, with the understanding that they are there for a reason, we are now open to receiving their messages. From there, we can decide whether the message is helpful or not and whether to act on the urge or override it.  

Dealing with Painful Emotions

Once we are able to pause, take a step back, and call our emotion by its name, we’ve already begun to make space for it, to allow it to be there. As we examine our emotions with curiosity, we can reflect on whether acting on them is in our best interest. The goal is to take the input from your feelings under consideration but to stay in the driver’s seat of your actions. And sometimes the best course of action, the one that keeps you moving in the direction that is right for you, is simply to be patient. All emotions, even the most intense and difficult ones, will pass if we let them. If we do not add fuel to the fire and, instead, know that we won’t drown in them if we just stay mindful and compassionate, they will burn out.

I heard this quote the other day that so deeply resonated. 

Emotions aren’t math problems to be solved. They’re sunsets to be experienced.

If that didn’t immediately make you pause, read it again.

Emotions are not math problems to be solved. They are sunsets to be experienced.

That shift in perspective leads to a fundamentally different way of relating to your emotions, a new way to be with them, especially the unpleasant ones. It allows you to make space for and explore with curiosity the very human experience of emotions.

Instead of judging feelings and falling into the trap that comes from having “bad” feelings, we need to accurately recognize them and precisely name them, open ourselves up to having them so that we can explore them with curiosity, glean their message, then move forward intentionally. We need to bask in those sunsets. Doing so isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Fortunately, we can all build psychological strength, including those skills of emotional intelligence and acceptance, which, among many others, we teach inside our Ascend program. If you are interested in building your own psych strength, consider enrolling in Ascend or our brand new live Quarterly Workshop Series (or bundle them and get the workshop series free for a year).

“Emotions are not math problems to be solved. They are sunsets to be experienced.”

– Dr. Robyn Walser

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Peak Mind Pro: Finding Flow at Work

By now, you’ve probably heard abysmal statistics about employee engagement (only 1/3 of employees are fully engaged in work) and presenteeism (physically present at work but mentally checked out), which brings with it staggering costs in real dollars. Fortunately, we can turn to psychology for solutions. A robust body of research on something called flow is particularly relevant for helping employees find engagement and satisfaction at work, in turn, boosting productivity and bottom lines. 

Flow is a state of mind in optimal experience, a perfect melding of being your best and doing your best. Some people refer to it as “being in the zone” while others might call it peak performance or flow theory. Research shows that being able to frequently and intentionally put yourself into a state of flow is important for wellbeing and life satisfaction, and the workplace, despite grumbles about not wanting to be there, provides ample flow opportunities. 

What is flow? 

Flow is a mental state characterized by intense concentration and enjoyment. When we’re in a state of flow, or in the zone, we lose our sense of time and self. Time simultaneously speeds up and slows down, and we lose track of it. 

We are so fully immersed in the activity at hand that we stop being self-conscious and stop being distracted by worries, doubts, and that pesky mental to-do list. Interestingly, when we’re in a state of flow, our productivity goes way up. 

Positive changes occur in our brain, and we’re just generally better off all around. In fact, we gain more confidence in our abilities and ourselves after being in flow. 

Flow activities share a few common characteristics.

  • They are intrinsically rewarding. 
  • They have clear and meaningful goals.
  • Feedback is immediate. We know right away whether we’re on track or not.
  • We feel a sense of control.
  • We have intense concentration and no distractions.
  • We are completely present. 
  • The activity is challenging, and we believe we have the skill to meet the challenge. 

This last piece is especially important when it comes to identifying activities likely to achieve a state of flow. When the challenge exceeds our skills, we may feel anxious. In contrast, if our skills exceed the challenge, we feel bored. The goal is to meet in the middle, where the level of skill matches the challenge, thus creating a flow experience and increasing intrinsic motivation. 

Tips to Try

Finding ways to increase flow at work is important for employee wellbeing as well as for the health of your organization. Focusing on their skill set and your needs positively impacts you both. Just as chess players know their move three steps ahead, we as leaders must gauge this as well. This month, we’re offering tips for both individual workers as well as for leaders.

For Individual Employees

1. Minimize distractions. Flow requires your entire focus, so limit anything that pulls your attention away.

2. Similarly, get off autopilot. We spend a lot of time on autopilot, barely paying attention to what we’re doing, particularly with tasks we do repeatedly. Instead, make an intentional effort to fully concentrate on what you’re doing.

3. Connect with your why. Regardless of the task at hand, even the monotonous ones you do daily, can you set a goal that challenges yourself? Can you find a way to make the task meaningful and important?

For Leaders

Curate an environment that encourages flow states.

1. Offer opportunities for agency and control. Allow team members to make decisions about how, when, and/or where they do their work. Find ways to give your employees choice and control whenever possible. 

2. Set clear goals tied to meaningful causes. When employees understand not only what is expected of them but why it is important, they are more likely to engage. 

3. Provide clear and immediate feedback. Offer praise and recognition.

4. Challenge your employees but provide adequate support. Remember, flow requires a balance of challenge and skill. 

5. Promote competence by providing opportunities for growth. Are there ways team members can mentor others? Develop their skills further? 

Additional Resources

Our quarterly workshop series is designed to provide powerful and interesting information and skills to help you and your team(s) build psychological strength. Delivered virtually, live, or on-demand, these workshops are an excellent way to help support your team’s wellbeing and resilience. If you’re interested in learning more, we would love to talk with you about how partnering with Peak Mind can help. Email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com or contact us here.


Peak Mind is partnering with Heart Mind Institute to host the 2022 Best Year of Your Life online summit. This 10-day virtual event is jam-packed with sessions from some of the most influential psychologists, teachers, and visionaries, and it’s FREE!

Join a world-class lineup and get a jump start on your year. 

“It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur or to something resembling a work of art.”
-Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
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Mindfulness Practice, by a Former Skeptic

My mom and I are close. I’ve always adored her but, when I was younger, I scoffed a bit at (what I used to call) her Zen-Buddha-karma hippie interests. Like meditation. She had a mindfulness practice before people even knew what that was. She was into yoga before it was cool, so I was exposed to it as a teen in the mid-90s. I didn’t mind yoga as a physical practice, but the meditation piece, though, no thank you. 

In fact, I turned down a trip to Costa Rica with her about 10 or so years ago because of it. She called to tell me about this amazing yoga retreat she was going on. I was in until she shared the schedule, which included an early morning meditation class. That was a hard pass for me.

Keep in mind that when I rolled my eyes at her meditation, I wasn’t some young kid who couldn’t sit still. I was a full-fledged doctoral level licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I knew a lot about the human mind and how it works, and I. Was. SKEPTICAL.

Make your mind go blank? I called B.S. MINDS DON’T GO BLANK!

Which is true, they don’t. The mind wanders if you don’t focus on the present, but it doesn’t just go blank. The issue was that I didn’t really understand what mindfulness meant. I didn’t get the point of meditation.

And that was a HUGE oversight on my part.

Thankfully though, as a scientist at heart and a clinician who continually strives to learn and stay current, I couldn’t help but delve into this world, and I am now a fully reformed skeptic. I’m 100% on the mindfulness bandwagon and strongly encourage everyone to hop on it with me. It is for your mind what working out is for your body…nothing short of transformative.

Here are some of the factors that made me change my tune.

The Data

Hardcore research studies may not do much for you, but they do for me, and the results are compelling. Scientists and researchers have been studying the effects of mindfulness practices (such as mindfulness based stress reduction or MBSR), and it is nothing short of a miracle. Regular mindfulness exercises:

  • Decrease anxiety, depression, anxiety
  • Decrease stress
  • Increase happiness
  • Increase focus and concentration

I’m into all of those effects. Mental health and wellbeing is my business! But here’s where it gets even more crazy cool and convincing. Mindfulness – a mental practice involving awareness of the present moment, simply paying attention to the here and now – affects your body. too. Studies have shown that mindfulness has done amazing things like:

  • Decrease physical pain
  • Turn off 7% of the genes involved in your stress response. Literally switches them off.
  • Boost your immune response (for example, researchers injected people with something known to cause skin rashes, but the people who had been practicing mindfulness didn’t get one!)
  • Even slow down the aging process on a cellular level

Seeing data like these was enough to convince me that this practice, which has been around in various forms for thousands of years, was legit. My direct experiences, though, keep me believing.

My Own Experiences

The actual details of how I incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my life vary over time, from informal to formal guided practices, and I’m not always consistent. Fortunately, there is always the option to simply begin again when I get off track. For me, personally, the top changes and benefits I’ve seen from this lifestyle practice include:

Self-awareness and understanding

Mindfulness has allowed me to observe my inner workings, gaining a better understanding of myself and my patterns of thinking and reacting. My ability to see these processes unfold in the moment has increased, too, which leads to…

Less emotional reactivity

I seem to be much more even-keel emotionally, less reactive in the moment, which is great because I feel more in charge and in control. I’m also much better able to sit with my emotions (to observe those sunsets, if you caught this previous post).

Pleasure in small moments

Because mindfulness is essentially an attention training process, there are some, perhaps, surprising side effects. One is that I’m more attune to the small pleasures and joyous moments in life. I noticed that I literally stopped to smell the roses on a walk not too long after starting my practice. Pre-mindfulness and meditation (Pre-M), I most likely would’ve just glanced at those flowers, if I had noticed them at all.

Patience

Another benefit, for me at least, is patience. Pre-M Ashley was ants-in-the-pants restless on a 3 hour road trip. Post-M Ashley handled a 13 hour flight…with an extra 3 hour delay…in stride. Very little misery. A surprising amount of pleasure. I blame mindfulness.

I’ve heard that boredom is an attention issue, that nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention to it. My own experiences echo that. I have rarely found myself feeling bored since starting a mindfulness practice, even when there’s very little apparent stimulation. I can be quiet and still (believe it or not).

Develop Your Own Mindfulness Practice

There are an endless number of ways to start to build your own mindfulness practice, ranging from apps like 10% Happier to Peak Mind programs like Ascend and our Quarterly Workshops (and, of course, you’re welcome to join those), but where I really want to direct you is to this amazing FREE online summit coming up in January 2022. 

Dr. April, Peak Mind co-founder, is teaming up with Dr. Fleet Maull of the Heart Mind Institute to host the 2022 Best Year of Your Life Summit. It’s 10 days of free content from THE leading psychologists, meditation teachers (including one of my personal favorites, Sharon Salzberg), and visionaries. (Seriously. I flipped when I saw the line up). It’s way more than mindfulness, but what a great place to start (or strengthen) your practice. See you there!

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Your (Obligatory) Holiday Survival Guide

Christmas and Kwanzaa are right around the corner (and Hanukkah snuck right past me). Maybe you love this time of year…and maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re like a lot of folks who find it quite challenging. Personally, I don’t holiday like a lot of my fellow Americans, but I think it would be an oversight not to address the topic, even if it’s a bit late in the game.

In 2006, I was an intern at Children’s Mercy Hospital, and I had the bad luck of being on call for Christmas. That meant I was stuck in a city where I knew very few people, all of whom would be going home to their families for the holidays. My parents came to visit but headed home on Christmas Eve. I bawled the next day, alone in my studio apartment, missing everyone and everything.

The next year, I was in a different city at a different hospital but, again, stuck with the Christmas call. That year was easier. I had a friend in Omaha, and we did our own thing to celebrate.

The following years saw some holidays with friends in California, some with my family, and some with my partners’ families. I’ve gotten very unattached to any specific vision of what the holidays must be like, and, honestly, it’s been pretty freeing. My holiday stress level tends to be pretty low, but that’s not the case for many people.

The holidays bring with them changes in routines and schedules. Our self-care goes out the window. We hit the end of the year crunch time. Many people have the added task of holiday shopping, decorating, cooking,  hosting, traveling, planning, and juggling 9 million things. Others have salient reminders of what or who they’ve lost. Couple all of that with the pressure of meeting expectations (yours and others’) or not feeling as joyous as you think you should. While you’re at it, throw in (what’s typically) a cold and dark time of year and a pandemic we’re all tired of, and it’s no wonder that many people experience heightened stress, anxiety, or depression!

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to not just survive but thrive through this season. Now, I’m not advocating that you abandon your holiday traditions as I have, but I will encourage you to do ALL of the things on this list.

1. Let your values be your guide.

Get really clear on who and what is important to you, particularly when it comes to the holidays. Tune out the noise, the expectations, the perceived obligations, and put your time, energy, and attention into what truly matters.

2.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When something less than desired happens, put it in perspective. Ask yourself, “On the scale of bad things, is this a paper cut or a nuclear disaster?” and react accordingly.

3. Make time for self-care.

Prioritize the basics like sleep, eating nutritious food, drinking water, and moving your body. Make time for whatever other self-care practices help you feel like you at your best.

4. Move with ease.

When we feel stressed, our movements get frantic, rushed, and hectic. Instead, intentionally relax your shoulders and move gently, smoothly, and a little more slowly than you might want to. This will help tell your nervous system that it’s all good. There’s no crisis. Relax.

5. Channel compassion – for yourself and everyone else.

You don’t have to be merry. In fact, there may be lots of reasons why you aren’t, and I bet the way you’re feeling makes sense when you consider those reasons and put them in context. So be kind to yourself! Offer that same compassion (empathy + kindness) to others, too. Adopt the attitude that everyone is doing the best they can at that moment. Try to understand what their perspective might be, how it might make sense when you consider the context, and offer them kindness, too, even if it’s just in your own thoughts.

6. Speaking of kindness, do one for someone in need.

Not only does this help someone out and add just a little bit of goodness into the world, but altruism is good for us, too. It gets us out of our own heads and our own problems and, frankly, it feels good to do good.

To be honest, I think this is pretty solid advice for any stressful time, not just the holidays, but I sincerely hope you thrive through this holiday season.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”
 – (often attributed to) Maya Angelou
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Curious Reflections for the New Year

“I have 8000 questions,” I said to an old friend who I hadn’t seen in quite some time. “Shoot,” he replied. 

After countless hours and at least that many questions volleyed back and forth, many of them hard, tangential, deep, personal, whimsical, or out of left field, I felt as though we had both grown, in our understanding of each other as well as ourselves.

And I am reminded of two things that I think are incredibly relevant as New Year 2022 comes to head:  the importance of both curiosity and the type of reflection questions we ask.

The Importance of Curiosity

There are different types of curiosity, but the one I want to focus on can be defined as an interest in learning, and I believe it’s a bit of a psychological superpower. It’s a great antidote to boredom. When you can harness curiosity in the face of the mundane, you may find that it’s not so dull after all. Think of children who are in awe of the smallest things. Their years have not led them to take things for granted or stifled their curiosity. Moreover. when we can tap into that curiosity and actively quest for knowledge, we activate the reward center of our brains, releasing the natural feel good chemical dopamine. Those dopamine hits feel good and are naturally reinforcing for us.

Beyond the nueurochemicals, though, curiosity is an incredibly helpful stance to approach the world from. If we get curious about our own inner workings, we are going to learn more about how we tick and have a more accepting view of our idiosyncrasies. When we approach others with curiosity, we shed assumptions that might lead to miscommunication. We can let go of judgments, instead being open and, again, accepting, strengthening our bonds and collaborations.

Similarly, curiosity aids in acceptance of difficult circumstances. I’m not saying that it will turn an unpleasant situation into a desirable one, but it does change how we experience it. When we try to learn everything we can about the circumstances, it makes them easier to tolerate and cuts down on a lot of the extra mental baggage that increases our suffering. In sum, I believe that curiosity is a key to openness, acceptance, and a more rewarding life experience.

 

The Importance of the Questions We Ask

The questions we ask (or are asked) matter more than you may realize. The question itself shapes our responses. It’s not all about asking how well we have set goals and reached them. It’s all about reflecting on who we have become as people. The what and how it is asked directs our mind down a certain path of thinking. It influences what we notice and remember.

For example, a study way back in the 60’s involved tracking the eye movements of participants while they looked at a painting. The results distinctly showed that the question asked influenced the participants’ eye movements. That is, they honed in only on the parts of the painting relevant to answering the specific question they had been asked. Who knows what details they overlooked because their brains deemed them “not relevant for the task at hand [answering the question]”?

Coming from a different angle, there are tons of studies that show that questions influence the memories of eye witness testimony…sometimes quite dramatically. People recall events that didn’t actually happen or forget about important aspects until they’re asked point blank. 

Within my own arena, providing therapy, I’m keenly aware that the questions I ask shape the conversations my patients and I have. The questions are like directions, pointing us down one path or another, with some paths leading to nothing while others lead to break throughs. While I may be over-reaching a bit, I take all of this together to mean that the quality of questions we ask ourselves and others is critical.

 

End of the Year Reflections

As this year winds down, let’s take some time to reflect so that we can move forward with our eyes open, motivation high, and direction clearly illuminated. I encourage you to approach your reflections with an air of curiosity and to ask different questions. Rather than the common “How was this year?” “What did I like or not like?” “What went well and what didn’t?” “What do I want to keep and what do I want to change?”, consider some of these:

  • In what way(s) have I grown as a person?
  • Who and/or what helped me grow?
  • What were the hardest moments of the year? What did I learn about myself through overcoming those challenges?
  • What were some of my biggest victories? What were some of my small, easy to overlook victories? What do these victories tell me about myself?
  • What allowed me to be successful?
  • Where or how did I get to display my strengths? What did I notice about those experiences and how they felt for me?
  • Which people in my life left me better after our interactions? Which left me feeling drained?
  • What did I complain most about? How might I make a change to remove that complaint from next year?
  • What do my experiences over the past year tell me about my needs? Did I prioritize making sure my needs were met? How might I meet them going forward?
  • Where am I stuck in a rut?
  • What am I most proud of? Least proud of?
  • When was I happiest? The most inspired? The closest to my ideal version of me?
  • What question have I been avoiding asking myself? What decision or change have I been avoiding making? Why am I avoiding?
“The best scientists and explorers have the attributes of kids! They ask questions and have a sense of wonder. They have curiosity. ‘Who, what, where, why, when and how!’ They never stop asking questions, and I never stop asking questions, just like a five year old.” 
– Sylvia Earle