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Home » All, Appreciative Inquiry, Business, Coaching, Strengths

When the Dog Bites, When the Bee Stings…My Favorite Things

By on March 10, 2009 – 4:00 pm  9 Comments

Fiona Parashar, MAPP UEL, 2009 runs Leadership Coaching in the UK, specialising in positive psychology coaching to build flourishing leaders and teams in the media, advertising, and communications sectors. Twitter: @fiparashar

Fiona's articles are here.



Editor’s Note: Fiona Parashar is in the University of East London master’s program in positive psychology, and we are delighted that this is her first article for PPND.  Fiona is expanding on the March optional theme of “What is your favorite application of research in positive psychology”? 

My favorite application of positive psychology? Nope, couldn’t work it out: did I have a favorite?  So many to choose from. Nope, not sure I did. However, as soon as I started pondering upon this theme for March, I could not get a certain song out of my head… a song beloved round the globe, from the world’s most adored sing-along musical, The Sound of Music.

When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
when I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
and then I don’t feel so bad.

Then I realized: this was an “unconscious” answer to the question. In a fascinating set of studies, Dutch researchers Dijksterhuis, Nordgren, Bos and von Baaren (2006) have shown the power of unconscious thought to answer complex questions “correctly.” They highlight how people can make more accurate decisions when they are distracted from consciously thinking about information they have received before they make their choice. They call this the “deliberation-without-attention” hypothesis which they have confirmed four–fold both in the lab and in the field. How I love to remind my clients of this. The importance of a walk, a work out, a cup of tea (very British) to take their mind off the complex issues they are waiting to solve and wait for the answer to pop into their minds.

Coaching toward Favorite Things

My Favorite Things PPND HappinessSo what relevance does the song have to my favorite applications? It serves as a reminder that much of coaching is, in effect, building strongly on the idea held in this song. That we can get over our troubles and woes by thinking about our favorite things. Things that make us smile and feel warm inside, whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens, not to mention brown paper packages tied up in string. It took Barbara Fredrickson (1998) to so eloquently give us an empirical reason to believe in the “point” of dreaming of kittens and mittens. This type of thinking creates positive emotions which lead to an “expanded thought-action repertoire,” in other words, expanded ideas. In today’s knowledge economy, we need ideas, and lots of them, in order to problem solve. The bigger our repertoire the better. The expansion of this repertoire helps to build our physical, intellectual and social resources.

When executives are stressed, anxious, or frightened, as many of us can find ourselves at times in the current economic climate, we physically and mentally clench up. Our resourcefulness, our “thought-action repertoire,” shrinks. Ironically, it shrinks at the very moment we need it to expand. At the very point we need to create more ideas about how to manage unchartered waters, we benefit enormously from connecting with some positive emotions. And how do we do that? Well, Julie Andrews had the answer when she was trying to cheer up the despondent Von Trapp brood…

When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
when I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
and then I don’t feel so bad.

When coaches arrive at a coaching session, however high performing, after the metaphoric dog has bitten or the bee has stung, our role as coaches is to facilitate a swift return to resourcefulness.

Favorite Things in Research: Goals, Focus, Inquiry, Savoring, Etc.

kitten mitten hapiness ppndHow do we get business leaders to think of their kittens and mittens equivalent? What are their favorite things?  One answer lies in appreciating what is already going well (Cooperrider, 2001). Another in goal setting and visioning. Helping clients focus on a view of an ideal future, whether that be describing their Best Possible Self as Laura King (2001) calls it, or of “savoring”  Bryant and Veroff (2007) an ideal future for themselves and their organization. Often, we see a nice level of “delusion” here, which as Shelley Taylor (1989) points out is entirely healthy and normal and is often a sign of optimism and hope.

Favorite Things in Practice: the “Fly/Die” List

These “favorite things” help create a positive mood of excitement, energy and pleasure, from which we can creatively generate ideas to solve any presenting issues or problems consciously. Asking leaders to describe favorite things such as hobbies, pets, holidays, restaurants, music, movies can facilitate a mood shift into a more positive state surprisingly quickly.
I ask clients to create a “fly/die” list: a list of things and people that make them feel great, favorite things that make them fly… and  the converse; a list of people and tasks that drain energy, that make them metaphorically die. As they merrily chat about things on the “fly” list whether  to do with work, walking their dog, or building model aeroplanes, their mood changes positively, and so the upward spiral commences. It’s like surfing the wave to catch the momentary expansion of the thought-action repertoire. It’s true this mood and the ensuing expansive thought patterns may not last for ever,  but it releases the creative energy to problem solve the current complex issue they are facing.

bee PPND happinessAlternatively, encouraging bee stung leaders to do an unrelated favorite activity and challenging them to capture the unconscious wisdom comes from “deliberation-without –attention,” can help them solve complex problems with seemingly effortless precision.

For skeptics who may think the boardroom is no place to be talking kittens, mittens, pets and hobbies, remember we are all human, most of us looking for a more positive way forward. The science that studies such matters, positive psychology, is building significant weaponry in the case for making positive emotions a very serious agenda item.

 


 

References:

Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cooperrider, D.L.  et.  al.   (2001), Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing

Dijksterhuis,A., Bos,M, Nordgren, L, van Baaren ,R (2006) On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science:Vol. 311. no. 5763, pp. 1005 – 1007

Fredrickson, B.  L.  (1998).  What good are positive emotions? Review of Positive Psychology, 2, 300-319.

King, L.  A.  (2001).  The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27.  798-807

Taylor, Shelley E. (1989). Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Images:

The Sound of Music by Wikipedia

Lyrical Time wastr-My favorite things by Karen Withak (great image!)

Big Bee ? by aussiegall

kitten mitten by Noelle Noodle

9 Comments »

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Fiona, Welcome!

    What a delightful article about our favorite things!
    I like your fly/die exercise. My colleague Margaret and I use the stop-start-continue framework for actions that a coaching client can take. I like the fly/die approach as well.

    It is true that positive psychology focuses on our favorite things – and it’s so funny, when I work through an example with a person – a client or not, that person immediately sees the benefit: “oh, so I have done similar things before? I can accomplish this? That’s true, I see.” I’ve been reading about solutions focused brief therapy recently, and those same overlapping ideas with positive psychology about finding the times when things HAVE worked – those same ideas are great to see, especially when those ideas work in both fields – solutions focused therapy and positive psychology-based coaching.

    That large image is incredible when we click on it.

    Thank you!
    Senia

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Fiona

    Welcome to PPND and thanks for this article!

    For me there are two different but connected threads here, the first on the power of creativity (“people can make more accurate decisions when they are distracted from consciously thinking”) and the second about positive emotion. As Fredrickson suggests, positive emotions and creativity are connected – feeling upbeat gives you more options and so on. In my experience using creative techniques in business can be a real challenge, they’re sometimes seen as frivolous or unimportant and not ‘the done thing’. Business is definitely left-brain, so creativity can seem very alien. But through coaching we have the opportunity to introduce creative techniques, and really get to the crux of what makes us who we are. As you say, we are all human!

    Your article also reminded me of the use of metaphor and story telling, which I came across in NLP a few years ago. Again, two very powerful techniques which are underrated in business.

    Thanks once again for your article, it has certainly set me thinking.

    Bridget

  • Welcome, Fiona!

    I found myself singing along to the montage–great addition to a thoughtful and on-target article. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Sherri

  • Welcome to PPND, Fiona!

    I agree with a lot of what you had to say, especially that positive emotions have a role to play in the boardroom. I think it’s much needed there. Also particularly appealing to me is your explanation of how stress makes us mentally and physically clench up, thus limiting our thought-action repertoire at the very moment we’d need to expand it – loved how you made the connection so clear and vivid!

    I have a question for you. When you ask executives to turn their thoughts to their favorite things to help them deal with their troubles and woes, isn’t the suggestion met with a ton of skepticism, irony, maybe even dismissal or rejection? Surely they must insist on dealing with the problem as opposed to divert their thoughts to what would seem to be more frivolous items. How do you facilitate the transition?

    Thanks for your thoughts!
    Warmly,

    MarieJ

  • Fiona,

    I frequently have songs that go around in my head, and many interactions bring songs to mind. My children say I live in a musical. Your article pinpoints why.

    By breaking into a relevant song in response to a news story or a comment, it stirs my positive emotions and weakens the power of the event to dampen my spirits.

    Thinking of our favorite things is akin to expressing gratitude. By appreciating what we have rather than dwelling on what we don’t, fosters optimism which opens the way for solving problems and creating solutions.

  • Hi Fiona, I love your “fly/die” lists– a very nice way of framing the differences for them. I was immediately drawn to your article as I combine some similar items for executives: appreciation, visioning, and building excitement/energy. You do them a huge service in coaching them to distract themselves.

    Thanks for your upbeat article– I look forward to reading more!
    Christine Duvivier (MAPP 2007)
    http://www.positiveleaders.com

  • Great article, Fiona. I love the idea of fly/die lists. Also reminds me of the notion of people being either ‘drains’ or ‘radiators’. The drains are the people who leave you feeling drained and exhausted and the radiators are the people who make you feel warm and leave you with that rosy afterglow.

    Look forward to the next one!
    Miriam

  • Margaret says:

    Fiona – welcome to PPND! I couldn’t help but smile when I read your article. There is an on-going joke in my family that at any minute Mom may break out in song to My Favorite Things (or Climb Every Mountain). I love how you used this song to teach others about positive emotions.

    To address the question from Marie-Josee (on how to faclitate the transition from a problem to more positive things), I actually tell clients that we’re going to “play” a bit with different perspectives. This seems to make it OK to proceed. As coaches, sometimes it is our own “you don’t want to look stupid” Gremlins that prevent us from going to more unconventional places with our clients.

    Welcome aboard!

  • Eleanor Chin says:

    Hi Fiona, Welcome to PPND! I really enjoyed your writing, particularly the connection you make to the deliberation-without-attention concept. It reminds me of hearing Barbara Fredrickson speak this weekend about her most recent studies using loving-kindness meditation practice and how the practitioners of this kind of mediation showed more positive emotion afterward. Do you think there’s a connection between her studies and those of the Dutch researchers? Do we do better when we tap into our deeper wisdom below the surface of cognition? Fascinating to ponder… Thanks for these great “thought seeds!” Looking forward to your future articles!

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