Deepening Awareness Leads to Change

November 17th, 2015

When David, the CEO of a large hospital system, would be publicly challenged by an employee, he would become enraged and angrily snap back at them. This would cause him to lose some of his executive presence and reduce his influence. But he couldn’t help himself. Even though these situations occurred only rarely, they were damaging his effectiveness. He would explain away each outburst by saying that he “just lost it” and would control his anger next time. But he just wasn’t able to overcome this pattern because, like most of us, the situation and the response were hardwired and unconscious in his mind-body.

He was trying to control this pattern with sheer willpower. But often willpower isn’t enough. If we keep these situation-response loops out of awareness, we are destined to repeat them. We need to dig deeper. Only through deepened awareness, no matter how uncomfortable, can we free ourselves from their habituated grasp.

David’s style was generally pretty calm and reserved. Why did he lose it in these situations? Since these outbursts were hurting his reputation, we started to explore the pattern in some detail in our coaching sessions. We found that they usually occurred when he was proposing some program that involved changing the compensation formula for the staff. I asked what was it about this type of challenge that caused him to become so volatile. He answered that he became angry because he thought the resisters were being selfish, and totally money-oriented. For example, one of his proposals for the hospital emphasized charging less for certain procedures and focusing more on the overall health of the patient. When he presented this one of the younger doctors challenged it, ostensibly because it might cause him to earn less money. This hit a nerve for David. He felt that the doctor was choosing money over patient care, and became angry at what he felt was the doctor’s selfishness. As a health care professional he had always been motivated by the value of healing and helping people. And this focus purely on money ran counter to one of his important values.

As we talked about this, I reframed it as a difference in values, not dissimilar from cultural differences. Once he became aware that his internal anger reaction loop was essentially his disapproval of the doctor’s values, he started to perceive it differently. He softened his stance to one of disagreement, but not aggressive intolerance. He saw these challengers as “people who highly valued money” rather than people who were bad and trying to destroy the hospital. Instead of knee-jerk fury, he could label it as a values difference and respond more calmly.

To change this pattern, David needed to dig beyond his automatic response into an awareness of his values and unconscious judgment. After becoming aware of the causes of his pattern, he never again lost his temper at a colleague.

Learning lessons from life is central to maturity and success. We learn when we observe our behavior, our patterns of thought and emotion and relate them to the impact they have on the world. If we cannot see our own patterns and impacts, it is hard to change them.”  Anna Freud The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense

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