(photo used with kind permission of My Manor London and the “Strong not Silent” campaign)
For the vast majority of the people I have worked with, whether in the gym, the rugby paddock or the office, the mind has quit long before the body, or any mechanical aspects of the equation. Those who I have had the pleasure of coaching will attest to the emphasis I place on the mental side of endeavours as a component of development. And as human beings we are the sum of our parts; not a collection of components. So, whilst we may speak of somebody having a kind heart; a quick wit; great pecs or washboard abs, the truth is we live and work with the person as a whole. Muscles and other soft tissue; bones and organs... including the brain. I came at mental health, and still do, from a place of self-improvement.
Start at the beginning
The start, and the core running through everything is that which matters. Which is where we started with our Trainee Solicitors when they joined us, taking some time during their induction to help them connect with their values. Our values are the expression of our upbringing (whatever that may have looked like), our friends and family, our culture, our belief system and our experiences. All condensed down to a small number of guiding principles. As we can experience distress when our course deviates from these guides it is useful, therefore, to develop an understanding of them.
Make a plan
Once we know what is important, we can start to build a plan. Not just about what we do, but about how we do it. After all, there is seldom only one road open but not every route will suit everybody.
One of the important facets of a performance relationship is feedback. As coaches we build our rapport and connection, constructing “permission” to offer up these messages which might otherwise be perceived as a threat. We face plenty of opportunities daily for feedback in the results of our actions. Whether we accept the feedback or not, depends on our openness and readiness. Like a lot of learning it is not always comfortable, sometimes downright painful, and so it helps us if we have given some attention to how we might take it.
The same is true of giving feedback. If our intent is to see some change then we would be well served to invest a little more time to increase the chances of success. Which is why this is the next step of our development programme - having a look at how we can bypass our defence mechanisms to be able to plan for performance gold, no matter how inopportune the delivery.
Next stop is taking our apprentices and trainees through resilience. This topic is almost de rigeur these days so I preface it with a mild health warning:
Resilience is suggested to be the ability to bounce back. I counsel caution with this definition. Bounce implies an elastic rebound, a spring back into shape. Sometimes this is so, but not always. For some of us, unfortunately, the aftermath of a substantial challenge will be a slow clamber, not without staggering, from the floor back to standing. And in much the same way as my rugby-battered nose, the functional shape afterwards may have little resemblance to the unblemished, untested article. Resilience training then is about learning the hallmarks of your endurance, expanding those resources to include, crucially, self-acceptance.
Training our staff, or anybody else, in resilience is not an abrogation of any responsibilities to help in other ways. I have argued with some who seem to view this as a binary equation rather than as a complimentary skillset. We may still have duties to assist elsewhere (which is why our line manager training has also adapted over time to see increasing amounts of mental literacy included), but none of us has anything to lose by developing skills to help us take agency over our own situations - even if that is only to learn to ask for, and accept, help.
Mental Health First Aid
But life is not always linear, hence why problem-solving and frustration tolerance are part of the resilience curriculum. And it is for the same reason that I have followed the MHFA path, and enjoy training others to do the same across the Firm (and elsewhere).
Those steeped in religious, philosophical and coaching backgrounds will appreciate the simple power of being listened to, really listened to (although rare in spite of its simplicity). Which is why both the MHFA and our development programme spend time on that aspect of communication skills. We are not training people to fix people, indeed there’s often a judgement attached to that idea of fixing, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. Rather, we are about looking out for when something does not appear to be working for somebody (ideally before getting to “crisis” but we can handle those too), helping them to be able to talk about the issues, and building on that to be able to access help and resources.
Piecing together the puzzle
Whether we are in an ostensibly physical trade or piloting a desk in a knowledge business, what we achieve occurs through the interface of our mind. It doesn’t just happen. Training is only one part of the puzzle but whether we take a purely commercial or humane view, there is a strong case to be made for enhancing our mental literacy. It is then, perhaps, that we will be able to address expressing our abilities and reducing or removing blockers to health and performance, rather than talking about weakness or failing.
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