Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

You feel the way you think, and China

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 12, 2008

Calligraphy workshop at St Bart's 11/7/08

Calligraphy workshop at St Bart's 11/7/08

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m very interested in CBT.  There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is that it fits very well with the systems thinking based consultancy work I’ve done for many years.

What I do with organisations is known in the trade as ‘process consultancy’.  It involves equipping people with ways of thinking about what they do and how they do it so that they can improve their performance.  The other kind of consultancy is based on hiring someone to tell you what to think and what to do: sometime’s that’s necessary, of course – when you need someone with specific expertise, for example – but I prefer doing what I do.

[Brief diversion I just googled for a definition to which I could link and discovered that process consultancy is one of the services offered by the chaplains at Liverpool John Moore’s University.  I know what they mean, but I’m trying to imagine the vicar at the parish church in whose choir I sang for a brief period in my youth, announcing to his parishioners that he was going to provide them with some process consultancy.  Material for a sitcom there, I think.  Perhaps a follow on from the Vicar of Dibley in which the new vicar is a former partner with one of the big consultancy companies.  The parishioners throw him out after he spends most of the services drawing overlapping circles on whiteboards and tries to increase his stipend to £10,000 a day.]

Anyway, returning to the point at hand, most of the ways of thinking that I use are based on systems ideas, as I’ve mentioned before.

Systems thinking is an excellent way of thinking about what an organisation is for, how it does things, planning, projects and so on but has nothing to say about that other vital aspect of our mental lives: our feelings and behaviours.

CBT is exactly like process consultancy, but it’s directly concerned with how you feel.  The title of this post sums up how CBT works.  The ‘process’ is summarised by the handy TLA ‘ABC’.  A = activating events (things that happen to you that trigger a chain of thought) B = your existing beliefs about yourself and the world and C = consequences, in terms of feelings and behaviours.

To give a simple example.  ‘A’ might be someone asking if they can take your photograph.  ‘B’ might be your belief (or, more specifically, my belief) that I don’t look good in photographs (I have empirical evidence to prove this) and ‘C’ would be me saying ‘no thanks’.

CBT is partly based on the idea that often our beliefs are faulty or, sometimes, toxic.  There’s an excellent list here which provides examples.  I know that I can sometimes catastrophise, for example.  I caught myself doing it just the other day when I said ‘This is going to be a catastrophe’ (that’s a good clue that you’re catastrophising).  This is a very toxic thought, not only because it’s (usually) wrong but also because it can turn into a viscious cycle of negative thoughts and actions which become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, there are times when it’s necessary to think about the possibility that something might turn out really badly so that you can take action to prevent it happening.  If the builders and owners of the Titanic hadn’t believed that their ship was unsinkable they might have provided enough life-boats and driven it a bit more carefully.

There’s lots more that could be said about all this, obviously, and many books have been written about CBT, including the one I recommended in an earlier post.  Some related thoughts to finish this off.

I’ve always thought – and said – that the performance of an organisation depends partly on how its people think.  CBT adds another set of tools which can be used specifically to help people think about how they are feeling and then, if they want to, do something about it.

When I worked on a town planning/community building project in a nearby town, it occurred to me that exactly the same principle could be applied to towns: what a community is like depends on how the people in it think, what they believe and how they act on those thoughts and beliefs.  ABC.

Yesterday, I went to some workshops at the school organised by these people and presented by this group.  They were fascinating – I’ll link to some photos later.  There were three workshops: one on Chinese music, one on calligraphy and one on story telling.  All three were deeply informed by a particular way of thinking about the world.  I’ve always felt that the “eightfold path” embodies an excellent set of principles for thinking about the world – particularly, of course, the “right thought” part of it.  And I was going to make the obvious connection between Zen and CBT but, rather wonderfully, looking at the wikipedia article on Zen just now, I see someone has done it for me.  Another aspect of Zen which coincides with my interests is that it’s deeply systemsy – it’s concerned with interdependencies and thinking about how everything in the world is connected.

All this is rather obvious, I’m sure.  I’m no expert in CBT, Zen or China, and right now capitalism seems to be a rather more powerful force in China than Zen.  But while our ancestors were arranging large blocks of stone into interesting shapes on Salisbury Plain (my theory is that they did this just to confuse later generations: Stonehenge is prehistoric man’s idea of a practical joke) China had a fully developed civilisation.

It seems to me that we need to understand China a good deal better than we do now.  What particularly interests me is how Chinese people think and how that affects their behaviour.  And what that means for the rest of us.  Also, of course, I’m interested in answering the same questions so far as we are concerned.  ‘Psychology’ as someone once wrote ‘is everything’.

More on ‘the idea’ that has prompted these witterings later.

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