How writing about positive experiences can help us feel less anxious

A client sent me an email last week with an intriguing subject line: ‘We were right!’ – who could resist opening that message immediately? Caroline (not her real name) had sent me a link to an article entitled ‘To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down‘.

The piece is about a study of 71 people split into two groups: one group spent 20 minutes a day on 3 consecutive days writing about the best experiences in their life; the other group spent the same time writing about more neutral topics. The participants were asked about levels of stress and anxiety immediately before and after completing the work: the group writing about their happiest experiences reported a significant decrease in those levels. Four weeks later, they were still feeling markedly less anxious and stressed than prior to participating in the task.

The reason Caroline had sent this to me was that she had been engaging in something slightly similar since a coaching session we had a couple of months ago. Having noticed that she was becoming increasingly more stressed at work, she’d come to the session with the goal of finding ways of dealing with that stress. After spending some time unpicking the issue, she identified that the stress was relating to her perceived lack of control at work.

I asked Caroline to tell me about a time when she’d felt in control at work – she animatedly described a project she’d worked on which had been pretty tough but ultimately successful. After she’d finished, she said,

‘I’d forgotten how difficult that project was. I wasn’t leading it so actually I didn’t really have control over it but I didn’t let that get in the way. I just got on with it. It’s so good to remember that. How can I get that feeling back? I really need to keep that memory in the forefront of my mind.’

‘How could you do that?’ I asked.

‘I’m going to write it down. I have 17 minutes on the train each morning. I’m going to spend that time every morning this week scribbling down a few notes about times when I’ve felt in control and like I was making progress and succeeding at work. I’m going to remind myself how it feels and then take that feeling into the office with me.’

we write to taste life twice The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5

Anaïs Nin wrote ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.’ By taking 17 minutes every day for five days to write, Caroline was reliving that positive experience where she’d felt in control and fulfilled in her work. She reported back that she’d been able to draw on those memories at tricky points in the day to help her combat anxiety and discouragement. She also noted that her colleagues had noticed she was more upbeat than she had been. It’s seven weeks since her week of writing and she’s still feeling the benefit.

Another interesting point Caroline made is that she’s been using a similar technique with her son who was rather anxious about starting at a new school. They spent some time together where he drew a picture of a time when he’d done something new and enjoyed it, even though he’d been a bit scared about it beforehand. Caroline stuck his picture on the fridge so that he could be reminded of that achievement on a daily basis.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: will you take some time to see how writing about positive experiences could help you feel more positive?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready for transformation,
why not email me to see how we can work together?


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Want to succeed? Help others to succeed

We read that empathy in the workplace (or indeed anywhere) is important. How about compassion? What’s the difference? A client and I were discussing this recently and so we looked up the definitions.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as follows:

the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

It defines compassion thus:

a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them.

We particularly noticed those last five words: a wish to help them. They changed compassion from being an emotion into being an emotion accompanied by an action.

In his book, The Compassionate Achiever: How Helping Others Fuels Success, Dr Christopher Kukk suggest that compassion should be present in the workplace: as we take a compassionate approach to our colleagues and our customers, we create an environment which is productive, creative, engaging and collaborative. In helping others succeed, we succeed and our communities – that could be our workplaces, our organisations or our homes – succeed.

How can we be more compassionate?

Dr Kukk suggests that that compassion can be learnt and provides what he calls an algorithm for compassion: LUCA.

Listen to learn

This is a level of listening where we’re fully focussed and committed to the conversation. We use not just what we hear but what we see and feel to inform our listening. We’re also looking for the gaps in the conversation. It’s not about replying.

Understand to know

You’ve heard what they say: what do they mean? Dr Kukk encourages us to take the facts we acquire and bring them together into a ‘mosaic of understanding’. What do we know about the context of this issue? What is the other person’s mindset? What are their values? What’s their emotional involvement in the situation?

As we build up that picture, we see connections and concepts which help us establish what resources and capabilities we need in order to be able to make a difference.

Connect to capabilities

When we can see what’s needed in order to have a positive impact on a situation, we need to find those resources or capabilities.

Sometimes, we aren’t the right people to help. For example, I may come across a situation with a client that is outside my capabilities and skills: having recognised that, I can then help the person to connect to the appropriately-equipped person or organisation.

We may need to look outside our immediate circle to our wider network for that help. Having spent time on the ‘understand to know’ stage will hopefully help us to look beyond the obvious potential solutions.

Act to solve

This may mean us rolling up our sleeves and getting actively involved in the situation. It may mean us helping the other person to step up and take action themselves. It may even mean taking no action at all: perhaps the best solution is a period of rest and reflection.

Kukk writes:

‘One compassionate achiever is all it takes to start spreading the ripples of success through a community.  It begins with you and how you interact with people on a daily basis.  All of your personal interactions are like small stones of compassion dropped into a pond, creating ripples that reach far beyond you.

Approach each day with a compassionate mindset and take actions to reinforce your commitment.’

All of your personal interactions are like small stones of compassion dropped into a pond, creating ripples that reach far beyond you.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: how will you bring a compassionate mindset to the situations you’re in this week?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to transform your work,
why not email me to see how we can work together?






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If you want to be truly present, sometimes you need to choose to be absent

After my last post about how we need to pay attention to gaps, one of my subscribers emailed me to ask me about another kind of gap – a gap he observes in his own attention, whether that’s at work or with his family and friends.

I’m ambitious and I want to succeed. Sometimes I just feel like I’m so focussed on future opportunities that I’m never fully engaged in what I’m doing right now,‘ he wrote.

This reminded me of some words from Kevin DeYoung’s book, Crazy Busy: 

The biggest deception of our digital age may be the lie that says we can be omni-competent, omni-informed, and omni-present. We must choose our absence, our inability, and our ignorance – and choose wisely.’

I sent those words and a link to Are you missing out? to my subscriber and we chatted for a while on email about how he can choose not to be absent from some opportunities in order to be present for others.

Today’s pebble for you to think about: will you choose to be absent in order to be present?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to transform your work,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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How can we better understand one another?

As I mentioned last time, we live in a complex and hectic world. I’ve had Elvis Costello’s song ‘Peace, love and understanding’ on the brain for a while now and have been thinking about potential reasons for misunderstanding each other.

A lovely friend gave me a Poet and Painter card for my birthday recently, entitled ‘Understanding‘.

The card shows a picture of a barcode and underneath it says

Even with a barcode, it’s not just the lines, but the spaces in between.’

It’s true, isn’t it? A barcode needs the gaps as much as it needs the printed lines of different widths.

In the same way, a conversation is only a conversation if it has gaps in it. By definition, a conversation is ‘informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by spoken words’. A conversation with no gaps would be a cacophony of people talking over one another.

The topic of how to be a better listener crops up from time with time with my coaching clients – in fact, it did so last week and so I showed Mike (not his real name) the card.

‘The gaps are the hard part,’ said Mike, who is in middle management at his organisation. ‘Whether I’m talking to my boss, my colleagues or my team, I sometimes feel the need to fill the gaps. If I’ve given tough feedback to a team member and they don’t respond, I feel like I have to keep justifying the feedback. If I don’t jump into a gap left by some of my more vocal colleagues, I’ll never get a word in edgeways. If I’m pitching an idea with my boss and there’s a big gap in our conversation, I feel like I need to do some more explaining. Also, sometimes I don’t leave a gap when I should – if a team member brings a problem to my attention, sometimes I just rush and offer a solution, rather than asking some helpful questions and leaving a gap for them to explore the options.’

Mike and I spent his session discussing how he could become a better listener by being more comfortable with the gaps and using them differently. Here are four key points from our conversation which might be useful to you:

Look for the gaps in what the other speaker has said

What hasn’t she mentioned? If a team member comes to you to report on a group project and mentions the contributions of three of the group but not a word on two of them, what’s happening there? In his regular review meeting, your direct report talks about what’s happening in the office but doesn’t mention the five-day training course for which you sponsored him last month, did it not live up to expectations or has he just forgotten?

What we don’t say can be just important as what we do say.

Leave a gap before responding 

Rather than spend your listening time jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, hear the other person out. Use your attention to concentrate on their ways, then pause and respond. If necessary, ask further questions to clarify. If appropriate, summarise back to them what you believe they’ve said so that you can check your understanding.

Don’t rush to fill a gap

Mike mentioned that sometimes when he was nervous, whether that was when on a long journey with a new colleague, or in a discussion with his manager, he sometimes felt awkward about gaps in conversation.

In the first instance, Mike decided that he needed to remember that this was a conversation rather than a monologue and that sometimes a companionable silence is absolutely appropriate. There may be all sorts of reasons why the other party isn’t chatting – tiredness, all topics of conversation have been exhausted, or maybe he simply doesn’t feel the need. Mike will work on accepting those gaps.

In the second instance – feeling the need to justify a decision or proposal – Mike is going to work on delivering his words with confidence and assurance and then pausing to let his manager consider them.

If necessary, create a longer gap

There may be times when Mike needs to postpone a response – maybe when giving or receiving feedback, or when a suggestion is made to him. Rather than rushing to reply, Mike will propose re-scheduling the rest of the conversation, giving all parties time to think.

Mike went away from our session with action points to help him be a better listener – and a better conversationalist.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: when you’re in conversation, are you paying attention to the gaps? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to transform your work,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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On course or drifting? Time for a half year review

On 1 July, we will be halfway through 2018. A couple of years ago, I wrote that we were experiencing a volatile time in the world – it seems that nothing much has changed since then.

Whilst some things are way beyond our control or influence, it can be helpful to take some time out to review our progress so far. Imagine you were going for a long walk in the hills: it’s unlikely you’d look at the map at the beginning of the walk and then walk for a few hours without checking that you were on the right track.

So I’d like to suggest that we all step off our paths for half an hour or so and ask ourselves the following questions:

Are the goals I set at the beginning of the year still relevant?

What’s working well?

What’s stopping me making progress?

What adjustments do I need to make?

Where does my focus need to be?

Your answers to these questions will act as telltales – indicators of your current direction – and then you can make plans for the second half of 2018.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: what does your half year review tell you? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like someone to help you with your half year review and to make plans to transform your work,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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Do you want a different result? Ask a different question

Last week, I met a client at The Castle Inn in Bradford on Avon. As I waiting at the bar, I noticed a stack of blank job applications and I picked one up. Am I thinking of a new career? Absolutely not but I was intrigued by the questions on their form.

It asks for the usual contact details, age, eligibility to work in the UK and potential start date but it doesn’t ask other questions you might expect like ‘What experience do you have of bar work?‘ or ‘Describe when you have worked well in a team.’

Instead it asks:

  • Draw us a picture of yourself
  • Tell us about your proudest moment
  • What is your go-to karaoke song?
  • Why do you think we should meet you and not the other guy?
  • Ask us a question
  • Why do you want to work with us?
  • You’ve got £500 to take a friend out for the night. What do you do?

What I love about this application form is that it tells you a lot about what it might be like to work at The Castle: if this form makes you uncomfortable, then The Castle probably isn’t the place for you. There are no right or wrong answers to some of those questions but the answers will give the employer an insight into the applicant’s personality and interests. Sure, this application form is fun but I bet it’s also extremely effective.

In conversations with my coaching clients,  I see that this approach works well in other situations, either at work or at home. When we ask the same standard questions, we’ll probably get the same standard responses.

Einstein said ‘If you want different results, do not do the same things’. 

Today’s pebble for your consideration is this: Are you looking for a different result? Is it time to try a different question?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to transform your work,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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How do you know if you’re good enough?

Occasionally when reading, I don’t entirely agree with the author. Seth Godin wrote ‘Good enough stopped being good enough a long time ago so why not be great?’: Jim Collins wrote ‘Good is the enemy of great.’

I understand what they mean but I think that sometimes an emphasis on greatness can lead to an unhealthy and counterproductive obsession with comparison – whether we compare ourselves with colleagues or people in the public eye. Expecting perfection in ourselves can seem so daunting that we stall in our attempts to improve: expecting perfection in others is unrealistic and therefore leads to disappointment.

There are some instances in which I think I prefer the Italian proverb ‘better is the enemy of good.’

After my last post, Are you being good or are you getting better?, I had an email from a coaching client –

‘I get that it’s important to focus on that progress rather than stressing about not being perfect yet but how can I tell if I’m good enough?’ I feel stuck and I’m just not making any progress at all.’

We had a session booked for later in the week so I asked Mollie (not her real name) to read another post – Had enough? – prior to our meeting and to think about what it would mean to be good enough. When we met, she had with her a big sheet of paper full of words and colourful images. By its very nature, it’s a particularly personal document so I won’t show you a picture but I have Mollie’s permission to share some of the headlines with you.

Good enough as a manager

The team don’t need me to be Sheryl Sandberg or Elon Musk. A good enough manager is honest, challenging, available, communicative, inspiring and confident.

Good enough as a colleague

My fellow managers would say I’m good enough when I’m engaged, curious,  effective, constructive and innovative.

Good enough at looking after my physical health

I don’t need to be Jess Ennis-Hill. I am good enough when I’m showing up for my personal training sessions, following the nutritional advice and achieving the goals I agreed with my trainer.

Good enough as a friend

Being a good enough friend is not about arranging amazing weekends away or buying extravagant gifts – although those things aren’t wrong. It’s about being present, not being distracted when we’re together, really listening, doing what I said I would do, going beyond the superficial and knowing each other on a deeper level.

perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible rebecca solnit

Mollie now has an action plan that will help her to notice when she’s good enough and, perhaps ironically, is confident that when she accepts that what she is doing is enough, she is actually able to do more. No longer stuck by the thought of needing to be perfect, she can acknowledge her progress and build on it.

Today’s pebble for your consideration: how do you feel about the concept of being good enough?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to transform your career,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

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