When ‘fight or flight’ isn’t right – how to be objective in a stressful situation

Picture the scene – you’ve had a busy morning at a client site, you’re just crammed yourself onto a delayed train to get to your next meeting, there are no seats so you’re clinging onto an overhead rail for dear life and your phone flashes up an email from your boss. You just see the heading: ‘Urgent – stats needed’. You open the email – it’s just a single line: ‘Need all the latest stats on Acme Corporation account asap’.

In the midst of all this chaos and busyness, how do you react?

From conversations with my coaching clients and friends, I’d say a pretty common reaction is increased heart rate, maybe feeling a bit sick, perhaps even anger. Thoughts like ‘oh no, what’s happened now?’, ‘what have I missed?’, ‘doesn’t she realise what else I’ve got on my plate today?’ might be rushing through your head. In some cases, your mind even creates a film strip starring you in all the possible negative scenarios that could arise from your boss’s request: a stressed out and sweating you explaining to the client why sales are down this quarter, a doleful you carrying the contents of your desk out of the building in a cardboard box, a miserable you eating cold baked beans from the tin as you search online for a new job.

The bit of your brain that’s causing that reaction is your amygdala – it’s the part of the brain that provides the ‘fight or flight response’. Whilst there are situations in which that response is essential, that’s not the case for most of our everyday lives, thank goodness. When our emotions take over, it’s known as an ‘amygdala hijack’. The bit of the brain we want to use to deal with these situation is the pre-frontal cortex: it’s the ‘thinking’ area of the brain where we can be more rational in our responses.

How do we move our thinking from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex?

Name your emotion
Is it anger? Is it fear? As you name it, you are activating your pre-frontal cortex and taking a step back from the immediate emotional response, thus lessening its impact.

What’s provoked that emotion?
In this example, getting an urgent email from your boss in the middle of an already stressful day.

It’s a very short email which doesn’t explain why or in what format the information is needed or what’s meant by ‘asap’.

As you work through this, you are becoming more objective about the situation and your rational pre-frontal cortex is taking over from your ‘survival instinct’ amygdala.

emotional intelligence resilience emotions body scan fight or flight amygdala

In sessions with clients where they have brought up instances of an amygdala hijack response to a situation, we often work through the emotional body scan exercise. Then I have gone one step further with objectivity by asking them to imagine themselves in the third person –

So, Paul, you see Paul on the train, getting that email and you see the colour drain from his face as he reads it. What would you suggest he does next?

When we see a situation from a third person perspective, it’s easier to craft an objective response –

I’d advise him that there’s nothing he can do whilst he’s standing up on a busy and noisy train. He can use the time on the train to calm his mind rather than letting himself get all worked up imagining stressful scenarios. I would suggest that as he gets off the train, he finds somewhere quiet to stop for five minutes to call his boss and ask for more details – what exactly does she need, by when, in what format – and to make suggestions about who else can help if it’s physically impossible for Paul to get that information to her whilst he’s out of the office.

As Daniel Goleman says, the ability to pause and to not act on that first impulse has become a crucial emotional skill in modern lives. The third person perspective can help you to become more objective in a stressful situation.

Today’s pebble for your contemplation: can you use a third person perspective to tame your amygdala hijacks and respond to a situation more objectively?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Improving your second score – how to receive negative feedback well

My last post provided a simple framework to ensure we offer constructive feedback. Understandably, some readers then got in touch to ask about receiving feedback.

When we receive positive feedback, we sometimes feel embarrassed and try to explain it away. You know the thing – a colleague congratulates you on your presentation to the company meeting and you say ‘oh, the other speakers were much better, I was so nervous and I think I rambled on a bit’ or a dinner guest remarks how delicious your chocolate roulade is and you instantly say ‘it’s such a simple recipe, embarrassingly easy.’ Maybe we could just try smiling and saying ‘thank you’ then move on to another topic of conversation.

So that’s the upside of receiving feedback. What about those times when we receive some constructive negative feedback?

The phrase ‘second score’ refers to that occasion. Your ‘first score’ is the evaluation of a piece of work or your performance in general: sometimes that will be a literal score, perhaps in a performance review, other times it will be a comment along the lines of ‘that wasn’t up to your usual standard’. We can’t go back in time and alter our first score but we can choose our response to it – that response is our ‘second score’.

We can feel quite uncomfortable, embarrassed, emotional, even angry when we receive some negative feedback. Hopefully the person giving you the feedback is giving you the evidence, explaining the impact and then working with you to design and agree the changes you’re going to make. However skilled the person giving feedback, we can still struggle to receive it.

A structure to help you handle feedback better and improve your second score

Another mnemonic for you: PAC. I’m basing the following example on the same situation I used on the last post so if you haven’t already, hop on over to Want to improve performance? Effective feedback is key to familiarise yourself with Paul and his late report.

P is for pause

Firstly, simply pause. Rather than rushing in to justify or defend yourself, take a breath, take a sip of water, compose yourself and when you are ready, move on to step two.

Depending on the nature of the feedback, you may need to suggest meeting again at another time in order for you to have had sufficient opportunity to compose yourself and be ready to discuss the situation further.

A is for ask

Now’s the time to ask for clarification and pin down the specifics – ‘If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that my lateness delivering the Friday report is causing you problems collating the report for the Board, is that right? Is there anything I need to change regarding the actual content of the report or the way in which I present it?’ and you can go on to check that there’s nothing you’ve missed.

C is for confirm

Having asked questions and clarified what needs to change, you can confirm the action you will take.

So the report itself is fine. What I plan to do is to block out 8.30am to 9am on a Thursday in my diary each week in order to write the report and 8.45am to 9am on a Friday morning to check it over, add any last minute details and have it in your inbox by 9am each Friday. That way it will be with you in plenty of time so you can add it to the final report and submit that by the deadline – would that work for you?

framework for receiving feedback pause ask confirm clarity coaching

I think you will agree that this is an incredibly simple structure: that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to accomplish! It takes practice. My experience of using this technique both personally and sharing it with my coaching clients is that it can be invaluable in taking the emotional sting out of feedback, helping to concentrate on the facts rather than assumptions, and allowing us to achieve a better ‘second score’.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: can you remember a time when you received difficult feedback and feel that you could have handled it better? Will you use PAC to help you respond better in future?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Want to improve performance? Effective feedback is key

My weekly newsletter invites readers to send me suggestions for blog posts and recently I had several messages about how to give and receive feedback effectively. Feedback is part of our everyday lives – we check reviews before we eat out or go on holiday – and our working lives, whether we’re an employee of a large organisation or a solo entrepreneur.

As a post on Harvard Business Review recently said, good feedback is based on facts, not your opinion. What are some key components of effective feedback? It’s a topic that my coaching clients and I have discussed often and here are some elements we identified.

Feedback should be:


This isn’t about venting your frustrations, it’s about helping the recipient to improve.

A part of everyday life

Ed Batista counsels us to make feedback normal rather than part of a performance review. This allows us to give feedback in a timely fashion: why wait until an annual review to bring up something that happened eight months ago when you could nip it in the bud now? It also means that we reduce the anxiety people may feel about receiving feedback by not turning the conversation into a big deal.

Refers to actions and behaviour, not character

Compare the sentence ‘you’re a terrible listener’ to ‘when you spend our conversations checking your phone, it feels to me like you’re not listening’. The second demonstrates that you’ve noticed a particular behaviour and are giving feedback on the impression that creates.


In a similar vein, ‘you’re so quiet all the time’ could be discounted by the recipient as being rather vague and therefore not helpful. ‘You were very quiet in last Tuesday’s meeting’ reminds them of a specific event to which they can respond.

Not jumping to conclusions

We can sometimes add our own interpretations to an event. To take my previous example, you might say something like –  ‘you were very quiet in last Tuesday’s meeting: was that because you felt the whole thing was a waste of time?’.

You may have hit the nail on the head: you may have completely missed the point. Try a more open approach – ‘you were very quiet in last Tuesday’s meeting: could you tell me a bit more about that’.

Need a framework for effective feedback?

Based on these elements, I’ve devised a simple mnemonic to help you stay on track when you give feedback: EIC.

E is for evidence

Get specific about the person’s behaviour or actions, not about their personality – ‘Paul, over the last four weeks, you’ve missed the noon on Friday deadline for sending me your team report.

I is for impact 

Describe in non-emotional and specific terms the impact of the behaviour or actions on you, others or a situation –

That’s led to me being unable to include specific details of your team’s activity in my 4pm Friday report to the Board. Your team is missing out on an opportunity for their contribution to be noticed.’

C is for change

Encourage the other person to generate ideas for how to change, supporting and guiding as appropriate. We are more likely to take ownership of solutions we generate ourselves. Agree a timescale to review the changes.

What would enable you to get it to me on time?’ Paul comes up with some ideas, settles on one in particular, and you agree that he will trial that for the next month and then you will both review how it’s going.

Of course, if you are giving positive feedback, there is no need for change but rather than just saying ‘good job’, it’s far more useful and rewarding to give evidence and explain the impact –

Paul, since we talked about the need for you to be punctual delivering your Friday report, you’ve sent it in before noon every week. That’s meant that I’ve been able to include your team’s work in my report finished and get it out to the Board in time for the 4pm deadline. They’re really pleased with your team’s contribution. Thanks for helping me keep them informed.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: can you use EIC to help you provide effective feedback? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Is it possible to be scared of success?

Imagine this conversation –

‘What are you thinking about? You look worried.’

‘I have nothing to wear.’

‘I’m pretty sure that’s not true – can you be more specific?’

‘For the Oscars. I have nothing to wear to the Oscars.’

‘What? You’re going to the Oscars? How did this happen? What are you talking about?’

‘When I collect my award.’

‘Sorry, you’ve lost me – you’re going to the Oscars to collect your award?! What for?’

‘Best screenplay.’

‘Wait … what?’

‘You heard me. Best screenplay.’

‘Honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ve won the Oscar for best screenplay – what screenplay?’

‘Oh, I haven’t written it yet. But when I do, it’ll win. But I won’t be able to go and collect the award – I’ve got nothing to wear. No point writing the screenplay then.’

I’m unlikely to ever have that conversation with a coaching client. However, I have had a ‘dialled down’ version of that conversation with several clients. They have a big goal. We work together to create an action plan to achieve that goal.

And then sometimes things get complicated. Their minds take them straight to the end of the process at the point at which they have achieved their goals and it all becomes somehow overwhelming.

Sometimes it can seem so overwhelming that they back right away from the goal and the action plan. They quit before they even start – you could call it ‘pre-quitting’.

Why would anyone do that? In my experience, it seems to be based on a fear of success. Does anyone really fear success?

unsplash-logoSandro Schuh

Indicators of fear of success include:

  • Talking about your projects but not actually knuckling down and doing the work;
  • Taking on too much so that your focus is divided;
  • The same goals appearing on your annual goals list year after year;
  • Making great progress on your action plan but then dipping out at a key moment and missing an opportunity;
  • Feeling guilty about successes and worrying that sharing your achievements will embarrass others who aren’t doing so well or make you look conceited;
  • Not wanting to put yourself ‘out there’ in case you actually get noticed and that brings a higher level of scrutiny to your work.

What can we do if fear of success is present?

When I noticed indicators of fear of success in my clients, I ask them to tell me more about what’s behind those feelings. As we talk, it becomes apparent whether there is indeed that fear and on what it is founded. Sometimes we go on to talk about imposter syndrome, fear of failure or perhaps fear of change. Having brought these concerns into the open, we can examine them and adjust plans accordingly.

One of the strengths of the coaching relationship is this accountability to each other to explore, examine and evaluate feelings and assumptions in order to continue to make progress. My clients give me permission to draw attention to instances where I see imposter syndrome or perfectionism creeping in to hamper their work. Together, we ensure that they make the presentation, prepare for the interview, stick with the programme, maybe even write the screenplay!

Today’s pebble for you to consider: do you recognise the fear of success in your work or life?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to tackle a fear of success in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Potential Principle: How to close the gap between where you are now and where you’d like to be

For me, coaching is all about making the most of our potential. That’s why Mark Sanborn’s book ‘The Potential Principle’ immediately grabbed my attention.

It’s not a book about perfectionism, it’s a book about improvement. To help us improve, Sanborn presents us with the Potential Matrix – I’ve recreated it for you here:

Mark Sanborn’s potential matrix

As we look at the matrix, we probably identify one quadrant which we prefer: perhaps you’re naturally an activist, in which case, ‘performing’ is probably your favoured way of operating. If you only ever concentrate on performing, you may not be taking the time to reflect and see how you could operate even more efficiently. If you spend all your time reflecting and planning but never take action to learn new skills and try them out, nothing will change. To see more improvement and to release more potential, we need to step outside of that comfortable quadrant and explore the other areas too.

You will see that improvement happens not only outwardly as we learn new skills and perform but also inwardly as we think and reflect. It’s about active experiences which we initiate and passive experiences to which we respond.

In terms of realising our potential, where do we start?

The question I ask my coaching clients is this: if you were to further develop and consistently use one or two of your current skills, which would make the biggest difference to your professional and personal performance?

We then start off in the thinking quadrant, coming up with ideas and turning them into action plans. If appropriate, the client moves into the learning quadrant in order to acquire new skills and experiences before trying them out in the performing quadrant. We come together again to reflect on progress so far and then it’s back to thinking in order to identify next steps.

For those of my coaching clients who are managers, the potential matrix gives them a chance not only make the most of their own potential but acts as a framework for professional development conversations with their team. One client has even used it to help his son choose his options for the subjects he wants to study to GCSE level.

It’s been said that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Potential without action will remain untapped.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: if you were to further develop and consistently use one or two of your current skills, which would make the biggest difference to your professional and personal performance? Can you use the Potential Matrix to help you do that?


ps I’m taking a screen break: back on the blog on Friday 6 April.

Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is it time to step out from behind the camera and lose yourself in the moment?

In a coaching session recently with Emma Samways, the director of InEvents, we were discussing her ‘why’: she said –

‘In a world where we don’t take one picture to capture a memory but a million, it becomes easy to forget how you feel. [Creating amazing] events and experiences can shape the way my clients and their clients feel.’

I think she’s right – in the days before digital cameras, let alone cameras on our phones, we might take a couple of reels of 36 exposure film away on our holidays. We’d ration our photos, make sure each was carefully composed, knowing that we wouldn’t know how that photo had turned out until we’d returned home, dropped the films off for development and collected them a few days later. If we were unlucky, a few would come back blurred, or one of our party would have their eyes closed, or perhaps we’d had a finger over the lens. Now we can rattle off a burst of shots in seconds, review them, take them again, filter them and edit them before uploading them. If we don’t have a selfie in front of a famous artwork, were we ever actually there?

Take a look at these two photos:

Beyoncé and Jay-Z take a private tour of the Louvre

Ben Hines shared this photo on Facebook
on 1 March. His caption read:
Donna Hines and I made a pilgrimage today and we were delighted to wait in line behind this fellow art lover and hopeful patriot.

One photo shows people with their backs to the very thing they’ve come to see: the other shows someone transfixed by a painting. The little girl is called Parker and in an article, her mum said I was trying to get her to turn around so I could take a picture, but she wouldn’t cooperate. She just wanted to stare at it. She was fascinated.”

I’m not criticising museum selfies – I’m just wondering about how much more we might experience if we stopped and stared for a few moments rather than setting up a great shot for our social media feed. I use my phone a lot for work and for leisure and it’s an incredibly useful tool. I am conscious though that in some ways I have outsourced my memory to my phone.

Am I making memories or just making reminders?

Having noticed this, I try to make an effort to put my phone away sometimes, to soak up the moment and to concentrate on how I feel. Emma’s website features the hashtag making memories right under the company name and her why is to create an experience which will stay in the participants’ minds long after their photos have been deleted.

It’s a challenge sometimes to be right there in the moment but it’s a challenge that I am happy to take on. Are you? Is it time to disconnect in order to reconnect?

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: will you take time this week to lose yourself in the moment and make memories?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Minute by minute, step by step – how continuous small improvements can lead to big change

Back in the 1950s, an American scholar called Dr Edward Deming was invited to Japan to assist in the rebuilding of industry. Key to his teaching was one question which he said needed to be asked each day:

What extremely small step can I take today improve the process or product?

The Japanese took this concept to heart and revolutionised their industry. They also gave this concept a name: kaizen which brings together the word for ‘change’ (kai) and the word for ‘good’ (zen).

On the left, ‘kai’ meaning ‘change’; on the right, ‘zen’ meaning good.

This philosophy of change being a good thing leads to an approach where you are actively seeking something small about your product or process each day which you can improve. Note that it’s not based on a massive change one day and then your work is done!

Can we apply kaizen to our own everyday lives?

Early in the New Year, I was talking with a client – let’s call her Claire – about her desire to make her morning routine easier. She has quite a commute to work and a lot to get through before she leaves the house each morning.

‘What could you do to improve your morning?’ I asked.

‘Ideally, I need an extra hour. I’ve been trying that for the last week – setting my alarm an hour earlier,’ she answered.

‘How’s that working for you?’

‘So far, I’ve slept through it twice, spent one morning hitting ‘snooze’ every seven minutes, managed it twice and felt like a zombie for the rest of the day,’ Claire laughed. ‘Seriously through, I really need to sort this out.’

I told her about kaizen and asked her what small change she could make each day to help her achieve her goal. ‘I could get up 15 minutes earlier each day,’ she suggested.

‘You could,’ I agreed, ‘so that means that if you start on a Monday, by Thursday you’ll be getting up an hour earlier. How does that feel?’

‘Still too hard! I can feel the zombie state creeping in on me even as I think about that!’ she cringed.

‘Okay, let’s go smaller. Let’s go crazily small,’ I challenged.

‘Well, the smallest I can do is get up one minute earlier each day,’ Claire offered, ‘but what’s the point of that?’

‘The point is that if you start next Monday, by the middle of the following week, you’ll be up 10 minutes earlier, presumably without having to hit snooze or feeling like a zombie for the rest of the day. Ten days later, you’ll be up 20 minutes earlier. What would that be like?’

‘Actually, it would be great. Crazy as this kaizen stuff sounds, I’m going to give it a go. I’m going to keep it going at weekends too so I don’t lose the impetus and I wouldn’t mind having a bit more time for me then as well.’

And on Monday 8 January, Claire’s alarm went off 1 minute earlier. She’s had a couple of occasions where it hasn’t worked out as planned but rather than give it all up, she’s carried on the following day. She tells me that by today, Friday 2 March, she’ll be getting up 50 minutes earlier than she was at the beginning of the year.

kaizen continuous improvement marginal gains

In his book ‘One small step can change your life‘, Dr Robert Maurer writes

‘Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.’

In other words, a big change can sometimes be so big that it invokes our fight or flight response and therefore we resist the change and seek comfort. Breaking a change down into tiny parts can help bypass that response and therefore we can make progress.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: what extremely small step towards improvement can you take today? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment