Paul Smith taught me the power of accepting your reality, no matter how hard it is. By the time I met him, he was in the advanced stages of Motor Neurone Disease, a condition that occurs when nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord stop working properly. He could no longer brush his own teeth and struggled even to reposition himself to be more comfortable on the couch during our interview. Paul was one of 50 remarkable people whom I had interviewed to discover how they were able to flourish in the face of adversity. Those 50 ‘Thrivers’ have taught me everything I now know about resilience, and write about in my book, ‘9 Secrets to Thriving’.
Paul Smith used to be The West of Scotland Body Building Champion, and a gifted martial arts practitioner. Initially he saw the disease as another opponent to conquer, but he later recalled the advice of a Buddhist Nun whom he had practised meditation with. She told him that he would not be able to move forward until he fully accepted and made peace with having the disease. She told him that inner peace is the start of the healing process, and peace cannot exist when we continue to fight reality. She wasn’t suggesting he lie down and give up. She was saying that recovery could only begin if Paul accepted the extent of the condition that he needed to recover from. Paul saw that he had to take a step back to go forward; he had to be easier on himself, to accept and work with the limitations of his condition. By not accepting his physical limitations, by trying to push himself to do things he could not do, he was reducing his emotional resilience. He was constantly frustrated and angry. Those destructive emotions ultimately made him feel worse.
The importance of ‘acceptance’ was echoed by most of the 50 Thrivers and I developed the ‘AVA’ model as a result of the insights they shared with me. AVA is an acronym with 3 components,
- Acceptance. Until we accept what has happened, we cannot respond effectively to reality.
- Validation. Until we accept how we feel, we cannot shift to a more resourceful state.
- Action. Once we accept and validate, then we can take action that is within our control and influence.
I was working with a leadership team on building mental resilience last week and we spent some time talking about AVA and how to apply it in practice. This model really caught their attention and they were keen to discuss how to use it with teams having to deal with further disruption in light of yet more work changes imposed by tighter Covid restrictions.
The Chief Executives in the group could see how accepting reality first and foremost, and talking about how that impacted everyone in the team would lead to the team feeling a greater sense of connection – and responsibility for taking effective action.
‘But how would you manage an AVA discussion without it descending into a moaning shop?’, one of the Chief Executives wondered. An AVA discussion is ultimately action-focussed and that’s what distinguishes it from simply ‘complaining’. If you don’t make the time and space to reflect on what is happening and how that feels for the team, you risk failing to see all aspects of the problem that need to be resolved – and therefore risk taking action that’s not fully effective.
I often use AVA on a personal level too, when I feel concerned or even anxious about an upcoming meeting or a decision I need to make. Just this morning I used it to work through why I felt a little anxious about a leadership development session I’m delivering later this week. What is it about this session I was struggling with, I wondered? After only a moment’s pause, I realised it was the responsibility of ensuring 12 leaders with varying experience and expectations each got the maximum value from the programme.
I have been doing leadership development work like this for over 20 years, and every time I design a new programme, I feel keenly the responsibility of ensuring an incredible learning experience for each delegate, even though their needs vary significantly. I call this ‘appropriate anxiety’. After all, it drives me to do my utmost to serve them to the best of my ability. As soon as I realised it was ‘appropriate anxiety’, I was comforted. It’s normal, and comes from caring about how to support those I work with. I was then ready to focus on ‘action’, with a clear mind and a heightened determination to get the content spot on.
Before you leap to action to solve a problem, pause. Have you fully accepted a difficult reality, and explored how you really feel? In what ways are you concerned, disappointed, frustrated, angry? We tend to resist feeling uncomfortable emotions, yet they often hold precious clues to what we are really struggling with. We need to know that, so we can ensure that our action plan is solving the right problem.
If you want to THRIVE THROUGH 2022 then join my online course HERE.