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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

Is This The Secret of Life?

by Alan Sieler


You are probably familiar with the expression, “The only certainties in life are death and taxes”. In the increasingly uncertain and ever-changing times in which we live another certainty can be added and this is you can be certain that every day of your life you will be dealing with interruptions, some of which are disruptive.* In this article we want to share some important considerations for effectively dealing with interruptions in order to support you making improvements in the quality of your personal and professional life.


Interruptions and disruptions


Interruptions occur when something unexpected happens that you had not anticipated occurring - your expectation of how the future will occur does not eventuate. Put in another way – your current and anticipated manner of engaging with the world is interrupted. The flow of life you want to be as you take care of what is important to you in is interfered with.


Interruptions come in many shapes, sizes and forms, and they can be positive and negative, ranging from mild irritations, such as being interrupted when you are focusing an important writing task or not being able to find a car parking space as easily as you thought, through to the shattering affect of the breakup of a relationship.


Some interruptions have a short-term effect, and we can deal with them relatively easily. Other interruptions that are significantly disruptive can have long-term effects, lasting for months or even years, continually interfering with our effectiveness to cope with other interruptions.


The prevalence of interruptions and how we deal with them has a major bearing on the quality of our personal and professional life. In the world of Ontological Coaching we have an expression that “Mastery in life is mastery in dealing with interruptions and disruptions”. A vital part of the work of coaches is to assist clients become more effective in how they are engaging in their personal and professional life.


If you are a manager or a leader, much of your working life is about dealing with interruptions and disruptions, as well as anticipating their occurrence and putting measures in place to reduce their impact.


Reflection You are invited to think back over the last few days and identify how many things occurred in your world that you had not anticipated. This includes unexpected phone calls, emails, being taken aback by what someone said, other drivers on the roads, etc. You may be surprised at the number of instances that you identify. Don’t forget to include pleasant occurrences of the unexpected, such as praise from a fellow worker or your boss or an unexpected special moment with someone you care about.


Adjustment and adaptation


Ironically in preparing this article the keyboard has stopped typing the letter “a” – an inconvenient interruption, requiring me to make adjustments and adapt to the situation. (It is amazing how many words have “a” in them!)


Change interrupts and, on occasions, significantly disrupts, our habitual flow of living, which is our way of going about life and making sense of the world. As with other living systems throughout the history of our planet, continuing to engage satisfactorily with the world requires continual adjustment to changed circumstances if we are to successfully adapt.


Adjusting and adapting is not simply a matter of changing behaviour. A behavioural shift in response to change first requires shifts in perceptions, which includes changes in our emotions and thinking (mental) as well as subtle shifts in physiology. In short, unexpected changes in our world often require that we become different or, as we say in Ontology, become a different Observer able to take more effective action.


Much of our quality of life is bound up with how well we adjust and adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Emotions play a critical role in moving towards adjusting and adapting and moving towards mastery in dealing with interruptions and disruptions. Particularly important are:

  • recognising what happens to us emotionally when we experience interruptions and disruptions;

  • making emotional transitions and moving the resourceful emotions;

  • developing powerful underlying moods that better position us to deal with interruptions and disruptions.


Emotions and interruptions


We know that our emotions fluctuate during the day. Some of this fluctuation is influenced by how we emotionally respond to interruptions. The first thing to appreciate with interruptions is that they are always accompanied by the emotion of surprise. You will be familiar with experiencing pleasant surprise with receiving birthday presents or a surprise party, but perhaps have not thought of this emotion as being associated with unexpected unpleasant occurrences.


Many of life’s interruptions come and go and we can take them in our stride and continue to move through the day taking care of tasks at hand and our interactions with others. However, with the frequency of interruptions that we deal with, especially those that are unpleasant, there is a risk of an unhelpful and subtle emotional build up within us.


Emotions play a critical role in how we deal with interruptions because they powerfully shape our perceptions and behaviours. In Ontology we characterise emotions as predispositions for action. With unpleasant interruptions that have an unsettling disruptive affect it is natural to find ourselves in negative emotions, such as shock, anger, hurt and even denial. While these might be understandable responses and it is important not ignore such emotions, they are not likely to assist us to deal with the interruption and get on with life. Therefore an emotional transition is required.


Emotional transition


If we are to successfully adjust and adapt to interruptions, our responsibility is to be in the emotions that will predispose us to think clearly and behave appropriately. When faced with negative interruptions it may be useful to remain angry or fearful for while. However, the risk is that these emotions do not dissipate and they hang round, resulting in a negative emotional legacy. This can develop into deep-seated emotion that persists and becomes a mood so that we are always dealing with interruptions from a negative emotional space.


Here are a number of ways that we can enable ourselves to make successful emotional transitions.

  • Accept the situation and what has happened. What has happened has happened and we do not have the power to change that. Accepting, however, does not mean being passive and agreeing with what has occurred and not wanting to do anything about it. The power of acceptance is that it is an emotional antidote that inoculates us from being trapped in unhelpful negative emotions that cloud our thinking. What counts is how we go forward to deal with the situation. Acceptance is probably our most powerful emotional disposition because it enables us to be flexible and have range of resourceful behaviours available.

  • All emotions and moods occur in the body, so moving the body is crucial. First of all, breathe a little more fully and gradually deepen your breathing. The first thing to be affected in negative disruptions is likely to be our breathing. The brain uses 20 percent of the body’s blood and oxygen, so shallow breathing limits our ability to think clearly. So how can we facilitate deeper breathing? If you can, get up and walk round or go outside and walk slowly and deliberately breathe deeper, just a little bit deeper with each breathe. You can also be stationary and move your body, stretching your arms overhead to open up the diaphragm. Perhaps also have a reminder in your visual field, such as a sign with Breathe on it or a drawing of a mouth exhaling.

  • Curiosity is perhaps the next most powerful emotion to acceptance. Curiosity orients us to be inquisitive and to want to explore, experiment and discover. In the face of unpleasantness we can be curious about how we will deal with circumstances, intentionally using the verb “wonder”; for example, “I wonder how I will go about replying to this email, returning this phone call, having this awkward conversation.”


I am sure that 2014 will bring a range of interruptions your way, some of which may be unpleasant and greatly challenge you. If you can remember to mobilise your breathing and physiology to help you manage your emotional responses, you may surprise yourself with how you flow through life.


* This article is based on the notion of “breakdowns”, which is a central concept in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the methodology of Ontological Coaching. See Alan Sieler’s Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume I.

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