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Jim Lucas: So today I am going to be talking to Joe Oliver who is author of Activate your life along with some other gentlemen Jon Hill and Eric Morris who unfortunately aren’t joining us today. But nonetheless we have Joe with us, hello Joe?
Joe Oliver: Hi Jim, how are you?
Jim Lucas: I am very well, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you again. Last time I was you it was up in Birmingham and you were doing some training up there?
Joe Oliver: That’s right, yes we were doing an introductory workshop to ACT acceptance and commitment training. So introducing the idea to some CBT therapists and folk up there. It was an excellent…good workshop
Jim Lucas: And we managed to get in our customary meat feast in the evening.
Joe Oliver: Yes, we did, the classic Birmingham meat feast, something of a tradition now. Every time I hit Birmingham I start to salivate.
Jim Lucas: [Laughs] Well, I am glad it’s become a tradition, it’s much welcomed. So why are we here tonight? Well we are going to talk a little about your book aren’t we?
Joe Oliver: Yes.
Jim Lucas: And Activate Your Life, full title: Using acceptance and mindfulness to build a life that is rich fulfilling and fun. That’s going to fit in with the theme of the show really, which is about finding self help that is of use. That has had some kind of credible evidence-base as well and knowing about acceptance in commitment therapy. Myself I am pretty comfortable that we are in good territory here. Joe, to begin with can you tell us a bit about yourself kind of who you are what you do, where you are?
Joe Oliver: Sure, I am a clinical psychologist based down in London. I work in a variety of different places. I work in the NHS. So I have firm roots with the National Health Service at working. I do a bit of training, training among psychologists in psychological intervention and specialist interest area working with young folk and their families. Coming out of the other side, recovering from episodes of psychosis, so that is what I keep on my NHS work. More so director for contextual consulting which is a consulting firm down in London here. We do lots of training and clinics that are purely focussed on training up people on ACT and at commitment and acceptance therapy or mindful interventions. So we do a wide range of different things there for practitioners, clinicians coaches, psychologists that kind of thing.
Jim Lucas: Before we get a bit into the book and acceptance and commitment therapy, can you say a little bit of when you first got into it and why.
Joe Oliver: Yeah, good question. It was a few years ago now that I very first came across it and it was a good friend of mine Eric who we wrote the book with. Eric Morris, he is really interested in this and he’s got his finger on the pulse to be fair to say a little bit…The new advances, he is an earlier doctor in some respects with technology and he really had his finger on the pulse with that. He just slowly introduced me to it. It is a fascinating model I think. There is a lot of good signs behind it as you were talking about before, a lot of good evidence which is really appealing. And there was just something about it that just personally resonated with me. I don’t know, I am not sure if that is always necessary.
But part of it for me is when I come across a model, or it’s just when something clicks with me, I find that appealing and the thing that stood out to me is , it was in the word acceptance which is a really unusual word, it is catchy, it is provocative and it is hard to grapple with. The thing that unfolds for me is was this peace. It was kind of like, offering this suggestion maybe that the struggle wasn’t always necessary.
And that was just a revolutionary idea for me personally. And perhaps noticing the times of my life where I was struggling against stuff, I was fighting things. Just a suggestion maybe that there is another way to approach this stuff, It was really fascinating. So I started from there, I gradually become more and more involved, and there was a real ACT community out there internationally of likeminded folk. It was really nice to participate in this community, become part of it. And that was another thing that really drew me in as well.
Jim Lucas: Yes, I guess you are talking about the association contextual behavioural science, the ACBS. Which equally I found welcoming and hospitable and very enjoyed being a part of. You are talking about being introduced to it, by Eric who I know is an active twitter. Pointing us into the direction of relevant sides and research, so thanks Eric if you are listening. Lets talk about the book…lets first talk about Jon, lets not leave Jon out, can you say a little about Jon?
Joe Oliver: So Jon Hill, he is a corporate…an execute coach, corporate trainer, he does a lot of wellbeing health resilience training for big companies as part of large roll out of training there. Working also with leaders corporate leaders. And thinking about, really strengthening people’s resilience and using and incorporating mindfulness and ACT within the training that he is doing. So it is really fascinating talking to him from the angle of which he comes at. So you can imagine of the spectrum of people we talk with ACT about, so when I am meeting, say a young person who is going through their very first episode of psychosis and he is working with some leadership exec team, curiously the exact same process is applied. It is a strange thing, but as you can imagine, it is a different language to talk between those kinds of groups of people. So a different language and lingo and a way to convey these different ideas. Him and I and Eric, between us, we have a lot of fun, so figuring this out, thinking that language and different ways of conveying these ideas. It is a really interesting process that sometimes sort of feels like absolutely you are speaking a different language at times.
Jim Lucas: Well, that kind of seamlessly link with my first question for you or my second question for you Joe which is about who the book is for. Is it if you are working with that group over there that you just described and Jon is working with these other group over there. It seems like it has the potential to be for quite a few different people.
Joe Oliver: Yes exactly, you can see the cunning marketing strategy right there that is [Chuckles] We were thinking about making it broadly applicable at the same time really accessible as well. Any language where the technical jargon is dialled down. So us working hard trying to come across with terms and ideas and concepts, metaphors that would relate with people across the board. The book is structured in a way, we have different kind of module parts for different skills. But we also try to cut across some of the main areas that it will struggle with.
The key part where people kind of get locked in a little bit tight as it were, there is not a lot of room to move. Those areas are related to depression and low moods, related to anxiety, related to like problematic anger, anger really gets in the way. Also the other broad aspect about self-esteem or self identity. I guess if you think about it, it would be pretty hard to find someone in the planet who hadn’t at some point in their lives, struggled a little bit with at least one of those issues. We would hope then that the concepts and skills we talk about have a wide degree of applicability.
Jim Lucas: Yeah, we’ve been is some of these experiences or struggles it sounds like you described in there. But somewhere people get stuck which is what you go on to talk about, kind of right at the start of the book, isn’t it? About getting stuck or getting unstuck. Can you say something about that kind of premise and a bit about what you are trying to achieve in the book there.
Joe Oliver: Yeah for sure, we kind of…our angle there is being stuck is a normal part of life and there is nothing strange about it, there is nothing unusual, there is a lot of good opportunities that come from being stuck. Not wanting to come across as a motivational speaker where everything is fantastic and shiny. But we do truly believe that, there is some interesting things that happen within that time of being stuck in life. At the same time we angled it a bit like how to maximize those times and move through them in a skilful and effective kind of way.
So the stick becomes kind of useful, can be not like entrenched, not like unnecessarily spinning of wheels, so thinking about a broad set of skills that can be applied for those points. We also took angle which is to suggest that stuck doesn’t mean broken. Stuck simply means stuck and had to move through that and flourish from those points. Having lives that are rich, fulfilling and fun as we put it, we think that is really important. Also kind of drawing on the fact that as good evidence suggests that for most people most of the time, there is at least some point in their lives that they have actually applied the skills we are talking about. These skills of open where and active, so in some respect what we are suggesting is how to draw on the strengths and abilities that already lie…that wouldn’t necessarily be so intuitive to a client but thinking about using those skills in areas that haven’t been so well rehearsed or used before. It is kind of like the basic angle that we took with the book.
Jim Lucas: Okay, could you give an example of somebody or something that brings in these 3 ideas of open, aware and active.
Joe Oliver: Okay, let me use a personal example from myself that maybe brings us kind of alive a little bit. Personally for me, given my history and what I kind of learnt and experiences that I had, there is times for sure for myself where I noticed myself getting a little stuck or as you can say a little narrow as it were. A recent example of this was when I had to stand in front of a bunch of people and give a fairly unprepared presentation. And I remember walking into the room kind of thinking it would be a group of say 10 people and it turned out to be like 200-300 people. If I am honest I noticed my heart start to pound a little, I noticed my mind start to go and get a little judgment evaluative. And when the first speaker stood up it was like a national expert in the area I was talking in.
My mind went a little faster, heart a little harder and it was an opportunity for me to get re-stuck. And by stuck I mean just falling a little bit into myself. So within that space was an opportunity for me to bring in the skills that we would be writing about. So the first was open, so that meant really genuinely noticing the struggle and the invitation that was going to get caught in the thoughts and feelings and try to get rid of them or try to talk myself out of them or not feel certain things. So bringing a sense of openness to that, allowing those feelings to be there noticing my mind at work, thanking it for doing it’s fantastic job of trying to keep me safe. The second skill was being aware, so bringing a sense of mindful awareness to these processes but also like a little bit spotlighting outwards.
Where my mind really wanted to be caught up with it just gently compassionately, pushing my attention back outwards, back out to the task at hand, the things that were around me. Noticing anxiety ebbed and flowed, my mind going and noticing that. And very lastly really engaging with the active piece, which is kind of like why was this important. And it happened I was there speaking to a bunch of really keen and interested psychologists and therapists about ACT. And application of ACT for focus psychosis, something I am really passionate about, I think there is really something important in there. Keeping that in mind, I was there to do a job and it was an important one, something that really mattered to me. For that instant I was…I allowed myself to experience this anxiety take this risk, step out of my comfort zone and notice the possibility that it all could go horribly wrong and just be mindfully aware of that process and take the step to do something important and active. So, yeah, you could say that wrapping that up. A good example, I could have got stuck, I could like got pulled into it and just bringing slowly those three skills, open, aware active. Just allowed me to participate and do something that was really meaningful for me.
Jim Lucas: Okay, I am getting a sense with your example there Joe of how that getting stuck can happen. And I think of getting stuck in your own head and being really inwardly focussed on those thoughts and worries showing up. And almost like that you are really exaggerating your anxiety and it is becoming worse and becoming preoccupied with that. You are giving a road out, that sounds like a description which is try and take a step back, try to notice that. You said something about thanking your mind there which seems along the lines of not seeing your mind as the enemy. Which is something that is talked about, isn’t it?
Joe Oliver: Absolutely, sometimes that feels a little provocative too. The mind can say some pretty scary things at times. But this is really a new way to build a different relationship with their minds. And it is still at whatever it takes to do that. So not all relationship is based on I always have to listen to my mind, my mind is always right, it always tells the truth, it deserves to be listened to. It kind of stands like…”yeah, thank you, we appreciate that” I have got some other things to focus on. I appreciate the chatter, I am going to refocus outwards, I am going to hold what you say kind of lightly, and not do things that are going to enhance or exaggerate it as you are saying. That struggle or that experience.
Jim Lucas: That tone I hear on your voice I hear where you say ”Hmm yeah” you don’t sound like you are struggling with your mind too much when you kind of respond to it like that.
Joe Oliver: Yeah, you can get that, even as sort of a tone that comes from it is that there is sort of lightness to it. Which is there is some practice in that. Sometimes minds can be really heavy or scary, and doing things just to build in, just to step out of that pilot automatic way of responding was really zooming into our minds. But yeah doing things helped hold that lightly was really important. It is really a nice skill to have and the psychological talk as it were.
Jim Lucas: I guess there is something to say about kind of the trickiness of this as well, you said it takes practice. We are talking about this rather briefly and rather quickly here. The framework you’ve presented can sound simple but I guess in reality it is something different
Joe Oliver: Sure, I would say this is kind of the angle we talk in the book absolutely. These are though just like skills, skills that anyone can learn and we really firmly believe that. And like any skill it takes kind of wrapping the head just a little bit. Takes like a good support of the environment to sort of practice this. The environment that is safe and gives you a lot of positive feedback hugely help. Where there is a lot of opportunity to make some mistakes and screw it up because that will happen and then come back and keep practicing. One of the metaphors I really like, a good friend of me told me was that like folding your arms…I don’t know Jim, if you are like most people you probably fold your arms like in one particular way every time without thinking about it. Automatic pilot, bang your arms go. And usually if you are right handed, your left hand ducks under, whichever way. And when you do it the other way it feels weird, it feels clunky it just like really awkward. Nonetheless though this is the skill we are building in to step out of automatic pilot, to become aware, pause, make room for the clunkiness and really focus on why it is important. And maybe kind of folding the arms the other way, I don’t know, I can’t see the immediate benefit, maybe there is some there. But what if it was about something really meaningful like opening up to someone really close to you or taking a step out and doing sometime really purposeful at work or some big bold move in life. Then by folding your arms you might want to practice a little more and move through that clunkiness. And come out the other side so that the skill that is available you can pull out of your tool kit when you need it at those points.
Jim Lucas: I guess don’t be put off then by things feeling strange just because they are different, just because they are new.
Joe Oliver: Yes, exactly that, that’s such a good point. I think so many times that we are put off just at the very first starting point, right? We start to do it and then it feels weird. It is out of our comfort zone, it just feels natural and we can freak out a little, Minds go “that’s terrible, it’s never going to work, it feels strange” And it is just at that point where with a little bit of extra persistence, encouragement and support to move through that period. And suddenly what do you know, you have got something that is really cool to you that you are able to use.
Jim Lucas: In my experience with the book is that it is trying to take quite a helpful practical approach, it kinds of reminds me of those other books, I have read before in the Overcoming series that focus more on traditional CPT methods. Was that one of the aims exactly to try and make it kind of practical and people are familiar with?
Joe Oliver: For sure, yeah, definitely. That Overcoming series, I absolutely love them. I grew up as a baby psychologists reading and franticly kind of learning these new approaches and I think that is brilliant. I think self help works that are written from a good evidence base. That are written in a clear non-jargony, not necessarily scientific language is so important. Coming from experts not talking about it, making a real effort to translate topics and ideas in a way that people could pick them up and run with them easily. Super important, I think it is a really necessary and vital part of the profession for us to be doing this translational work.
Jim Lucas: Yeah, I think you are helping people to implement, within this book. That I think is really important, content aspect of self-help group material. Because that is what we struggle with, we can digest information, get excited about ideas. But the implementation is where we all fold out.
Joe Oliver: Definitely right, that piece of getting the new ideas, getting the tool kit, taking it out and actually using it. I think it is such a shame sometimes. These cool looking, kind of sexy, shiny tools and they are great. And then a couple of months later you are kind of stuck situation, what do I do? And forget about the cool tool and tool kit. You know, perhaps it sounds a little dull. That I think is really part of any big change. You just simply go, “hey, I remember there is another way to do this.” I think the dull bit is how to remind that this is available. It is like hey this is a new trick here, I don’t always have to fold my arms this way I can do it this other way. That is also available.
Jim Lucas: I guess there was some persistence that was required in writing of the book Joe. Whether you did that on your own or doing it as three. I guess as you worked your way through that, that felt clunky at times, And I guess what I am asking is what is the experience of writing as a trio?
Joe Oliver: It was honestly fun, it really was. It wasn’t all fun, I admit right at the end there the deadline was looming. Were some parts we asked ourselves, why are we doing this, But for a good chunk of it, it was good fun. The three of us we, come from different approaches, different backgrounds, so we have different ideas. We spend a long time, there is a long lead in we spend. Probably 6-12 months of getting together, thinking writing, occasional beer or maybe a chicken wing thrown in there as well. We might have done a little bit of that.
But always to kind of like get the ideas that are flowing around and kind of getting our writing styles as well. It is not only important to have the right ideas but have a way to tell these ideas in a consistent voice. It is important to kind of get across as well. For example Eric and myself, we come from kind of an academic background, writing academic papers. We might come out as a little dry and dusty. For example Jon, he has done tons of writing. He is definitely a wordsmith, he is I think the world’s…as far as I know only video game poet, which gives you an indication of his writing abilities. Bring that all together, different styles, getting a consistent voice was important,
Jim Lucas: It is a good measure of a book where you can’t tell the writers apart through the chapters, because the writing style is so similar.
Joe Oliver: Hopefully we achieved that.
Jim Lucas: Okay, it is lovely to talk to you Joe about the book and I have read it and I use it in my work with my clients and I have some good feedback as well. And I see you have some good 5 star reviews on Amazon. I’d encourage people when they are looking for something along these lines, this is definitely one to pick up. Do you got other books in the horizon Joe?
Joe Oliver: Yes, we are in the process of working to a deadline right at the moment with some other colleagues myself and Eric. Emma Donohue and Louis Johns, the four of us are writing a book on ACT for psychosis. We are pulling experiences in running groups, we’ve done a lot of group interventions over the years. This is a manual for practitioners, we are putting together these ideas and experiences and helping people to setup and run their own groups based on our manual. So it is really exciting, it is a real fun practical book. Not at all academic, making it as user friendly manual as it were. We are very excited by it.
Jim Lucas: Great, and when are you hoping that to come out?
Joe Oliver: Early next year if all is going well, yeah our publishers are breathing down our necks, so that will happen.
Jim Lucas: And you talked about the event in Birmingham that you did in the beginning. You’ve done London, you’ve done Birmingham, you doing any more of these events?
Joe Oliver: Yes, I am doing on the grand tour to Manchester and then up to Glasgow after that. And then back to London again. It is the full tour, it’s the tour bus, the t-shirts, it’s the whole thing.
Jim Lucas: Alright, I’ll keep an eye out for your bus then
Joe Oliver: [Laughter]
Jim Lucas: Okay then, thanks very much Joe, I’ll talk to you soon, thanks for coming on
Joe Oliver: Great thanks for having me on Jim, talk soon.
Jim Lucas: Bye.