Teaching old dogs new tricks

Changing cellphone numbers is a serious hassle. But I’m considering taking out a new cellphone contract with any company that offers me the service of screening telesales calls. Why? Because I find these calls invasive and irritating and they trigger my short fuse.

Telesales agent: Am I speaking to Mrs Dolny?

Me: Yes you are.

Agent: Mrs Dolny, how are you?

(Now I’m already annoyed. Why is someone whose voice I don’t recognise faking sincerity.)

Me: Who am I speaking to?

Agent: I’m xxx and I’m calling to advise you — (and the sales pitch begins).

Me: Are you calling to sell me something?

To date I’ve never received a straightforward “yes” or “no”—the sales script continues as though I haven’t asked the question. Being ignored triggers my short fuse.

Me: Excuse me. I don’t want to be sold anything. Please get off my phone.

It’s amazing how consistently tele-sales agents ignore my requests and carry on delivering their sales script in the penetrating voice that got them hired in the first place.

I press the red end-call button and am surprised by how irritated I feel.

These unsolicited calls anger me and I don’t like the person I become. Must I just accept that this is the way I am? I grew up understanding that after a certain age, brain cells die off without being replaced and there’s not much that can be done about how we are. I remember being 38 and trying to get a student bursary for post-graduate studies. I was told that 35 was the cut-off date for bursaries, after that universities considered you past it in terms of return on investment.

Hence the reading that has most excited me in the past year has been about the brain’s amazing ability to be flexible and reprogramme itself no matter how old you are. This awesome capability is called “neuroplasticity” and it challenges all previous notions of resigned acceptance. The book I most enjoyed is Schwartz and Begley’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.

Tracking the scientific research done over decades, they graphically describe work first done on primates. Be warned. It’s not pleasant reading. The research discovery is that we can lose the functionality of a limb because of partial brain damage—from a stroke perhaps—and then you can mentally instruct your malfunctioning limb to move in such a manner that eventually results in another part of the brain kicking in. The useless limb’s functionality is resuscitated. Neural imaging records the changes taking place.

But what about behavioural change? Schwartz’s research focused on people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—the worst kind of involuntary response. The OCD is internally generated and sufferers can feel like helpless victims. Again neural imaging of OCD shows up as a sort of unwanted misfiring of pistons in the brain, like a backfiring engine.

Schwartz asked people with OCD to voluntarily try a different approach, which required them to stop taking medication.

From early on in his psychiatric career, Schwartz was interested in self-directed training, which led to his interest in what is referred to in Buddhist practice as “mindfulness”. Schwartz says “through mindful awareness, you can stand outside your own mind as though you are watching what is happening to another rather than experiencing yourself”. Schwartz combines mindfulness training with cognitive behavioural therapy to come up with a regime for treating OCD called the “Four Steps”.

  • Mindfulness insight, noticing the OCD urges;

  • Re-label the response to the compulsion, for example: “This thought reflects a malfunction of my brain, not a real need to wash my hands yet again”;

  • Re-focus: having the presence of mind and willfulness to deflect attention away from the pathological thoughts and replace them with a preferred behaviour;

  • Re-value: recognising that the OCD compulsions can be divested of their power.

This process has had significant sustained success.

If this is what OCD patients are capable of then surely we should be able to deflect amygdala hijacks? I asked a Johannesburg group of coaching colleagues what they advised. One recommended the old-fashioned method: Take a deep breath and count to 10. Another recommended the Neuro Linguistic Programming use of an “anchoring mechanism” to auto-switch your state of being.

A third person said he would interrupt himself with a question: “What am I assuming that’s triggering me here?” And we know from Daniel Goleman’s writing on emotional intelligence that some companies have introduced meditational practice so employees can summon up their mindfulness capability and actively choose to behave differently.

I like the possibility that I can choose not to be a victim of my own short-fuse tendencies. However, all of the above suggestions require an investment in time, self-discipline and practice.

For now I’d like to see legislation that obliges telesales companies to show a user ID on your incoming calls. And then we could simply decide not to take those calls at all. Any other suggestions?

Contact: helena.dolny@gmail.com

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