How to change your habits with Action Inquiry

Ranjan De Silva’s Reflective Process

Joseph tends to get angry when his wife Judy asks him too many questions? He notices this tendency and realizes that his response hurts Judy. But this thought does not come to his mind when he is angry. He feels this is not helpful for their relationship, which has been deteriorating gradually.

You may have faced similar situations with family, friends, colleagues or anyone else you have regular interactions or you may know others who are facing similar challenges. Have you ever wondered why it has been sometimes very difficult to change a habit?

While I have been using techniques of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Transactional Analysis (TA) to help myself and those who come for my guidance, to change habits, I was fascinated by the power and potential of Action Inquiry in achieving real and lasting change.

I first came across the idea of Action Research and Action Inquiry when I started my doctoral studies at Ashridge (now a part of Hult International Business School) two years ago. I was fascinated by this inquiry approach in which practitioners iteratively evaluate and reflect on their implemented strategies to learn about how and why they work. Its origin is attributed to the work of Kurt Lewin (1946). The approach encourages critical reflection on the assumptions on which change is planned and implemented. Action research is considered to be inquiry informed by a theoretical body of knowledge and with an intention to contribute to that body of knowledge. This is not always the case for inquiry in the practice situation.

Lets now examine how Action Inquiry can help change of habits.

Out of the many models available I found the reflective method by G. Gibbs (1988) very helpful. However after using it on myself, I have adjusted the model to help me reflect on the purposefulness of habits. I also added the step of ‘Review’ after ‘Analysis’, as depicted in the illustration of this model. You will see the circle merging on to each other as I feel that reflection may not necessarily happen in this cyclical pattern, it may skip some phases or even reverse as per the situation and the person reflecting. Let me use the example of Joseph and Judy from the first paragraph.

After learning this technique Joseph get’s a note earthy notebook and a nice gel pen and starts journaling when ever a significant, not helpful behaviour occurs. Here is Joseph’s first journal entry written under the seven circles of the reflective cycle.

Experience: It was a stressful day in office. The weekly meeting was filled with blame, mostly towards me for my delay in procurement that resulted in the delay in the implementation of the Stardust project. My trying to analyse the causes of the delay was perceived as excuses and an attempt to pin the blame on others. I was bottling up my anger, as I did not want to make matters worse with an outburst. My boss wanted a remedial action plan before I left office. The meeting had gone way beyond office closing time. I forgot to inform Judy that I was getting late and I did not realise that my phone had gone dead. Soon after the meeting I started working on the remedial plan. I got some sandwiches delivered when I felt hungry. I finally got home past 10 pm, totally stressed, exhausted and angry. As soon as I arrived Judy had a barrage of questions about why I did not inform her, why my phone was not working, where I went, with whom I went, what I ate etc. Each answer from me resulted in more questions and finally I lost it and screamed at her. She screamed back. Accusations were flying both ways.

Emotion: During the argument with Judy I was hurt that I was not trusted and angry that she assumed without trying to understand me. After the incident I was disappointed with myself for not informing Judy in advance and not charging the phone. I was feeling sad that I got angry and shouted at Judy. I was worried that our relationship is deteriorating.

Evaluation: Part of my purpose is to be a loving and caring husband and this behaviour does not help this aspect of my purpose.

Analysis: This incident and the reflection I am doing shows that I have a tendency of getting angry when I am not understood and trusted, specially by Judy. It does not happen with colleagues, as my relationship with them is professional. This does not happen with my children or my parents, as they do not interrogate like Judy does. I also realise that I am aware of this tendency, when and why it happens and the trigger points.

Review: I don’t see a need to change my purpose, life strategy or values. I need to find a way of changing my behaviour to be congruent.

Options: I need to remind myself to call home and keep my phone charged. Perhaps I could have had reminder post-it notes in my office. I could have an alarm set to go off at 6 pm, the time I need to inform Judy of a possible delay. I could call Judy and ask her to come over so that we both go out to dinner after I finish work. I could invite Judy to call me on the office line if my phone is switched off after 6 pm. I could avoid talking to her if I go late and just listen. I could count from 1 to 10 before responding. I could use the NLP techniques ‘outputting’, ‘tranquillity anchor’ and ‘criticism strategy at the NLP workshop I attended a few weeks ago.

Next response: Out of all the options, I will use the ‘post it’ reminder option and ‘tranquillity anchor’ if this happens again.

Joseph tries out his new strategy and finds it improves the situation. He continues to do reflective writing every day, keep fine-tuning his responses until he finds what works for him. He continues this process, which creates a change in a deeper part within him. He also uses this for other unhelpful habits. He later finds himself doing this reflective process in his mind, even during unhelpful situations and choosing better responses in the moment.

I have found this process very useful in living purposefully and fine-tuning my purpose. I hope this process will help you to improve the quality of your life and be of service to your world.

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