Work and the Future with Linda Nazareth, featuring Beth Killough
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What Can Animals Tell Us About How to Work Better?
September 16, 2020
Are there things that animals can tell us about how to cope with work stress and ultimately how to work better? Beth joins economist and host Linda Nazareth. In this episode, they discuss how human beings are mammals, but mammals who do not do a good job of being attuned to their own needs and acting on them. At a time when many of us feel that our lives are not completely in control, it may be time to take a cue from that and see if there are ways that we can express our needs in the workplace and ultimately get to a place where we are both happier and more productive as a result.
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Welcome to Work and the Future, a podcast about tomorrow with your host, Linda Nazareth.
Well, hello, and thank you for joining us today. You know, today we’re going to take a slightly different tack. We’re going to talk a bit about mental health at work, but we’re going to talk about how we can perhaps look a little wider for help with that. My guest today is Beth Killough and she works with human beings, but she also works with animals and she brought her two passions together to come to a place where she can look at what we can learn from the animals. She actually says, you know, her work can be a little bit out there for some people, but right now, maybe we need to be a little bit out there. Maybe we need to look for lessons from as many places as we possibly can. You know, and that’s the case, she actually lives near Silicon Valley or people are stressed and they’re looking for ways to get things done quickly. And some of the things she’s come up with have been very effective for the people she’s dealing with. So keep an open mind about this. This is a really interesting conversation and she has some practical insights about how all of us can deal with the stress being in a very different world where we sometimes feel we have no control at all the things around us. So very insightful things ahead.
The pandemic may have forced many of his home and that’s making it hard for us to connect as a team, but even just with other people. But according to our guests today, this lack of connectivity did not really start with the pandemic. Beth Killough was a psychotherapist and she runs the take a chance ranch, where she draws on animals, horses, and chickens to provide lessons in wellness and leadership. She joins us now from Morgan Hill, California. Hi, Beth hi. I always like to start by asking people how they ended up, where they are now in start your career, probably doing what you’re doing. How did you get there?
It’s been a circuitous path, which I’ve learned to trust wholeheartedly that a lot of the plans that we make end up comical when you see where life ends up taking us. But I, I actually began as a poetry professor and that led me into a lot of introspective work with my students. And I decided to follow my lifelong passion for understanding the inner human world and got a graduate degree in clinical psychology and then went on and got licensed as a therapist. I’ve been teaching all the way through my career. And
I’ve also had a lifelong passion and parallel track with my own studies and interest in animals. And about 10 years ago, the therapy component and the animal component began to converge on their own terms. I didn’t create that. It just started to, they started to make sense together. And the more that I worked with people and my animals the more I began to see that the things that we do when we’re talking about human rights or some limitations in terms of what we can learn and heal and develop in ourselves. But the experiences with the animals deeply opened up and quickly opened up things for people in really new ways. And that turned into, . Honestly, what happened is somebody asked me if I would work with their team. And I very quickly learned that. And I’ve known this from working with my clients in my clinical practice, that the whole world of work was a variable painful, often traumatic, grief filled place.
That was getting, I would say, surface level developing and training, but was really not addressing culture from I would say from… it wasn’t, it was scratching the surface of what was needed for the people. And so people were doing lots of box checking and kind of doing training, but, and talking about what was needed, but, but it was really not helping people connect. And so I started doing more work with teams and then my business, which is actually called the circle up experience. It was, yeah. And I do a lot of that work here at my ranch and we’re going to help, but I also work with groups all over the country and overseas, and I will, yeah. I love working with the herd of horses that I have here, but I, but I’m able to do this work wherever I go.
As long as we have horses and nature are our experimental ground where we really learn more about ourselves.
I want to talk all about that. But first I should say you are near Silicon Valley, correct. The stress. This is not something that came with the pandemic. It’s something you’ve seen for a long time.
Yeah. I, the pandemic opened up a conversation that I’ve been having with my clients for years. Okay. And a much needed conversation about really a mental health pandemic. It’s, a mental health crisis that is very much invisible yet. If you look at the data around health issues in the workplace, it’s quite visible. And but it had not been painful enough for people to take a stand do something different about in this pandemic has opened up that conversation in such a profound way. But I’ve been seeing all of the things that the many, many, many of us, most of us, I think we could say are experiencing around isolation and fear and lack of connection.
That’s, that’s been going on all along, even when we could work in person.
So why is that? You’re talking about a mental health crisis at work for most people, and it’s gone on for decades, presumably what’s causing this.
So I’m trained in systems theory. And so my, my job is to zoom out until we can understand it at a systemic level. And so this component that I’m talking about around culture that has to do with how we do our relationships really is rooted in some socialized norms of niceties and politeness. And I’ll just be real Frank not, not a lot of honesty and not really not knowing how to do honest feedback. And so the human animal that I, I talk about a lot, the human herd that we are human animals. We have this ability to need something in any given moment or even see something that’s needed and not do anything about it, which is unique to other animals because they, other animals have a need and they, they take care of it.
We don’t, and we live in environments and work in environments where we are taught to essentially stuff our needs. And, you know, Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer says that humans are the only mammals that follow unstable leadership. So we, we follow leaders that are not necessarily emotionally attuned or stable, that create cultures that are not stable or open. And aren’t able to have honest feedback. So we can’t adjust things to get our needs met. And if you do that and live in that circumstance long enough, I mean, it’s probably starting to sound like I’m describing a dysfunctional family, but I am. What happens is we start to develop symptoms as any other animal in captivity would.
A lot of people would recognize that they’d say, yes, that’s my boss, he’s an unstable animal, but how do you cope if you’re the person who has that manager?
So there are a couple of things. I mean, I think one is that people are actually shapeable and teachable and can become open, but we have to learn to tolerate the, I’m going to, I’m just going to call it anxiety, but I don’t mean it in a diagnostic way, but we have to tolerate the anxiety of leaning into difficult conversations and giving feedback about what’s needed. And so those difficult bosses are often bubble wrapped and we have not let them know what’s going on, what’s needed in their cultures, but you know, there are, but there are many, and I’ve worked with them when they discover, first of all, that their people aren’t happy that there are people are suffering, they’re heartbroken, and I’ve seen them get really angry that, that they, that, that was hidden from them. And it was, you know, on the one hand, it’s like, well, if your eyes were open, you could see it.
But it also a lot of people overperform and over function in front of their bosses because they think they’re supposed to appear like they prop themselves up. And so it’s really, I mean, I don’t want to sound too extreme about this, cause I know my work already is a little on the fringe, but it’s a bit of a world of lies. Like were there just very subtle ways that we make ourselves seem more okay than we are? And we don’t let bosses know what’s actually needed with solutions in mind, not just whining. And then we don’t have our, I think a lot of people get into a kind of a state of learned helplessness where they like, well, this is how it is. And so I just have to kind of, you know, dock and cover, which is a very disempowered mindset.
So one component is learning some interpersonal pieces around how to interact and actually be part of shaping culture, even if you’re not the boss. And then the other is working with your own empowerment issues so that you can make changes that are within your reach and that can make a world of difference for people. And then finally, the third part is that there are times that we’re working in a system or with people that are not shiftable, that there’s kind of a brick wall there, and we can still learn to take care of ourselves around it with better, with healthier boundaries and, and be, be okay while we’re there, as long as we’re choosing to be there. So there are ways of working when changing a system, working with what is, but I think what we mostly do is kind of go into this freeze state in our nervous system, and then work 40 to 80 hours a week in it, mostly in our head, not tending to our body, our emotional relational selves and dying inside.
So let’s talk about how the animals can be part of the solution. You actually do therapy using horses and using other herds.
I do. I’m I really my work in the last, I would say seven to eight years has moved away from therapy and more into just human development and leadership development and culture building. And so a lot of the groups that I work with or executives that I work with were, you know, it, it, I have a therapeutic context because of my background, but what we’re working on is an aspect of our development that is, you know, teaching coaching consulting, and yes, there’s a clinical piece. But I’ve really moved out of the therapy realm at this point, because, because of the stigma, which you know, is that’s also part of our systemic problem is that mental wellness is seen, it’s been medicalized.
And so the reason why I expanded my scope too, and broadened it outside of therapy, was to reach more people that have mental symptoms, mental, emotional symptoms that would normally not necessarily get therapy. So the animal piece is, it’s a fast track. The animals pick up on quickly what’s going on inside of us, even before we do. So they’re the horses in particular, as prey, animals are wired to sense safety or not-safety in their environment. And a lot of the time what humans are doing, as I described is kind of this in-congruent dance of I’m okay, but I’m really not okay. And horses pick up on that discrepancy and they give us feedback about it. And so they’re kind of like a biofeedback, it diagnostic Sage, they step in and show us and mirror what’s going on inside, but in a really gentle way.
So when things feel off, they pause, they show us where there’s pressure in the relationship. They, they walk away, they’ll actually walk away from us and then come back when we straighten things out inside of us. And so we do all kinds of activities, but what happens is the horses just very quickly break through all of the thinking and language and story about who we are and what we are and what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished and what they get to is this mammal piece that has a lot of meat. And so they help us find that part of ourselves and begin to feel it and attend to it and trust it.
And you’ve been using these methods with business, and I assume large companies, is there an openness to doing this stuff? Because it sounds really interesting, but when I think of corporate North America, I wonder how open they are to some of these ideas.
It’s both. I think that people, I mean, you, I think people are only so open to leadership development or therapy in general. I think people are scared of what we still refer to as soft skills. And there’s a bias there that we’re, we have an ongoing task of breaking through. And so the element of bringing the horses into it, and there’s a lot of science around the effectiveness of the horse work, and it’s very behavioral and very practical and fast. And so at least in Silicon Valley, those are factors that people value. And so and it’s different. And I think people are sick of being talked at and taught, you know, in a more traditional way. And so I think the experiential component and especially right now where we’ve really seen how nature and being outdoors and animals, how much we’ve relied on those elements of our lives when we’ve been sheltered in place.
And then the quarantine, and in this, you know, these last several months, we’ve reacquainted with those elements as very key to stress management. And so I think when I invite people to come to my ranch and do some work on themselves and with their team and that the skills that they’re going to learn with the horses are very applicable and that’s, you know, my job is to make sure we make, we bridge that and, and integrate what their learnings are into their everyday work life. I think it’s refreshing, of course, there are people that say it’s too weird, or, you know, but you know, and that’s fine. That’s, you know, I, I, I think it’s just a matter of openness to this kind of work in general.
So for somebody who’s stressed right now, because there’s a lot of things that we can’t control and who can’t necessarily do this therapy right now, what are some of the lessons you could share with them?
So there’s, there’s a couple of things. One is we, you know, we’re doing a lot of virtual work, right? We’re, we’re connecting like you and I are right now with just audio or we’re connecting with audio and video through our screens and we’re able to use it, or let me rephrase that. We’re, we’re, we have to learn a new set of skills that accesses our ability to connect more deeply. And so, but that begins with a practice of settling in which is what we call it in my natural leadership model, settling in to first and foremost, to my, my stable leadership, my self leadership, and we are so busy and our pace is so fast that we’re not always tuning in and slowing down to make sure we’re taking care of that part of ourselves. So just slowing down and settling into our day or into each activity and allowing our body, our nervous system, our mind, our heart to come to the table and giving it just a couple of minutes to, to be able to integrate so that we can bring all those parts to what we do can make a huge difference.
And so that means building in just a little bit of time and awareness, and to get started with that habit, a lot of people will set an alarm so that they even if you took a minute and a half at the top of every hour, just to settle into yourself so that you are weaving in some awareness practice into your day can make you more able to be present with others and our presence being present in ourselves and being aware and awake is actually what supercharges our leadership. It’s what attracts people to us or enlivens the relationship. So it has to start with how you bring yourself to the table. And I think a lot of times our self care practices are very external. Like we go have something done to us, like a massage, or, you know, they’re very much these, you know, sporadically scheduled activities versus something we do all day.
So, one of the lessons from the animals is that they are taking care of themselves all day, every day, their entire lives. And that’s a really critical component for humans to learn. I have a daughter who’s almost 10 years old and I’ve been weaving that practice into her life since she could talk. And she, and all the feedback that I get from her teachers and coaches and all of that is she’s so aware of herself, like, yeah, she said, that’s my greatest gift. I can teach her so that she can take care of herself. And she has beautiful leadership. People are attracted to her because of that.
Okay. So for somebody who is working out, what are the practical things to do that? Because it sounds great, but I think people are kind of lost and they just kind of go from one task to another because that’s what the workplace is like.
Right. So, Mm. I think it’s helpful to split the day into three parts and to look at, you know, what, what do, what kind of activity or practice, and it can be a little doing need when I start the day, what do I need to do to transition from home life, into my work, my kind of work consciousness and what, and then, you know, when I, how do I want to move from one work activity to the next, like, what would feel good? And you always want to go back to the body. The body is always honest. The animal body knows what you need, where we get into trouble is when we ignore that or suppress it, or when we don’t, when we’re, we actually aren’t aware of our own needs, but typically things that we need are around connection with others or not like we need actually a little bit of quiet time or space.
So even if it’s two minutes where we can withdraw a little bit into like our own internal space or dropping in and just connecting with somebody and you know, how are you, what’s going on? Like having a meaningful exchange of connection. Another thing is movement, where our bodies are designed to move all day and we don’t move nearly enough. And I think sometimes we think it’s supposed to be exercise, but just getting up and moving around. So I used to work when I had a therapy practice, more traditional and an office setting outside of my home years ago, I had a practice of getting up in between my clients and going on a walkabout for 10 minutes. And I did it all day and it allowed me to see eight to 10 people a day. And I would take photos while I was outside. I’d find something beautiful to look at. And you know what we’re starting, what you’re starting to do is layer in that you are this whole person that has relational needs that has the need to get fresh air and move. And it re and what it does is it nourishes us on such a, like a primitive, fundamental level that when we come back into whatever we want to work on next we’re refreshed. So it’s, it’s like, a reset, and we need those all day.
So how does the pandemic play into this? I hear people say they’re more stressed than ever, even though they’re working at home, do you think we’re going to come out of this better or worse mental health?
We already have statistics around the mental health crisis has increased dramatically. And so it’s, we’re, we are, it depends, I think on an individual level, we that’s, that is the question is how, how do you want to come out of this better or worse? And that’s a, that at this point, a lot of that can be changed depending on how we’re taking care of ourselves. So the isolation piece and the level, of managing the stress of home life and work life at the same time, are inhibiting people’s ability to take care of themselves. So even things like the time that it would take for people or that people have when they commute, you could consider alone time, even though it’s stressful, especially in places like Silicon Valley, where traffic is awful, it’s still time where you’re in your vehicle by yourself, where you can choose what you listen to, or who you talk to.
And you’re, there’s a transition point. And a lot of people talk about how that’s gone. And so you’re commuting from your kitchen to whatever, you know, sometimes people are in like, you know, their garage, or like, I have a client who takes calls in their like water heater closet in order for it to be quiet and private. And so what’s happening in there. There aren’t any of these natural transitions in our day where we’re allowed to do those resets and the stress of, of home life, whether it’s marital or parenting, or being alone. A lot of those things that we used to be able to escape the pressures of now they’re in our face, they’re in our faces.
From a leadership standpoint, are companies doing enough to acknowledge us?
No, no, the answer was no before. And the answer is still no. And so I think that companies are doing what they usually do, which is to talk about the value of work life balance to talk about things on a value basis that they, you know, they’re trying to do things like allowing, giving people a percentage of time off, especially if they’re doing distance learning with their children at home.
So I’ve seen a lot of adaptations like that that are tactical, but there isn’t necessarily the support given, or really highlighting the need for emotional support relational support and helping, you know, really coaching people and talking through how to, so their value piece is there. And this is often what I see, but really seeing how to embody that, how to, how to operationalize it or animate those values. And so people don’t believe that they can have the boundaries that they need, and they feel even more inclined to try to prove that they’re working hard, but people are so insecure about losing their jobs that I think they’re frantically working harder. And I think we’ll see a lot. Well, I think we’ll see the mental health crisis play out for the next in, then you’ll see the numbers escalate for the next three years.
This is a reset of a kind, right. It is to make it work and come out better. Yeah.
You know, if you look back in history, I grew up outside of Detroit. And so it was the first area, obviously that, you know, had sergeants of automobiles and paved roads and suburban sprawl. And so people started working further away from where they lived and, you know, the industrial revolution created that phenomenon. And now what we’re doing is we’re, there’s a, there’s like a, a snap back to this, this old way. So we used to live and work more locally, and we have to relearn how to do that and how to do that in ways that promote wellness and connection and community. And so, and I know that that’s really hard when we’re scared of exposure for, you know, you’re not going to have physical health.
So we have to be creative about how we do that. And a lot of the focus for people that are working and people that are working with children is creating that for our kids or making sure we’re checking all the boxes at work. And I think the piece we need to expand into is, and how are we creating that for ourselves? So, you know, we, we will focus on making sure we can do all our work things and stay connected to the tactical, but how do we make sure that we’re building work community within work and staying connected to each other and really checking in with each other. And then the same thing is true, you know, more locally in our friendships and family and any of the community groups that we’re involved in. And it really is a matter of, you know, back to this practice of how do I slow down and take care of myself all day, every day.
And then this other piece that the animals teach us, which is that we need each other. And so how, what are our practices of reaching out to others and really checking in not just the social niceties, but deeply checking in and having those people that, that you really do let yourself need and that you can be there for. And, you know, when we worked closer to home and we had more tight knit communities, and you’ll hear this from people in small towns, and I really learned this in my animal world where, you know, people stick together and are there for each other, and there’s no doubt about that. And you can really lean on people in a different way, and we have to relearn that
Beth, Thanks so much for being here today. Thank you, Beth Killough is founder of the circle up experience. Well, that’s it for today. If you do want to find out more about Beth and her work, please take a look at our show notes. You’ll find some links to her work and to her bio, if you did like this podcast. And if you do like the talking about the future of work, please take a minute to leave a rating or review wherever you listen to your podcasts will really help people find this and also really broaden the conversation. If they can find it. If you want to connect with me, I’m on Twitter at relentless eco. Thanks so much for joining us today and thanks as always to Stokely audio for audio production,
To learn more about work and the future, and to see show notes, go to The Work and the Future Podcast. You can also contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The work in the future podcast with Linden Nazareth is a Relentless Economics Production.
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