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As statistical tools for assessing probability and making predictions of the future keep getting more and more common, it may follow that we fall in love with the simple linearity that they typically represent. Especially human characteristics and behavior that are to begin with fundamentally difficult to verbalize, theorize and in the end quantify, are however most typically measured and predicted through linear models. Although this makes aspects of the human existence more accessible in reasonably reliable and valid ways, it is a mistake to assume that the whole can be captured in such a straightforward manner. As this type of information about human characteristics increases and becomes more accessible, the importance of relevantly using and assessing it becomes highlighted.

Information about customers can also be gathered, combined and modeled to a great extent to build detailed and intricate pictures of their needs. However, a product or service designed only based on statistical predictions and segmentation may not capture immeasurable variables strongly influencing behavior such as context, feeling or intuition. Intuition contains vital information for human decision-making but as it is primarily nonverbal, its importance is difficult to assess. In fact, it is difficult to even discuss, which may be the reason it is often deemed worthless. Intuition or emotion are rarely singled out as important factors for example in corporate decision-making. When money is in question, we feel the need to make exact predictions. Statistics provide ways to make assuring-looking predictions and feel security through containing wild human characteristics into neat linear depictions of behavior.

So what to do when there is clear need to create more understanding and more somehow tangible information about human behavior, be it in recruitment, sales or marketing? Test results and averaged statistical data will only make a normalized prediction that at least in part typically misses the personal, unique point. Using test results singly or assuming customer needs only based on segmentation will inevitably lead to mistakes at least at some individual point. The answer is simple: ask people. A human mind is paramount when it comes to combining information and making decisions in context. Customers are the ones to ask when you want to know more about their needs, desires and factors influencing purchase. Interaction and communication makes statistical information come to life and really serve a purpose.

The true value in services like psychological assessment, that aim at creating understanding about human behavior, does not only lie in methods but in human reasoning that puts it all together and communicates interpretation to others. Statistical methods cannot yet fully obtain the complexity and nonlinearity of human decision-making or dynamics of personality. This is not to say that they are useless – well-built methodology provides a way to concretely process information about people, offers a common language for communicating about personal qualities and in the hands of an expert helps create a wholesome picture of a person. The mistake is to use methodology without expertise, or make decisions based on it without listening to feeling or intuition. These two types of information, verbal/quantifiable and nonverbal/intuitive complement each other in enlightened thought.

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The importance of recovery from work-related stress in supporting personal wellbeing has been widely researched in health and organizational psychology. The mechanisms for recovery can be divided into psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery and experiencing control. The recently held annual Psychology Congress of Finland provided detailed insight especially about the mechanisms and effects of psychological detachment in relieving job related stress. The information in this text about psychological detachment and its effects on wellbeing is based on the articles and work of Dr Sabine Sonnetag.

Psychological detachment can simply be defined as not thinking about work-related issues after work hours. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing has been thoroughly researched as well as the characteristics of different kinds of employees and the ways they handle work related stress. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing is evident through for instance decrease in fatigue and negative affect. Detachment is especially important when job demands and time pressure are high. However, it has been found that employees who highly identify themselves with their work, and could thus be expected to also experience high job demands and time pressure, do not use detachment as a way to relieve job stress as much as people with less personal identification with work. It seems that the people most in need of the protective influence of detachment have a relationship to work that makes detaching somewhat impossible.

When thinking about modern information intensive work that pervades the typical limits of working hours and places, it may be that it will present individuals with increasing challenges for recovery from stress by detachment. What to do when work is no longer defined by work hours and work roles that can be isolated from other facets of life? Is high job-related stress inevitable when people find work in which they wish to immerse?

It seems intuitively reasonable that thinking about work related matters during non-work time, or failing at detachment, may increase experience of work-related stress. However, the pathological nature of work-related thoughts is difficult to comprehend: What is the difference between thinking about a concept that has to do with what you do for a living than for instance one about your leisure time interests? Is the pathology of work-related thinking created more by loss of control over thought processes than the contents of the thoughts themselves?

Loss of control over thoughts is a characteristic of the mind that is already noted as a factor in many mental illnesses. Increasing control over thought processes is a major goal of many psychotherapies and as a part of metacognition a vital cognitive process in learning and intelligent human function. Increasing metacognitive awareness and skills could provide a way for busy people to support wellbeing despite high immersion in work. Especially activation of negative work-related thoughts has been connected with increased fatigue and negative affect. Using metacognitive skills and control to stop negative thought cycles about work-related issues, identifying the most important things to think about and recognizing their influence on emotions and wellbeing would provide concrete and powerful internal tools to support stress management in lack of possibilities for detachment.

What could help in creating a sense of detachment in highly engaging information intensive work is finding a new way of thinking about work. People’s lives are in any case filled with a constantly transforming mass of subject matters and tasks. Some tasks and subjects are defined as work and people are rewarded money for letting these take up their time and brain activity. Some for instance have to do with hobbies and can activate a person and take up time and energy without any direct monetary consequences. A person’s work can in itself contain profuse tasks and subject matters varying in how motivating, challenging and rewarding they are. If the tasks that make up leisure time and the tasks that make up work would lose their imaginary boundary of definition, there is no reason why thinking about one work-related subject matter could not produce detachment from another. When thinking of tasks in this way, there would actually be no reason to specifically strive for detachment. Everything a person does is transient attachment, to different kinds of parties, matters and with different material and non-material consequences. For true stress relief and long-lasting wellbeing, it would be best to create as much positive, energizing and rewarding attachment as possible within and outside work-related circles. Detachment from one thing happens by itself through attachment to another.

One of the ethical rules that psychologists obey is the need to keep psychological test material  secure and confidential. For example American Psychological Association APA has very clear rules about confidentiality about test material and results. It is understandable that for example disclosure of right answers in some intelligence test might jeopardize its’ validity because the situation that should be new for everyone taking the test would be familiar. In the same way, ethical rules for psychologists demand that psychologists do not reveal any other test items or information about what they measure.  Disclosure has the potential to invalidate the accuracy of psychological tests and thus harm clients of psychologists who require accurate and valid assessment of their psychological attributes. Psychologists should therefore be mindful of these principles in handling psychological test material and releasing this material.

Keeping the individual’s test results confidential is a principle that every psychologist obeys and I don’t want to question this. However,  I would like to play with the thought that what would happen if there would be more publicity in the field of psychology and about tests in general – if more and more non-personal test material would be public, what kind of effects would it have? Would making different test more public help psychologists in their mission to help people develop their self-consciousness and help people realize their fullest potential? Would test development be ruined or be more effective?

Anyway, some copies of well-known tests seem to appear in the internet anyway – and a lot of self-help tests with more or less psychological knowledge behind them. And unfortunately, a lot of “helpful advice” also seems to exist on how to answer to different tests to appear smart, outgoing etc.

I sometimes wonder what would be better – to keep the test material as a professional secret as it is today or to systematically share some test information.  Is possessing some critical information about tests the strenght of psychologists today or would sharing some of this possessed information be a more powerful strength? I’m a huge fan of Linus Torvalds because of what he managed to do with open source software and I would very much hope some kind of similar development in the field of psychology when developing psychological tests.

Even if everything could not be shared, where could we begin? I’ve already seen some very promising applications that provide pre-screening of some mental problems – giving some preliminary answers to persons with problems that should they seek  professional help or are their problems in the range on normal difficulties that can be mastered alone or with the help of friends.

Finnish  employment offices also have some personality and motivation tests  that give guidance to young people about what kind of professions they should choose. It’s just a shame that the professions are nor the same any more but are in continuous change and so also the tests seem to get old faster than a group of professionals have the time and resources to develop them. I think that this nicely illustrates the need for some co-operation and increased openness.

Professional life today is changing more quickly than ever thus creating new challenges for people and their mental health. This is where psychologists should join their strengths together and also listen to the feedback of their clients. I’m afraid that just individual groups of psychologists cannot do this but we would really need broad activity within psychologists and the clients utilizing psychological information. I don’t have specific answers what should we psychologists do right now about this challenge – maybe more thorough feedback about test results to persons that have been taken different tests is the first step – but about beginning truly sharing issues, what would be the next step? With this question I hope to open further this discussion about what to share with whom and when. In general, I have a lot of faith in discussion and interaction between psychologists and their clients.

Currently companies use psychological assessments in increasing numbers. Traditionally assessments have been considered to be good when they produce valid information about the candidate to the persons making the recruitment decision. This is the case also today, but increasingly companies have begun to pay attention to the candidate experience. Companies are competing with each other to get the best professionals available and candidate experience in the whole recruitment process seems to be a key factor in promoting good corporate image and thus creating an attractive company for talented employees. With well managed psychological assessment there is a lot of potential to create a positive candidate experience for both the candidates that will be selected to the position and also the candidates that are not selected.

How should an assessment be constructed to get the best possible candidate experience? Methods used in the assessment play a vital role and so does the general atmosphere during the assessment.  The most essential part is what happens after the assessment – has the candidate learned something valuable for the future? Maybe some insight about her behavior –  how to best use her assets and what kind of improvements would best help her to to move towards her valued goals?

The current paradigm about assessments is more about measurement than about development. It is even considered unfair or  not objective if some learning takes place during the assessment – that is considered to bias the assessment or future assessment. I think that measurement and development can be done simultaneously if we aim at developing work-related general competencies and not only the competency of “how to behave in an assessment to make the results seem good”. If we measure some general competencies that are needed in various positions and in measurement use excercises that also develop these competencies,  that is good both for the candidate experience and for the company recruiting: the candidate can strengthen competencies that are useful even though she would not be recruited as a result of the assessment.  She will probably associate this positive learning experience with the company and tell positive things about his experience (and the company). Is she is recruited, the company gets a candidate with increased competency.

Just think about the vast possibilities of promoting self-awareness and metacognition, communications skills and also some position-relevant competencies. Assessment has vast potential in both measuring and developing widely needed general competences needed in working life today: like understanding how to communicate with different people, how to network, sell own ideas to others, to organize own work in an efficient manner,  what to do when facing a completely new situation, how to operate in a complex organization where responsibilities are in continuous change, how to operate in a to understand the possibilities and limits of own resources when there is more than enough of work to be done.

In brief, my recipe for an assessment that develops relevant competencies and promotes positive candidate experience  is using a lot of work samples and work simulations  in assessment and giving the candidate the best possible tools for self-reflection and developing her ways of thinking and behaving in these situations. From the perspective of a consultant conducting assessment I have good experiences about simulations and work samples and the candidates assessed have also frequently given good feedback about this type of excercises. The best feedback usually is that the candidate has learned something about her behavior or has had some insight how to behave differently in some situations. For example,  a few days ago I participated to an assessment center that aimed at selecting  salespersons that should sell premium brand cars to very demanding customers. When given feedback one candidate thanked for the good experience because he had learned that even though he thought that he is able to do a very profound analysis of the customers needs he still tends to skip some parts in discussing the customer needs – now he had developed an insight what to discuss more with the client and at what stage to do that.  In addition to that, he had already earlier also developed a unique style in contacting the client by phone but was a bit unsure how it was received by the customer. He was very pleased about the positive feedback and was happy to discuss which for kind of situations his tactics would best suited.

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The concept of self, the dynamics of the mind and the mechanisms of consciousness are ideas which, despite great advances in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, still remain unexplained. People operate smoothly in everyday life through these functions but their definition still somehow escapes the logic and reasoning of which minds are capable.

When a person becomes interested in taking a deeper look at his thought processes or in understanding the personal meaning of his existence, more questions may arise than answers. If thought processes or the feelings tied to them do not define who a person or what his mind is, what then does? If a person is for example able to separate the definition of his self from a maladaptive thought content and decide to attach it to a different thought content with more positive ramifications, what is the stable part of the self that defines who a person is?

The only thing that is stable, continuous and that one can truly be certain of is the experience of “I am”. The pure feeling of existence or existing is stable throughout life, while the cells in our body change and the functions of the mind undergo huge developments. The feeling of existence is the only thing that you can really count on and as such may be a great source of comfort and energy. When recognized, it can provide a feeling of continuation in the midst of the relentless transience of other aspects of life.

Many philosophies and even some religions concentrate on definition of the self, the soul or human existence. Some psychological constructs such as metacognition provide ways to cultivate self-perception and awareness, but ultimately it seems that the mind cannot be defined by thought functions generated within it. The self cannot be wholly defined and explained by the mind’s functions, because in the end, the self is more than only a collection of intellectual and emotional constructs.

Scientific attempts to define consciousness and the self are very rare even within psychology that as a science strives to analyze and explain human behavior. Most research concentrates on models of neural interaction, neurological correlates to psychological events or theoretical models of psychological functions. A comprehensive explanation of what the mechanisms that produce a concept of self are or how consciousness could be explained are apparently too vast questions about too ill-defined constructs for research. A quick search through one article database returned only 4 articles, with two of them concentrating on coma.

One brave article on the concept of self relies on the theory awareness and consciousness as only be by-products of neural interaction. According to this principle of organizational invariance for example replacing any or all of the neurons in a human brain with microchips that have the exact same excitatory and inhibitory functions as the neurons would not alter consciousness as a phenomenon. This idea starts coming pretty close to esoteric concepts of cosmic consciousness but takes us quite far from trying to understand specifically human existence. It seems that whilst waiting for means of more refined measurement of the mind and the brain, all that people can do is speculate.

So what is the point of this kind of thinking? It may not be fruitful action to spend the majority of one’s time thinking about how to define the self and one’s existence. However,  as a thought for the mind to experience, these kinds of themes may provide a refreshing sense of release. Thoughts and feelings as events happening in the mind have such definitive and profound effects of people’s lives. They can be detrimental to the point of making someone seriously ill and on the other hand support long-lasting wellbeing and success in life. Recognizing the tremendous power and simultaneously the temporary nature of these internal constructions helps in creating a healthy perspective on life events. With more distance between the definition of self and the ongoing dynamic of feeling and thought, getting past negative happenings and concentrating on positive ones can become easier. Finding a more stable concept of self that does not follow the rollercoaster of emotional experience can provide a sense of security and enhance trust in oneself.

The nature of consciousness equips people with the ability to have control over their own thoughts and with the power of choice. The means to create happiness are within peoples’ minds but the point of access may be tricky to find. There is huge potential within every mind but at the same time the time for discovery is very limited. The distractions of everyday life take us along easily and most of the time in the midst of all this hurry it seems like a waste of time to take a moments to try and explain one’s existence. Maybe only posing the question from time to time is enough. Taking some time to ask and question vague concepts like meaning and existence can give the self a little holiday from endless definition and outer requirements.

Photo credit: Todd Huffman

Meditation, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness and metacognition are terms appearing in different contexts and defined through different schools of thought. They all refer to processes within the mind that have to do with the mind itself. They all try to increase knowledge about the self and help find some degree of control over or release from the automatic verbal and nonverbal hum generated by neural networks in the brain. The idea is that through self-awareness, release and increased knowledge, more control and autonomy can be experienced. A person can more fully concentrate on the most important thoughts at the moment and choose to feel better by centering on adaptive feelings and mindstates.

The brain never sleeps. It continuously goes over information recorded in activity of neural networks, rearranging and combining it with past experience and producing future predictions. Meditation techniques that aim at silencing the brain usually actually result in immense activation because the brain cannot cease doing what it is built for. The brain does not want to be quiet because the fluctuations of activation and deactivation are what define its existence. And as people typically relate the self to activity of the brain, the brain’s activity defines the existence of the whole person. Trying to silence the brain can therefore result in a quite discomforting feeling of nonexistence.

In addition to endless activity, the brain does not understand the word “no”. When your try not to think of something, the mental image of the “thing” will automatically be produced in the mind. There is then, no sense to try and stop the brain from producing for example maladaptive thoughts or feelings. This will only result in activation of their representations in the mind as well as the negative feelings associated with them. Trying to actively stop thinking depressive thoughts will only result in a mind full of depressive thoughts.

However, the ongoing automatic and responsive activity of the brain naturally contains many levels of control and awareness. When there are maladaptive thought processes or mindstates that a person wishes not to experience, what needs to happen is a shift in the level of awareness and a change in feelings towards indifference. Through recognition of malign thought processes, a person can gradually learn to view them more objectively and detach emotion from thought content, which leads to deactivation of the thought and more infrequent appearance in the mind. Techniques that increase self-awareness are thus also the core of many types of psychotherapy. Problems of the mind can be cured by consciously altering processes of the mind.

Although thinking about the functions of the brain and awareness of thought processes may feel detached from normal life, there is a lot of which people without specific problems can make use.  Approaching the workings of one’s mind in a more relaxed and objective state is beneficial for not only people with thought processes disturbing mental health but for everyone. For example, increasing metacognitive awareness and metacognitive skills can support learning . Becoming more aware of own thought processes helps identify the way that knowledge is constructed in the mind. It helps answer questions like: ”That do I know?” ”What do I not know?” ”How could I understand this better?” and ”Where could I find this information?”.

Information intensive work typically requires functioning within hypermedia contexts. Even the more conservative companies have now evolved into complex organizations with numerous parallel processes through which employees have to define their work. When thinking about the nature of modern work it becomes evident that the amount of specific knowledge that people have is actually less important as flexibility of thought and use of metacognition. To succeed it is more essential to understand how to make use of available resources, how to develop oneself and operate within different contexts. Information contents do not matter as much as the employees’ flexibility in using them and viewing their personal contribution from different points of view.

Developing oneself through meditation, increasing self-awareness and training metacognitive skills are not only for those in therapy or those quitting work and leaving for India to become enlightened. They are ordinary human skills that are already needed in day-to-day work. There are ample possibilities for learning more about self-awareness and a lot of scientific and non-scientific information available from studies on metacognition to yogic philosophy about self-awareness and enlightenment. What is still missing is an integration of this knowledge into leadership and management. Ideas about personnel development and wellbeing are typically somewhat regarded as expendable or additional on top of “real work”. However, as metacognition is becoming a vital skill for knowledge workers, companies should consider integrating more metacognitive and awareness-supporting elements into their basic functions. Luckily with the abundance of different types of software and platforms, there are many possibilities to further this kind of thinking and integrate it into the core functions of work. In the future, instead of arranging for separate personal development programs, working itself can contain functions that increase awareness, wellbeing and learning.

Coaching is a term that is used for various kinds of services aimed at promoting personal development and providing support for making good career choices.Coaching as a service is easy to approach. It does not sound as threatening as counseling or therapy even though they are all based on problem-solving interaction between people and try to produce change in thought processes and life situations. In addition, when considering the form, general aims of interaction and factors determining efficacy of all these services, they come very close to each other.

Several studies have shown that the framework or theory behind coaching and also behind therapy is not the critical factor in achieving good results – good results meaning actual change in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The critical factor is the relationship between the coach and the client: if the client feels that she can trust the coach, good results will be guaranteed.  How can this trust be created?  One basic issue that builds trust is the expertise and experience of the coach and that these aspects come forth naturally in interaction – the coach is able to signal her expertise to the client.

Trust can also be created actively by using special techniques in interaction. These techniques are taught in many therapy trainings and during basic practical studies in psychology and include active listening, reading “between the lines” and acting upon nonverbal messages as well as signaling understanding. Although the factors and techniques behind professionalism can be singled out and taught, the best measure of expertise in people-related services is personal experience of the service.

Through personal experience of being a client in coaching, I have discovered that a trustworthy coach is straightforward and honest (not too diplomatic) and has a genuine trust in that the wanted change can be achieved.  During the past year two coaches have truly made an impression.  They were both very experienced and had a lot of knowledge about psychology but in addition to this they were both also very good at finding and bringing forth the most important questions to be tackled. In fact, very seldom were specific answers given to these questions during the coaching sessions. What was more important was the process that had begun during the sessions that made it possible for answers to start appearing one by one.

Another specific skill that these coaches had that made them excellent professionals was that they could easily recognize and adapt to different moods or problem areas at hand. Excellent coaches adapt efficiently to differing needs of different customers and their individual situations. They must also take many roles during one coaching process. For example, usually in the beginning they need to be an understanding and listening  “mother “ in order to help people clarify their thoughts and get a better understanding of the challenge at hand. An essential part of coaching is also being “a career counselor” who is able to help the client in converting her thoughts into attainable goals and outline several paths leading to these goals. Knowing what to do is essential but we also need to act upon this knowledge and this is where the role of the “father” comes in and becomes realized in feedback about fruitful and not so fruitful actions.

There are many steps that the coach has to take in order to enable smooth and customer-oriented approach in the actual coaching situation. Some examples of skills needed in coaching are understanding the message of client, understanding what she does yet know in order to comprehend the big picture and being able to find relevant questions based on this information. In general, the coach has to understand what the client wants to achieve and why, even though it would be something very different from the coach’s values.  She must also be able to see the meaning, rational and positive aspects in the client’s thoughts even though they would be very different from her own.

From the viewpoint of the coach the most important skills to develop are metacognition and self-awareness. They permit identifying the emotions of others and stepping into different roles from which to meet the needs of the client. In work that highlights personality and interaction, the tool to develop is the self, and luckily in this area, there is always room for development and refinement.