Talking Through a Pandemic: Khan Bouba-Dalambaye

PodcastMay 17th, 2021

“I think there is an ‘easier said than done’ until you start doing, and then it becomes familiar and you gain momentum. Without having those non-deliberate, unintentional ways of just having your energy spike, people struggle with that notion of self propelling, volition, drive, motivation, where their experience is flat, but also needing to understand that when you do something different, it won’t be as flat, and then it’ll be easier to continue that.”

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Intro

In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke sits down with Khan Bouba-Dalambaye, high school guidance counsellor, EDI consultant, and curriculum designer. Through counselling work, Bouba-Dalambaye’s clients have taught him that the pandemic has triggered a wide-spread dip in motivation, communication, and relationship maintenance. During this episode, he offers listeners tips on how to get more in touch with our own feelings and needs, and increase our motivation to meet our goals. His most important takeaway: start small.

Some specific topics of this episode include:

  • Intuitive (easy) versus intentional (effortful) communication and how our reliance on the latter impacts our mood
  • The need to interact with others in creative ways
  • How and why we are currently affected by a lack of motivation
  • How communication through technology has played a role
  • Specific coping strategies for the pandemic and WFH life
  • How to “meaningfully engage with” – rather than “kill” – time

Key Quotes

On the lack of small talk

“A lot of people struggle to maintain a conversation or even know what to talk about, because they feel that nothing’s really going on in their lives. And that’s another thing that I feel that life before facilitated – there was always something to talk about and so many people just relied on that to feed their dialogue. And that now that there isn’t that usual kind of casual, surface level banter, there also might be a malaise in terms of going to that level with someone that you’re not used to going to that level with, or just for yourself and not usually taking it to a greater depth.”

On ‘can’t’ versus ‘won’t’

“Oftentimes, there is more that is possible. But let’s be honest: not everybody’s willing to do that. There’s a lot of things that we know could be beneficial to us or really important, and we’re still not doing it. So I get that. I really do get that. But that to me doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done, it’s just different ways of saying that it might be a little bit of a challenge.”

On creatively communicating

“Nothing really taught us how to be creative in different ways of managing or occupying our own time or engaging with other people because there was these always simple systems that were there. And I think now that’s what people are struggling with. A lot of people just can’t think outside of the box where you’re just like, ‘Okay, you got to find a way to have a meaningful routine,’ and they’re just like, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ Seriously.”

On contextual cues

“You have to give yourself different environments. I don’t think you can always just stay in the exact same place and expect to not feel a lull or just a bit flat. It’s not just the impact that we have on ourselves based on what we do with ourselves or how we interact with our environment. Your environment and different situations are going to play upon different aspects of who you are. Changing your environment is going to have an impact on your reality or experience.”

On starting small

“This idea that motivation needs to come first, and that kind of energy, that spike needs to come first. And then when we feel we’re up to it, we’ll make this change. Actually, the priority is the other way. We start making the change, even though we really don’t feel up to making the change, and that gives us that little spike, that little reward to then double down and do a little bit more. So the key there is starting small. It’s finding the tiny thing you can do that’s a small investment, because that’s all the energy you have to invest in it right now, is maybe this small thing right at the beginning, to kind of pay your way into more.”

On missing our energetic boosts

“Life is coffee, and it just kind of gave you this big, jolted boost and sent you on your way, and so you just got through or powered through. And now you don’t have coffee. You actually need to sleep and maybe eat an apple naturally to wake up. I think that’s what it is, that people are like, ‘Man, I need my coffee.’”

On using time meaningfully

“Now that things have stopped or are different, a lot of it boils down to people not knowing how to meaningfully engage with their time. And when you’re bored, you become lethargic and tired and drained and less energy and flat and grumpy and moody, and less drive and less motivation and less productive, and like a shell of yourself. You don’t want to just kill time. You want to engage with it.”

Transcript

Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially-conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Khan Bouba-Dalambaye, a clinical counselor at Openspace and EDI consultant working with McGill University. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about communication, friction, and disruptive change. Khan, thanks for joining us.

Khan: Thank you for having me.

Brooke: Before we launch into the content too much, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re up to these days.

Khan: As you mentioned, I have about just over 10 years of clinical experience. Previously I was working as a high school guidance counselor for the better part of a decade. I’ve also been managing my own private practice across different modalities for the past seven years now. And currently, I’m working managing my private practice as a clinical counselor, seeing clients in person and virtually.

And then I’m also doing consulting work in the area of EDI, primarily with McGill. I’ve been contracted for this academic year, which will go until the very end of August. And then also doing small projects and other contracted work within the realm of consulting.

Brooke: Cool. And there’s also one project that you worked on that I’m very interested in, and so I’ll give you a little bit of space to talk about that, this educational curriculum that you worked on with the National Hockey League around race and diversity, which was really, really interesting. Can you say a bit about that work?

Khan: Yeah. It was actually a friend of my partner’s who reached out to me just because they knew a bit about the work that I did. And so this friend works in the area of sport philanthropy and had partnered with a not-for-profit organization in the States called Classroom Champions, who primarily focus on providing social and emotional learning for students.

And they had partnered both with the NHL and the team and individuals behind the Willie documentary. And so the goal of the project was to use the Willie documentary as a template, so to speak, for addressing issues of racism, anti-racism, and social justice, given Willie’s story and some of the experiences that he had.

And so I was brought in to look at the documentary and draw certain themes that related to those larger topics, and then from there design an educational guide that teachers could use. The guide that I designed, to be safe, we put it at grades five through eight, but it’s really open, so it also depends on how much you already know. It’s primarily used for schools, but we have after school programs, we have community organizations, boys and girls clubs, YMCAs.

We have families, individuals who also use it as well, which has been really, really interesting. And then from that and the attention that it’s gotten, I can’t say too much, but we’re right now working with a few other organizations on a much larger scale who want to use that and incorporate it into what they already do, or maybe adapt it or create something somewhat similar for themselves.

Brooke: Yeah. That’s great. And for listeners out there, if you’re interested in checking out some of these materials, we’ll have them linked in the podcast transcript, so you can find them on TDL.com.

Prevailing forms of communication

Brooke: All right. Khan, in some of our previous conversations, we’ve touched on this difference between intentional versus intuitive forms of connection or communication with people and mapping that onto those forms of communication or connection that seem to come naturally or habitually, and those things that take a bit more attention and focus to do. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Khan: Sure. I mean, it’s not to say that it’s the only way that we’ve encountered it or realized it in our lives, but I think one of the many things that this pandemic and the new reality that it’s created, that it’s highlighted, is what you just mentioned, in that I think when you look at the “intentional” versus the “intuitive”, to me what I would categorize as the “intuitive” would be what our lives were previous or prior to the pandemic, just in that there’s a lot of aspects in our lives that naturally gave us the things that we now realize were so important or so vital, but we either took for granted or didn’t explicitly appreciate, which I think was human interaction and social contact.

Not just in the terms of whether that’s feeling connected, whether that’s feeling validated based on how you might feel in that moment, whether that’s feeling important or part of a larger group, I think it’s also about what I kind of describe to some of my clients is just the natural spikes. I think a lot of people have complained about a lack of motivation or a lack of drive, or feeling very flat.

And I think it’s because our everyday lives gave us things that woke us up or spiked us, the unknown in a positive way, the novelty. Whereas in a pandemic, it can become very routine and mundane. I think for most people, when you ask them, “Okay, where do you find the people that you socialize or engage with the most?” It’s usually a combination of who I work with, some people that I still went to school with that I’m still friends with, and family.

And you usually see that by going to work, coming home at the end of the day, and then maybe you have going to the gym or some sports activities or so that bring you into contact with different people. But with all of that removed, to me that’s the “intuitive” that’s removed. This kind of interaction that was facilitated and embedded in the natural fabric of your life that is gone, and people almost going through a form of withdrawal from that.

And then whether it’s not realizing how important it was, or not being familiar with different ways of being intentional about creating those experiences, and then the struggle that comes with it as people realize or experiencing what it’s like to not have those accessible.

Brooke: Yeah. It raises the thought in my mind about some stuff that seems like it’s kind of denatured, if you will, by being made intentional. That when it’s intuitive, when it’s free-flowing, it’s actually something different that’s happening. One example from a workplace context is just an exchange of ideas, or maybe feedback on someone’s work is a stronger example here, where it’s like the kind of feedback that I can provide to someone when we just cross paths on the way to or from the coffee machine, in this intuitive space, is going to be inherently different than anything that I have to explicitly schedule a meeting for.

You can’t schedule a meeting and have it be free-flowing and easy and organic in the way that you can just crossing paths at the coffee machine. There are all kinds of discourse that just change their rhythm or change their pace entirely when you have to do it in an intentional versus an intuitive way. Are there some other examples that you’ve seen in your work with clients that kind of shed light on that?

Khan: I think two things that stand out is – I think it applies to a lot of people – but there’s a few clients that I work with who are artists in different ways, whether that’s music, whether that’s painting and drawing, and they had mentioned something that stood out to me which is that they lack content. They lack the input required, they feel, to then output something.

And I think that’s what’s also stood out to me in general is that – this might seem a bit arrogant or critical – but I feel like a lot of people struggle to maintain a conversation or discussion or even know what to talk about, because they feel that nothing’s really going on in their lives. And that’s another thing that I feel that life before facilitated is just there was always something to talk about, whether it was the news or weather or your trip to work and what that experience was, or a comment like, “How was your day?” “Oh, work was okay.” Just things like that. And I think so many people just relied on that to feed their dialogue.

And so without that, I think that a lot of people also struggle with, ‘Well, what am I going to say?’ Even if I reach out to somebody or make it intentional or deliberate, it’s like, ‘What am I going to say? Just talk about the pandemic and how much it sucks, and then how we want to go back to the good old days, so to speak?’

And I feel like, again, a lot of people are realizing that there’s certain things that their life naturally gave them that now they have to be a little bit more intentional or deliberate and make a little bit more effort into recreating that. It’s almost a self-limit as well. It’s not the ideal form of how you’re going to get it, but it’s a self-limit. That’s good enough or better than nothing.

Impact on relationships

Brooke: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve been reading a lot about trying to support healthy and vibrant culture within a workplace during this exceptional time, and one of the messages I keep coming across is checking in with people, but really checking in with people, not just this cursory, like, “Hey, how’s it going?” “Oh yeah, my commute to work today was fine.”

Getting past that and asking people, “But how is it actually going?” And the stakes for that are really high. As you say, there’s less just natural, structural, run of the mill stuff that we can gab about without really saying much, but there are some topics that we have a lot to say about if we unpack them. But you’ve got to be ready that when you’re going to unpack that, you could find a lot under the surface.

Khan: Some people might be uncomfortable with that just because I think people are realizing now what fed a lot of their relationships. And that now that there isn’t that usual kind of casual, surface level banter that keeps it fun and light and enjoyable, but now that that’s not there, there also might be a malaise in terms of going to that level with someone that you’re not used to going to that level with, or just for yourself and not usually taking it to a greater depth.

And then, whether it’s an uneasiness or a discomfort or a social awkwardness, as some people might describe it, I feel that that also is now coming into play because you’re almost rebuilding or reconstructing a dynamic that you once had that was established with somebody.

Brooke: Yeah, again, speaking a bit from my own experience, that’s one of the challenges that I’ve faced, is that I think I’ve often relied on there being a balance of enough easy going stuff to keep conversations going and keep channels of communication open and flowing freely, so that that opens up the space for deeper, more challenging conversations when those need to happen as well.

But you can’t only be having those deep, challenging conversations all the time. You need to make some investments into that bank of the goodwill of the relationship by doing stuff that’s a little bit lighter and easier and more spontaneous, more intuitive so that you have enough energy built up that you can then invest it into those higher value things, maybe, if we want to put it that way. And that that’s something where the lack of the intuitive now is really being felt.

Khan: I also feel that, and very much myself included, I think we’ve grown lazy a little bit, or out of practice. Well, I don’t know if lazy or out of practice, but if you look at the normal trajectory of an individual in our society, a lot of interaction is facilitated just because you have to be in school, or you have to be in school in groups, or you have to interact, or things like that.

But I feel that a lot of people right now, nothing really taught us how to be creative in different ways of managing or occupying our own time or engaging with other people because there was these always simple systems that were there. And I think now that’s what people are struggling with. A lot of people just can’t think outside of the box where you’re just like, “Okay, you got to find a way to have a meaningful routine,” and they’re just like, “I don’t know how to do that.” Seriously.

Brooke: Yeah.

Khan: It’s quite interesting. Even just thinking outside of the box for a little bit. My partner’s been good at that, and some of her friends have been good. And sometimes I piggyback off her ideas, or I often use some of the things that she does in suggestions for my clients, just because I find oftentimes she and her friends might be a little bit more creative in how they spend their time.

Whereas my friends and I, it’s just more that we’re together, and it’s pretty good. Yeah. I mean, it’s unfortunate if anybody’s having a hard time or difficulty, but it’s been really interesting to see how this has changed people and impacted the way that they interact with other people.

Influence of technology

Brooke: Let’s lean into that kind of technology angle now. We’ve talked about technology creating some lower friction and some higher friction pathways. There’s been a lot written in the last year or so about social media and the effects that it has on the way that we communicate with people, that the more inflammatory your discourse is, the more it gets bumped up and the more little dopamine hits you feel looking at your number of likes.

And so what that tends to do is create these lower friction pathways from more inflammatory discourse and this kind of thing. But even beyond those examples that we look at and say, “Oh my gosh, society is crumbling because of the way that technology is influencing our communication,” there are also more run of the mill examples, like the fact that you and I are talking right now over a teleconferencing platform. It changes the way that we talk to each other, even just the decision to have video on versus have video off in the way that you connect I feel is huge. I’ll give you some space to run with that.

Khan: I think people, with the need for technology in order to interact, a lot of what I’ve heard has been Almost this awakening or this awareness about the power of being in someone else’s presence. And I feel that for me, I’ve often described things in terms of – not to get too lost away – but I do believe I often describe things in terms of an aura or an energy or a vibe.

And I feel that people are becoming perhaps more attuned to that. And I think in large part, it’s just with what they feel is now missing and feeling that absence or that void, or feeling the difference now that everything is through a screen. I think it speaks to a lack of balance, like you mentioned before, in that it’s not to say people didn’t interact through screens before, but you did so knowing that there’s another – this natural, deliberate or forced part – that was also in person.

And so I think that’s something that people are coming to really realize. And then I also feel that in the same way, there’s people who might be socially anxious or uncomfortable, or sometimes it manifests itself as being introverted, where the person might be difficult. It might not be their ideal. I think you’re seeing the reverse now in that for a lot of people, the communication by just over the phone is very difficult, or the communication just through Zoom is difficult, because I think it also plays on a lot of different things or skills or qualities that you need. A lot of people speak about – when I meet new clients – they’ll say, “If possible, can we meet in person, or can we do the sessions in person? Because I feel that there’s an energy, or you just get a feel for someone better or more.” And I think that’s the struggle.

With the distance created virtually, I feel that there’s a lot of information that people really relied on to get a feel of somebody else or the room or the climate of that person or discussion, and it’s not there anymore. Or in terms of conveying or expressing themselves, I think that people who maybe rely a bit more on language, vocabulary and words, vernacular, might have an easier time, because they don’t feel that something’s lost. They very much use their words and tonality to be able to get that across far more than body language or an energy, which is still there.

Whereas other people, oftentimes it’s that they don’t necessarily always have the words that they feel that they need to really capture who they are or what it is that they’re trying to say, but there was something in the room that just allowed the other person to just kind of just [get it]. And so I feel that a lot of people now are struggling, well, not struggling, but adjusting to the fact that there’s a very different way that you need to be adept at in order to truly have honest expression of self, and to maybe truly feel heard or understood. Having a conversation with someone face to face and having a deep silence is very different than a Zoom silence.

Some people will describe that a Zoom silence is less awkward and easier, which can also speak to a silence in-person being more powerful. Yeah. And I think it’s all these little nuances that are now coming out, and some people, they’ll put their fingers on it, and other people are just experiencing it. But it’s a big shift. It’s a really big shift.

Brooke: As you mention that, something that goes through my mind is how much of what we’re talking about right now is just going to get lost and stripped out as we go through the process of, first of all, removing the video so that it’s only voice. And then for people who are just going to read the transcript and won’t actually listen to this, but will consume it as text.

One of the things you said a moment ago about people kind of struggling in a virtual environment, but in a physical environment – in person – there’s just kind of this energy. And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, okay, and everything falls into place.’ As you were saying that, I was so self aware of how much of understanding what you were saying came from looking at your face as you said it.

Khan: Oh, man.

Brooke: And just thinking about, ‘Oh my gosh, so many people are just not going to get to enjoy that moment the way that I enjoyed it.’ And they might be really puzzled about what it is that you were trying to say.

Khan: That’s a good point. It’s really interesting. Yeah. As I’m talking now, I’m starting to think of, I wonder if people who just naturally have jobs that require [them to] focus more on communication, like my own, or a teacher, or I don’t know, might feel a little bit more adept or at ease with it. Or maybe people who are so used to listening to audiobooks might be more used to it just because they’re used to not having any visual cues or blocking it out and really using language and bringing themselves into a certain world while listening to something in an audio setting.

It’s fascinating, and I wonder what allows people to feel more comfortable with that than others. But there’s a lot of things, yeah, that are not always so explicit and a little bit more subtle that are really having an impact in terms of how we experience our everyday lives.

Strategies for coping

Brooke: So that kind of raises this issue that I think has been kind of woven through what we’ve been talking about so far today, but I just want to pull that to the surface now. We’ve been talking about how we have these different intuitive versus intentional forms of communication, and how technology mediates that. But when you have these big technological changes, like when there’s a very obvious change of gears with technology, what happens when the landscape of the “intuitive” and the “intentional” gets completely readjusted? How do we cope? How do we respond?

Khan: I think some of it is going to be really on an individual level just in terms of what works for that person. And oftentimes I use the word balance, but I try to avoid it just because I feel that using the word balance can easily connote a 50/50 split.So I’ve gotten far more used to using the term ratio, which is just more some form of relationship that works.

It doesn’t have to be completely balanced, it just has to make you feel balanced or work for you. It’s hard, because what I might suggest might be based on someone’s situation, right? Having access to somebody, whether you live with them or so, or you’re in a bubble with them, brings a certain amount of privilege. I was even mentioning this to somebody, one of my friends, in that the pandemic or the period of the pandemic, these last 12 months for me, have actually been quite good.I can’t lie.

I also realize that aside from professionally and living with somebody, and being able to get a dog, which are all these beautiful privileges throughout, my work is a privilege. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have gone any significant period of time without having access or contact with a human being. I live with my partner. We got a dog about a month in. We were bubbling with my parents, because at the time it was a triplex and we were in the basement dwelling before we moved

And my work. At the beginning it was more virtual just because things were a little unclear, but after about a month and a half or so, I was seeing new people in person, multiple. I meet new people about every two weeks, or every 10 days, I meet a new person. I see a human face, a mix of in contact conversation that’s rich and has depth and is personal and has a motive, and connects, and you learn stuff because it’s somebody else’s reality, and I get that every day.

I teach as well at CEGEP part-time. To that end, for someone like, let’s say for me or some people that work, there can be some benefits depending on how you experience, but I feel it’s, ‘How do you find a way that you’re not so imbalanced or that you’re living in an extreme where there’s only one way of interacting with people?’

Or even as well, one way of experiencing yourself. A lot of people for different reasons, because of the weather, because of just maybe health, maybe sometimes lethargy, spend a lot of time inside, and spend a lot of time inside in the same rooms, doing the same things in the same rooms. And I think it’s also about, how do you find a way of reconnecting with yourself or finding different ways to engage with yourself in your own home? It is a bit of a struggle, which is why I hope this summer can bring a bit of levity in terms of some freedom in people being able to get out in a safe way, but it’s difficult. It really is difficult.

The role of the environment

Brooke: Yeah, so you mentioned this need to find a new equilibrium point of something that works for you. And you also raised the great privileges and opportunities that you’ve had to find a rhythm that works for you. Who are the people who struggle the most to find that new rhythm? You mentioned some people who have health issues, and it creates more friction along certain pathways, this idea of, ‘Oh well, just get out and take a walk. Get a change of air, change of scenery. Don’t be in that same room doing the same thing for those same hours, so you just have this kind of Groundhog Day existence.’ For some people, that’s just more of an option than for others.

Khan: For people who are working right now, some of that will come. [It depends] on who you live with, Because some people, let’s say you live with multiple people, or your roommates and a family, you kind of have your designated rooms, and that really becomes your place. There’s so much of just changing your energy.

I’ve had clients where I told them, “Stop working in your bedroom. Your bedroom is a place that you have a relationship of relaxing and being lazy and it being okay, and calm and peace, and now you’re bringing things that might become stressful and bring pressure.” So just having them change where they did their work, changing their desk around and focus outside, little things like that, huge differences.

But if you don’t have that freedom in terms of a big enough place – like I had a constraint before – or how many people you live with, or like I mentioned health before, that makes it difficult. Depending on the work that you have where you work long hours, but you have to be, let’s say, in front of a computer, that’s more or less an eight hour shot, outside of a lunch break or so, that you have to be in that room and be there. And so it can be difficult. There’s not always ways of going around it, and some people have to put far more of an effort to be able to reestablish that equilibrium.

You have to give yourself different environments. I don’t think you can always just stay in the exact same place and expect to not feel a lull or just a bit flat. And I think that’s what’s important. It’s not just the impact that we have on ourselves based on what we do with ourselves or how we interact with our environment.

I mean, like a lot of people know, it’s the other way around as well, in that your environment and different situations are going to play upon different aspects of who you are. And so also changing your environment is going to have an impact or a change on your reality or experience. And those things are important. You gotta get out of your house. You got to go for a walk or something like that. You got to balance your time across multiple rooms in your house.

I think sometimes it’s nice to maybe compartmentalize. Think of how embedded in the fabric of our lives was the notion of this giant sigh and being like, “Can’t wait to get home.” Right? Home was just this escape or this haven, for the most part, away from stressors and pressures and problems and whatnot.

But we don’t get to do that, because home is now the environment where all of that occurs, so where do you get to step out of that or put on a different hat, or take off that heavy robe that is the weight or the pressure of whatever it is that you feel is your responsibility? That’s what you were able to do in your previous life, and it’s necessary. I feel like it’s healthy not to just exist in one form or one way.

Being creative with control

Brooke: A lot of this I think rests on the assumption, or the hope, that people have options at their disposal. This idea like, ‘Well, change it up,’ kind of has embedded this idea that you could do otherwise, that your life hasn’t locked you in so much structurally that in fact, there’s very little room for adjustment. For instance, the difference between a senior member in our organization or a team lead saying, “This kind of meeting structure doesn’t work for me anymore. We need to change things up.” It’s very different for the person who leads those meetings than for the person who’s potentially sitting through those meetings, suffering through those meetings, potentially.

Khan: Absolutely. But I feel that – and this is large scale, so, even myself – I often find myself telling people or clients that, and even applying this to my own life, in that I feel sometimes we have far more control than we realize. Now, let’s be honest. It’s gonna be difficult, because at the end of the day you have a habit, and breaking habits are difficult.

And what this requires is change and growing out of what’s familiar, and through what familiar is, what’s comfortable, what maybe makes you feel good because it’s something that you’re used to. But I do feel, even let’s take the example of the team lead. The first thing that I would say to that is, the person who’s not the leader still has control on how they exist coming into work, break times and during work, at times, and after. That has a huge impact.

And then also little things that you can do maybe at your work that might be able to help. But even if you can’t – let’s say it’s really rigid or it’s really structured and there’s no wiggle room. In the same way that you can have a really good weekend because of a party or a wedding, if this was in earlier times or whatnot, and then carry that over into your week for days or a weekend itself, you can have a really good life outside of work or before or after and carry that wellbeing into your work in the same way – if work is really positive or negative, you’re going to carry it with you.

Kind of like bees pollinating. There’s always a little carryover effect that’s moving around, without being too cheesy. So to that end, it’s that. I think there is an ‘easier said than done’ until you start doing, and then it becomes familiar and you gain momentum. But I think what people struggle with is, without having those non-deliberate, unintentional ways of just having your energy spike, I think people struggle with that notion of self propelling, volition, drive, motivation, where their experience is flat, but also needing to understand that when you do something different, it won’t be as flat, and then it’ll be easier to continue that.

It’s not to be critical of anybody or saying, “Oh, you’re not doing enough,” but I do feel that oftentimes, there is more that is possible. But let’s be honest: not everybody’s willing to do that. A lot of people have problems and issues and needs for improvement, and you’re like, “Okay, well, you could do this, this, and that.” And they’re like “Eh.” Right? There’s a lot of things that we know could be beneficial to us or really important, and we’re still not doing it. So I get that. I really do get that. But that to me doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done, it’s just different ways of saying that it might be a little bit of a challenge.

Brooke: Yeah. The behavioral approach to change and habit and this kind of thing, and wanting to start doing something new. There was this great meme when the pandemic broke out like, ‘Oh great, now that I don’t have to commute a couple of hours every day, I’m finally going to, I don’t know, sit down and write that novel that I’ve been meaning to write for all these years.’ And 12 months later, how many words have been written? Big fat goose egg, right?

This idea that motivation needs to come first, and that kind of energy, that spike needs to come first. And then when we feel we’re up to it, we’ll make this change. Actually, the priority is the other way. We start making the change, even though we really don’t feel up to making the change, and that gives us that little spike, that little reward to then double down and do a little bit more. So the key there is starting small. It’s finding the tiny thing you can do that’s a small investment, because that’s all the energy you have to invest in it right now, is maybe this small thing right at the beginning, to kind of pay your way into more.

Khan: Yeah, it’s so true. A lot of people will just say, “I think I’m just not motivated to do it.” And it’s important to acknowledge that and to validate that and to be aware of that, but like you said, I feel that a lot of times people will use that absence of motivation or certain peak drive or energy to not do something, whereas the absence of that is not an indicator that this isn’t going to work or that you shouldn’t be doing it. It just means that for different reasons, you can’t just propel or throw yourself into it. Yeah, and then like you said, also as well, people need to understand that part of the reason why you can’t do that is because of the situation that you’re in right now which makes it harder.

Creating motivational opportunities

Brooke: Yeah. So if you decide you want to get back into running, you don’t decide, “Tomorrow, I’m going to go out and pound the pavement for 10K.” You say, “Tomorrow, I’m going to put my running shoes beside the door, and that’s going to be a win. And then the day after, I’m going to put them on, and the day after that I’m going to get out the door.” None of those steps individually is going to be all that hard to take, but if you tried to just cumulate them all and say, “I’m going to go for a 10k run tomorrow morning,” having done zero exercise for 12 months, it’s kind of stacking the deck against yourself.

So what can we start doing to help address these lethargies? We talked about starting small, but if we go back to this idea of communication and friction, what are the practical steps that we can start taking to build more intuitive pathways for communication and connection with other people in the context that we’re in to maybe build up that store of relational goodwill that gives us what we need to do the harder stuff when harder stuff needs to be done in a relationship?

You mentioned there was ample space for intuitive connection with others just in virtue of being thrown into the same room, literally, as them, at work, at school, in sports or activities, these kinds of things. But now that we are not being thrown into those spaces in anywhere near the same kind of way as we were before, how can we seed the soil intentionally to create more opportunities for that kind of thing?

Khan: I think that’s a bit tricky just because part of it does have to come – I don’t use the notion of motivation, but not so much as a drive, but more as in terms of a desire or want. I feel that as much as it’s important, not everybody’s necessarily willing or wants to maybe do it. But I think what might be helpful is, like you said with the example with going for a run, just start really small. And I think what starts really small is that we all have times in which we do and don’t feel like making an effort to connect with people. Even if we feel that we haven’t seen people in a long time, even if we feel we’ve been a bad friend or we’ve been ghosting, or if you feel like you’ve been lonely, a lot of times people still will be like, “I don’t want to.”

And for me, I think a good bit of that comes from just, it’s not about a lack of desire, more in terms of how you feel in that moment, and whether you feel that that’s the appropriate state to want to maybe disclose or talk about. Then it comes down to sometimes when it’s really problematic or a crisis, or when you’re just feeling good. To the latter, what are you doing to allow yourself to feel good? And I think that’s what’s important.

What are you doing to allow yourself to feel productive in some way, or that you have something that you can bring to the conversation? And a lot of that depends on, what are you doing with yourself? So I think it’s about the small wins. Personally, I believe that the whole experience of getting up in the morning, brush your teeth, wash your face, go to the bathroom, pack your bag, make a lunch, decide what you want to wear, eat some breakfast, maybe watch something on TV, the travel or commute to work, listening to music, talking to someone, getting frustrated, little chat before you start, and then starting.

Whether it’s for work, whether it’s for school – which covers most people – I think that really allowed people to kind of charge themselves and wake up emotionally or spiritually or psychologically and/or physically. And we don’t have that routine anymore, and I think that’s something that’s very important, is, what do you do to wake yourself up? What do you do? And I always say, “Start with the simple things.” And even I need to do this more, is just, you manage your sleep, or you manage your eating, and you’re managing some physical activity.

Little things that you can easily do or control and can give you small wins, and then small successes lead to larger successes. So I suggest that because you get a sense of momentum, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of productivity, which I feel is really important for people. And then you do those things, and also physically, biologically, makes you feel better, releases endorphins, gets the blood going. And I think if you start to do that more regularly and regularly, you see yourself differently, you experience yourself differently. You’re in a better place.

And I think that’s going to slowly use that momentum to lead to a desire or more of that drive that you feel that you’re looking for to then be willing to take something on or just naturally decide, ‘Let’s just do this.’ And I think it kind of snowballs in an appropriate sense. But I think a lot of people are struggling with getting traction. At the end of the day, your day winds down one way or another until you go to bed.

And then you get up. I don’t know if most people get up just like, tackle the day, super energetic. I think most people wake themselves up. If you don’t give that to yourself, it’s like trying to drive anywhere at the end of January, beginning of February in the dead of winter. You take 10 minutes or so to leave your car on and warm it up, because you know that if you don’t, you’re either not going to be able to take off, or you might have some problems along the way.

I think the same concept needs to apply. What are you doing to put yourself in a position to be successful? You want to use a sports analogy, whether it’s training, or pre-game warmups for some students. Comically, I’ll use the analogy of a pre-drink before people going out. And everybody laughs, but I was like, “No, but think about it.” I’m like, socially, you know – I used an example with a client – I was like, “Think about it. Let’s say you had a long work week, end of the day, long day, and you finished work or so, and then your boy’s just like, ‘Yo, we’re going out.’ And you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve been working, I didn’t even get to change, I’m going to smell. It’s not going to go well for me.’ And you just jump straight into going to, let’s say, the bar or the club.”

I go, “Would you think that would be conducive to a good time?” He’s like, “No.” It’s like, “Exactly. Because you know socially what’s important is, you go by a friend’s place, you warm up socially into talking and your vibe, and you drink a little bit, and then you carry a positive energy, and that allows you to flourish or feel happy or have a better time at your outing.” He’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “It’s no different. I don’t actually think it has to be any different conceptually. How are you warming yourself up?” We know that in this instance, it’s probably not going to work if we go in cold. We know in the instance of sports, it’s not going to work if we go in cold.

Even education, teachers-wise, sometimes they’ll shake it up or they’ll give you a recess because they know. And so to that end, I think it’s no different. How are you warming yourself up? How are you setting yourself up to have a better day or be more successful? And I think it starts small, and then when you feel like you have a good handle on that, you can pick up speed and momentum.

Engagement and self-awareness

Brooke: One of the things you said there, I mean, obviously, with where we are in the pandemic and also where we are in the calendar of the year, the example of winter driving still resonates very strongly in this kind of traumatic way. I think one of the first things there is just to acknowledge it’s winter right now. To acknowledge that actually, it’s okay to not feel awesome all the time. And that seems to be the precursor to accepting that a warmup would be more than just kind of a nice thing right now. It might be necessary for us to get into the kind of headspace that we need to be in to do something in the way that we want to do it that’s going to be enjoyable and energizing and this kind of thing.

Khan: I feel like there’s a lot of people, when they’re having a bad time or they’re struggling with something or have problems, just dive into something else. And I fully get it and understand it. I feel that that’s kind of an analogy or metaphor for people’s lives as a whole. Your life and how busy it was, and how busy you allowed it to keep you, just kept you ahead of a lot of other things.

And now they’ve caught up. Now you can’t just keep staying ahead. Or it’s like people’s lives before were like coffee. You didn’t need to have a good night’s sleep. You didn’t need to necessarily take the steps to wake yourself up. It’s like, ‘Yo, I’m just taking a coffee and going, and I’m on the go.’ And think about how many people actually do that, right?

And I think that’s what it is. Life is coffee, and it just kind of gave you this big, jolted boost and sent you on your way, and so you just got through or powered through. And now you don’t have coffee. You actually need to sleep and maybe eat an apple naturally to wake up. I think that’s what it is, that people are like, “Man, I need my coffee.”

Brooke: Yeah. And so from there, from that kind of tense moment where you’re kind of thrown into contact with that coffee not being there, then saying, “Okay, well, if that’s not going to be there, I need to have a Plan B. I need to be doing something else to get me through, and I need to acknowledge the fact that I probably don’t feel great in building Plan B and getting it off the ground, so start small. Do something tiny, use that investment to feel a little bit better, and then invest a little bit more into feeling better still.”

Khan: And variety. Because my personal bias, which definitely comes through my work, is that I think it’s essential that people have a certain level of knowledge of self that allows them to understand what really nourishes who they are or their soul, and then to have multiple places or outlets or sources in their lives where they can have that validated or expressed or nourished. And I think a lot of people didn’t do that.

I think a lot of people, with the way they went about their lives, just that wasn’t an explicit focus. So now that things have stopped or are different, a lot of it boils down to people not knowing how to meaningfully engage with their time. And when you’re bored, you become lethargic and tired and drained and less energy and flat and grumpy and moody, and less drive and less motivation and less productive, and like a shell of yourself.

That’s what a lot of people describe. And again, work just did it. You worked, you came home, did some dishes, you cooked, bam, that’s your day. And then you watch some stuff on TV. You know what I mean? That’s what it is for a lot of people. And so now, people are running out of almost significant things to do. And I tell people, “You don’t want to just kill time. You want to engage with it.” Because if it was just about killing time, there’s an endless list of things you could actually do.

And it’s that. So I would also add that I think it’s important for people to have a buffet – variety. For some people it might just be that one thing that really carries you through. For the most part, don’t look for that. Don’t look for this home run swing of, just like, this is my [inaudible 00:59:13] and I can always do this at any given point in time. No, it’s nice to have a little bit of a mix, so that way no matter what the day is like, if it’s ugly outside, how you’re feeling is a little sore, or whatever, you’re still like, ‘I know there’s things that I can do that will be important to me.’

Feeling good, you might go out for a run and work out. Feeling a little tired, you might, like me, watch some Netflix, read some comic books or some other reading, audiobooks, go on a little music listening trip, whatever. But that’s what it is. It’s like, how are you meaningfully engaging your time? Especially when being at work over a screen all day doesn’t do it anymore.

Brooke: Yeah. This portfolio approach that you described, it really speaks deeply to the notion of resilience, that the world’s going to throw a lot of different stuff at you, including how you feel from one day to the next. And this home run swing, the home run swing is great when everything lines up, when the ball’s right over the plate, and you’re swinging well. But that’s a high risk strategy because it’s very fragile.

Khan: Yeah. Just take the Ichrio approach. Just hit a bunch of singles and make your way around.

Brooke: I think that that’s a great place to wrap up the conversation. Khan, thank you very much for taking some time to talk with us today.

Khan: Oh, it was an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much, Dr. Struck.

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About the Guest

Khan Bouba-Dalambaye

Khan Bouba-Dalambaye is a leading expert in equity, diversity, and inclusion programs for companies, academic institutions, and other public and private organizations. He is a licensed counsellor, workshop, training, and curriculum designer in the areas of EDI and psychology, and a psychology instructor at the college level. He obtained a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from McGill University in 2010.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is Research Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. His dissertation research focused on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and the relationship between research and other social systems such as language, history and politics. Since finishing his academic work, Dr. Struck has worked in science & innovation policy, first within the Canadian federal government, and then subsequently in the private sector at Science-Metrix. In recent years, he has been researching the interface of big data analytics with organizational decision-making structures, especially in policy-making contexts.

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