‘by Angela Cathey, MA, LPC
Recently, we had the good fortune of having Benji Schoendorff, MA, MSc for an interview. Benji is a renowned Acceptance and Commitment trainer. He is a joint owner of the Contextual Psychology Institute (CPI) with his wife Marie-France Bolduc. They and their beloved son travel the world doing their part to put ‘psychological flexibility in the water supply.’ Benji is a deeply principle-driven clinician and trainer. His work is highly informed by Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and behavior analysis. In addition to the training that Benji does to increase the skill of individuals, Benji and the Contextual Psychology Institute (CPI) also work to improve contexts by training organizations to better engage with the ‘difficult’ in the service of reaching their goals and values.
Below, we discuss some of Benji’s recent work and thoughts on applying ACT to organizations.
Angela: “Benji, you’re a celebrated trainer of ACT and FAP. You travel the world teaching others to be more aware, mindful, and courageous in how they work with each other. Though you’ve had a great deal of impact on many in psychology, by teaching evidence-based interventions, your work has ventured more and more into changing larger contexts as well. Can you tell me a bit about this focus and how it has brought you further into consulting?”
Benji: “My personal mission, and that of our institute, is to slip psychological flexibility in the water supply. What I mean by ‘psychological flexibility’ is the ability to choose to do what matters, even in the presence of obstacles. It is about choice. Individuals who are ‘stuck’ feel they don’t have a choice, and the same is true of teams and organizations—and of course of individuals within teams and organizations. We all know that businesses and organizations are sitting atop a hard to tap gold mine: employee engagement. I believe being able to choose to do what matters in your professional life just as much as in your personal life is the key to both well-being and to fully engaging in our lives and work. After all, we spend a good chunk of our waking life working. Yet paradoxically, our present organizational structures largely deprive us of choice. Is it a wonder that employees aren’t as engaged as they could be? What we’ve discovered is that using the applied principles of modern behavioral science, there is an easy and intuitive way to increase ‘psychological flexibility’ in the workplace and in organizations. It’s a simple and intuitive model we call The ACT Matrix and I believe it has the potential to revolutionize our working lives as much as our personal lives.”
Angela: “That’s wonderful Benji. For those who haven’t met you, can perhaps tell us a bit more of what is it like to work with you personally in personal or organizational psychological flexibility initiatives?”
Benji: “In the spirit of 360-degree feedback, I’d invite you to ask my team members and past clients. I think they would say that I am creative, passionate, values-driven, flexible, fun to work with and always human. My working style is highly participatory and I love to make work fun! I seek to create contexts in which people can best contact their resources and make their own best choices. I believe every person can make their own choices and I know how to inspire folks to feel that way. As a leader, I trust my team members to make decisions, preferring to advise than dictate. As a consultant, I connect with my clients’ unique needs and perspectives to help them identify original and above all workable ways to reach their goals.”
Angela: “I see the flexibility and awareness in the way you pursue life itself. It takes a deep commitment to innovation and humanity to truly walk the path you espouse so fully. I’m excited to be working with your team more closely these days and enjoying the development of technology and change with you. Can you tell us what your strengths and ‘learning edges’ are?”
Benji: “The learning edge feels tricky… I have many learning edges. The one I am working on at the moment is to further develop my ability to integrate the technology you are developing into my consulting work to help clients track how effective working with The ACT Matrix can be to foster team and individual productivity and empowerment. I am also working on being more compassionate and validating, more consistent in my work, more responsive.”
Angela: “Those are certainly worthwhile goals and lately, it seems like you’re all over the world putting these into place while doing workshops? How do you see this work developing as you put ‘psychological flexibility into the water’ so to speak?”
Benji: “Well, I am trying to write a lot of blogs and of course I give lots of trainings, nearly one a week, and we are getting more trainers to work with our institute, though that’s barely started.”
Angela: “That’s wonderful! I am looking forward to seeing more from you and CPI. Tell me, is there a leader, idea, or experience that has most influenced you on your path?”
Benji: “The person that has most influenced me in my work is without question Steven Hayes, the main founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training (ACT). Steve is an absolute trailblazer, and the sweetest human being, combining the sharpest intellect and a deeply human heart. His stroke of genius was to see that human suffering and getting stuck are not ‘pathological’ processes, but an inevitable byproduct of how our minds work. He set about to understand what processes could account for the difficulties we experience and what to do so we can more easily get unstuck and do what’s important to us. That makes ACT translatable to the world of business and organizations. In my organizational work, I am so grateful to Kevin Polk and colleagues who developed The ACT Matrix, a simple and intuitive way to bring the power of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) to the world of business.”
“Finally, I want to mention Dennis Bakke’s books, ‘The Decision Maker’ and ‘Joy at Work’. Bakke built a 47,000-strong multinational Electricity-generation company by radically devolving decision-making to his employees. His core idea is that if we treat people as fully responsible adults in the workplace by letting them make all the decisions that concern them, they will fully engage in their work. For Bakke as for me, this doesn’t just make perfect business sense, it is a core value for the full realization of our human potential.”
Angela: “Interesting. There’s been a great deal developing across fields that I believe will change the face of our workplaces in the future. As our lives have become more connected by technology, I believe we’ve become more disconnected in our lives. Workplaces offer these wonderful microcosms of our lives and networks, both socially and technologically. In an era of constant movement and short job tenure, the characters in our lives are ever-changing, connected-but-not… our lives and well-being increasingly seem tied to our ability to co-exist productively, sustainably, and cooperatively with others who may not know us or understand us. This is both exciting and terrifying. We have the chance to grow as a species, but will we choose to? I believe that if there are people like you, who choose to walk the more challenging paths, we may have a chance. Thank you so much for your time, Benji. I look forward to seeing more and more of your work and deepening the ties between our organizations.”