Coaching in Focus Podcast Ross McIntosh

In this podcast episode, Joseph Grech Chartered Psychologist interviews Ross McIntosh, an organizational and work psychologist specializing in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in the workplace. 

Ross explains the way he works with ACT as a coach, ACT being a third-wave cognitive behavioural process focused on enhancing psychological flexibility in clients. He emphasizes its transdiagnostic application and effectiveness in various clinical and workplace settings. Ross discusses three core skills of ACT: Notice, Active, and Open, which contribute to developing psychological flexibility. 

In this discussion Joseph and Ross highlight the importance of integrating ACT with other coaching modalities.

(00:00-10:30): Introduction to ACT: Ross introduces ACT as a third-wave cognitive behavioral therapy focusing on psychological flexibility, particularly in the workplace. He discusses its applications in clinical and coaching settings.


(10:30-25:00) Core Skills in ACT: Ross explains the three core skills of ACT: notice, active, and open. Notice involves being present and aware of one’s surroundings, while active emphasizes aligning behavior with personal values. Open focuses on relating skillfully to internal experiences.

(25:00-40:00) Integration with Coaching Modalities: Ross discusses integrating ACT with other coaching models, emphasizing flexibility and organic exploration in coaching sessions. He highlights the importance of collaboration and using metaphors to support clients’ understanding.

(40:00-45:00) Resources for Learning ACT: Ross recommends “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris and his podcast, PeopleSoup, as introductory resources for learning about ACT. He also refers to the ACT Skills in Coaching Training with Become.

[00:00:00] Joseph: Welcome on the podcast Ross, how are you?,

[00:00:06] Ross McIntosh: I’m really well, thanks, Joseph. I’m delighted to be here. It’s a great start to the new year to have this chat with you. Oh, same here,

[00:00:13] Joseph: same here. Um, Ross and I, we’ve known each other for quite a few years now, and we share a similar passion in terms of act. So, Ross, shall I start with a bit of an introduction, and then we can dive into the aspects of our conversation today?

[00:00:27] Joseph: Ross is an organizational and work psychologist. He specializes in the application of contextual behavioral science to the workplace, particularly what we’re talking about today. Acceptance of commitment therapy act forms an essential part of Ross’s coaching toolkit. Ross is also the creator and host of another podcast, PeopleSoup, which I listen to myself as well.

[00:00:50] Joseph: And PeopleSoup, it aims to unlock insight and workplace potential from different expert perspectives. from experts in terms of contextual behavioral science as well. So if you haven’t listened to his podcast, have a listen to it also. Ross, shall we start talking about ACT? What

[00:01:08] Ross McIntosh: do you think? Oh yeah, let’s dive in.

[00:01:11] Ross McIntosh: Okay, for

[00:01:12] Joseph: those of our listeners who might have not heard about ACT before, how could you introduce it

[00:01:17] Ross McIntosh: to us? Tell us a bit about it. So ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, comes under an umbrella of contextual behavioral science. ACT is probably the most well known. Part of contextual behavioral science and it’s a third wave cognitive behavioral therapy.

[00:01:35] Ross McIntosh: And it’s been around for probably more than 20 years now. And it’s an approach that’s being used trans diagnostically. So it’s used in clinical work with psychological issues like borderline personality disorder, uh, psychosis. It’s used in relationships to weight and eating, it’s used in smoking cessation, and all sorts of different areas in the clinical world.

[00:02:00] Ross McIntosh: And my specialism is using it in the workplace with teams and leaders and using it in one to one coaching. I’ve found ACT to be an absolutely essential part of my coaching toolkit. It’s my go to foundation for coaching. I found it so useful and effective. It’s a set of six processes act. It’s represented visually by something called the hexaflex.

[00:02:26] Ross McIntosh: Which I don’t propose to go into in great detail today, Joseph, because I think the hexaflex, talking about the six processes, can get us quite heady and cognitive and trying to understand.

[00:02:39] Joseph: So that’s an interesting way how to look at it, because also when we talk about our diplomas, for example, we cover ACT, and the first thing that we do is we show the hexaflex.

[00:02:46] Joseph: So I’m really intrigued at how you would introduce ACT to somebody in the workplace without going into the six different processes.

[00:02:56] Ross McIntosh: Yeah, we’d, we’d narrow it down into, to three skills. Mm hmm. I consider act to be, uh, the development of skills, which I think why it’s so useful and applicable in a coaching environment.

[00:03:08] Ross McIntosh: So maybe if I just talk about what those three skills are and unpack them a bit, it’ll start to make a bit of sense. So those three skills are notice, active, and open. So notice is about. In our working lives, do we always notice what’s going on around us, the opportunities, the threats, the other people who are around us in our working environment, or are we stuck inside our own heads?

[00:03:35] Ross McIntosh: Because the more we’re out there, the more we can get data and feedback on what’s going on. And we know that we’re not always out there noticing. There was some research done at Harvard, and they said we can spend around 46, 47 percent of our waking hours on autopilot. Which means that my body’s here, but my mind’s thinking about something else.

[00:03:58] Ross McIntosh: And sometimes that’s super useful. I’m not knocking autopilot as a no no, but sometimes that ability or that capacity to step into the present moment is super useful for us, particularly in our roles at work. So can we really notice. What’s going on around us and how we’re showing up. What impact are we having in our workplace, on our colleagues, on ourselves?

[00:04:20] Ross McIntosh: Because with that awareness, we can develop more insights into how we can really be our best selves at work. So there’s that skill of noticing, which we’d work on through coaching or in team based training with ACT. The next one is Active. This is all about, are we being the best version of ourselves?

[00:04:41] Ross McIntosh: What really fundamentally matters to us as a human being, as a person in the workplace? You in your role, Joseph, me in mine. Who do we really want to be? What’s important to us? And in act, we tend to call these personal values, what really matters to us. What really matters will be different for each person.

[00:05:02] Ross McIntosh: And I think sometimes in the workplace, we don’t stop to pause and consider. What does really matter to me? It’s not about what we’re doing, it’s about how we’re doing it. It’s about those qualities of behavior we bring to our presence in the workplace. So in ACT we tend to explore these personal values and get a bit playful and experimental with them.

[00:05:27] Ross McIntosh: So treating a personal value as something that We can try on, we can think about it as a new pair of shoes, we can try walking in the service of this value and see how the world reacts, or how our workplace reacts, or how we feel if we’re really embodying this value. And the reason it’s called active, this skill, is because we can have words about how we want to be at work, but it’s bringing them to life in our behavior.

[00:05:56] Ross McIntosh: How do we express those qualities in how we show up in our behavior? And we know that that’s not always easy. But it generally is really fulfilling and gives us our sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. So that’s a little bit about active. And then the third one is open. And the way we, the strap line for open would be relating skillfully to our inner world.

[00:06:22] Ross McIntosh: Which can sound a little bit woo woo, maybe. What does he mean? Well, I mean that at any time, in any moment in our lives, our mind is producing loads of stuff. Things like thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations, urges. And sometimes that stuff can hijack our behavior. Sometimes it can keep us stuck in loops.

[00:06:46] Ross McIntosh: Sometimes it can just leave us with habitual patterns of behavior that aren’t that useful. They were perhaps once useful, but they’re no longer useful. So it’s shining a light on things like those thoughts, those emotions, those memories, those urges. And in ACT, we’re learning how to relate to those differently.

[00:07:07] Ross McIntosh: In some approaches, in some therapeutic approaches, we might try and deconstruct an unhelpful thought. One thing I love about ACT is, we’re not looking to deconstruct that necessarily, we’re just saying, hey, it’s human. We’re having these unhelpful thoughts. Perhaps a thought like, let me give you an example like, I’m not good enough, or I’m going to be discovered for the fraud that I am.

[00:07:30] Ross McIntosh: A thought like that can stop me doing things. It can stop me taking on new projects. It can stop me accepting invitations to speak. On a podcast for instance, but can I respect and notice that as a, a way the human mind has evolved and begin to relate to it differently? To allow me to pursue what really matters to me to pursue that valued action.

[00:07:58] Ross McIntosh: So combine those three skills. This is the way we conceptualize it in the workplace combined. Those three skills could represent the development or the cultivation of psychological flexibility. And that’s at the heart of act. You, as you well know. Yeah.

[00:08:13] Joseph: Yeah. I have so many questions, Ross. And I’m thinking about where to, where to start with any of these.

[00:08:21] Joseph: Um, I’m going to start actually in relation. So the three, kind of skills that you mentioned are notice, aware, and open. And what we’ll do as well in the show notes, we’ll put a link to the hexaflex, so if anyone wants to dig a bit deeper into the processes, then you can. As you as well know, there isn’t kind of a starting point of our act, and that’s something that I love about ACT, that it’s not a linear process where we look at.

[00:08:48] Joseph: For example, some therapies, as we’ve been mentioning, like CBT, have got a starting point. ACT is a bit more organic. So, I’m intrigued. Talking about the start when you’re working with coaching clients. How do you find a start? Do you focus on notice as a starting point with the client? Is there a skill that you start with?

[00:09:10] Joseph: How do you start into weaving act into your coaching

[00:09:14] Ross McIntosh: program? I think as you say, it’s organic. It depends on the responses you’re getting from your coachee and I And I’d always have act in the back of my mind, I’d always be looking and listening through that lens or that earpiece of act, looking out for what matters to that person, looking out for noticing, noticing what’s going on for them, noticing their language, and noticing perhaps their, the way that they’re hard on themselves.

[00:09:44] Ross McIntosh: or, or getting in their own way. But a way I’d probably start is with one of the traditional, well founded coaching models. I’d probably start with that as a way in for, for example, grow. I might start talking to a client about Their goals and, and, and moving on from there. And at the same time noticing what matters and if they’re really noticing what they’re saying and how they’re showing up, and if I can spot things that are perhaps getting in their way that are generated from their own minds.

[00:10:19] Ross McIntosh: Mm. So it, it, it, like you say, it’s organic and it wouldn’t be linear, but what I often use is a tool called the Act Matrix. Which allows us to begin to map that out. Map out what matters. Map out sort of small behaviors towards who they want to be. And also map out what might get in the way.

[00:10:42] Joseph: Such a wonderful tool to use, isn’t it?

[00:10:45] Joseph: Because it also, there’s an element for me of co creation. You’re doing something together. Most of my coaching I was online, but I remember when I used to do a lot more face to face. I, I love that moment where the client will also pick up the pen and start writing in there. And it’s, it’s, uh, although I’ve put in the act matrix, we’ll also put a link on the show notes.

[00:11:08] Joseph: It’s so wonderful to see when the client actively engages. with the process. And me as a code being flexible in that approach is also, you know, we’re mirroring the act processes ourselves with the

[00:11:21] Ross McIntosh: client. Absolutely. Such important points you raised there. A collaboration. I think coaching is a collaboration anyway.

[00:11:30] Ross McIntosh: And I think ACT really supports that collaboration, the ACT matrix. Very much like you, when I was doing more coaching face to face, first of all, you know what, I’d use the ACT matrix in my notes, just jotting down a few things, thinking. What’s going on, perhaps, inside that might be getting in the way? Who does this person really want to be?

[00:11:51] Ross McIntosh: What’s important? And then I realized one time, years ago in coaching, I thought, let’s get this on a board. Let’s get this on a whiteboard and start mapping it together. And that was super powerful for me, working with coaches, with the ACT Matrix, and Collaboratively mapping that out and sorting. It’s a, it’s a kind of sorting exercise of what’s going on inside your head.

[00:12:16] Ross McIntosh: And I still try that online with various virtual tools. It’s not quite as visceral. Yeah. But visceral is an important word because in act we might be just pressing pause with a coaching client saying, how does that feel? Can you notice your body right now? Just to re anchor them into the present moment if we feel they’ve got trapped in a rabbit hole inside their own heads.

[00:12:42] Ross McIntosh: A habitual way of thinking that isn’t productive and leads them down a route that we know is gonna lead them to more stuff.

[00:12:52] Joseph: Did you know that at Become, we offer a number of different coach training programs to people just like you? If you’re new to coaching, there is a Level 1 Diploma in Integrative Coaching.

[00:13:03] Joseph: If you’ve been coaching for a while, or perhaps you’re already an ACC coach, then we have the Advanced Diploma. in integrative coaching, which leads all the way to the PCC credential by the ICF. We also have a number of CPD programs and certificates, including mentoring and supervision. To find out more, go to to become.

[00:13:24] Joseph: org or just check the show notes.

[00:13:31] Joseph: I’m noticing a very curious part of me that is intrigued now. around, because you mentioned the flip chart and the whiteboard and I got this idea of you being in a training room with a group of people. So would you also use the act matrix in a way with a group? I’ve never used it myself. I’ve always done it one to one with people, but can it be used with a group?

[00:13:54] Joseph: What do you

[00:13:54] Ross McIntosh: think? Yeah, yeah, I’m glad you let your curiosity guide you, Joseph, because yes, absolutely, I find it can unlock conversations in a group that could otherwise take so much time to reach. I used it with a group, a senior group of directors before Christmas, talking to them about what matters to them as a group, how they want to be, what’s really important and what could show up inside of any member of that group that could get in the way.

[00:14:28] Ross McIntosh: And getting them to be really reflective and honest about that, because the things that could get in the way might be, I’m just exhausted. Things keep changing and I don’t really understand where we are anymore. And I’m kind of scared to ask. Or it could be, I’ve got so many things going on in my life outside of work, I just don’t have capacity for this.

[00:14:46] Ross McIntosh: Or it could be things like, I’m not sure I trust that person who sits across the table from me. And even those conversations about who do we want to be as a group, what’s important. If you go around a group, you’ll start to realise they’re different. Assumptions being made and surfacing those can really help a group bond and create more.

[00:15:07] Ross McIntosh: Psychological safety, but then it can also help them notice the behaviors that take them towards who they want to be and those behaviors that take them away from that as well. So there’s a whole approach as part of the contextual behavioral science, stable if you like, called pro social, which in part of it uses the matrix for groups.

[00:15:30] Ross McIntosh: And it’s super exciting and super interesting. I can

[00:15:34] Joseph: feel the excitement in me as you’re telling me about it now as well, um, because I can see it worked so well. And, uh, in a team coaching process, um, supporting the team, understand conflicts, for example, what’s happening within the team. It’s really useful.

[00:15:50] Joseph: There is another word that you mentioned, or a couple of words that I feel it would be important to just pause a bit on, and that is psychological flexibility. We mentioned it. In the past thing in a way, but it is very important when it comes to act,

[00:16:03] Ross McIntosh: I feel. Yeah, so remember those six processes I talked about?

[00:16:08] Ross McIntosh: They all contribute to the cultivation or the development of psychological flexibility. And I think this is so important for people in the workplace. It’s, let me try and have a go at unpacking it a bit. It’s, it’s, can I show up in a way that has importance and meaning for me, even when I’m experiencing unhelpful stuff in my mind.

[00:16:31] Ross McIntosh: So can I pursue a path of meaning and importance even when my mind is saying you’re not good enough, this isn’t gonna work? Can I notice what’s going on around me? And can I adapt my course depending on the context in which I find myself? So in ACT, we’re looking at two contexts really. And for coaching, we’re thinking at the context going on around a person, the environment or the culture in which they operate.

[00:16:57] Ross McIntosh: So that’s one context. The other context is the internal context. What’s going on inside that soup inside your head that could be helpful or could be unhelpful and how you can show up as the best version of yourself given the circumstances or the contexts that you’re experiencing. And that’s

[00:17:16] Joseph: where you can see those three skills really becoming engaged because you’d need to notice, be aware and be open to this.

[00:17:25] Joseph: Yeah,

[00:17:25] Ross McIntosh: that, that, that notice active and open is super important because otherwise we might just be noticing, but without the active we’re not expressing what matters to us in our behavior. Yeah. I love the metaphors,

[00:17:38] Joseph: well, that you used earlier. Maybe we can pause a bit about metaphors in a little bit. But you know, when you’re trying on a new pair of shoes and, uh, and linking that to family, That resonated a lot with me because we do have a choice, talking about active, we have a choice around which values to hold.

[00:17:58] Joseph: We use metaphors a lot in ACT. How do you use them in a coaching process?

[00:18:02] Ross McIntosh: In many ways, actually. So let me give you some examples. So it might be an example like trying on a new pair of shoes to try and distinguish this sense of a value as a, as a, as a direction for us. And we can take small steps to express that value as we move towards a goal.

[00:18:19] Ross McIntosh: There’s a, there’s a very popular act metaphor called passengers on the bus, which is about how we might relate to the chatter that goes on in our heads. And those passengers. on our bus that could keep us stuck going round in a circle. That could really act as a helpful reinforcement or that could just be telling us we’re a bit rubbish.

[00:18:39] Joseph: And I think it’s also on the first episode of your podcast, isn’t it?

[00:18:42] Ross McIntosh: Yeah, definitely. So if anyone wants to hear it. Way back, way back when, yeah. Thank you. Yeah, you’re right. And then there’s another way to use metaphor. Using a client’s own words.

[00:18:56] Joseph: Picking up on, so a typical one that I’m imagining is And this might be an example for, you know, the client talking about the head being like a bowl of spaghetti.

[00:19:07] Joseph: And then you can play with that

[00:19:08] Ross McIntosh: metaphor. Beautiful, exactly. And one, one you just made me think about too is, is sometimes people will say, I want to set sail with this new project. So you can then use that. that metaphor of setting sail of what would help blow more air into your sails or what direction do you want to take your boat in?

[00:19:33] Ross McIntosh: And it just helps us access different ways of thinking and new perspectives. I think that that can unlock more insights and more potential. I would say it could be

[00:19:43] Joseph: because I, I suppose when we’re using metaphors, we’re making some of the more. complex aspects of that discussion that sometimes when we’re using, when we’re going into some of those processes, I’m thinking to self as context, for example, can be quite tricky to navigate.

[00:20:01] Joseph: And by using a metaphor, we can support the client, perhaps notice what’s happening a little bit more viscerally as well and somatically.

[00:20:13] Ross McIntosh: Absolutely. Yeah. You already

[00:20:15] Joseph: alluded a little bit to this earlier when you talked about growth, for example, and other models. So do you feel that ACT can be integrated with other coaching modalities?

[00:20:26] Joseph: I’m guessing yes, based on your previous answer. But perhaps a little bit more around how you, how you use that as a, as an integrative aspect of your work. Hmm.

[00:20:38] Ross McIntosh: It’s difficult to kind of articulate it and unpack because I wouldn’t want it to be seen as a regimented step one, step two, step three. But I think it.

[00:20:48] Ross McIntosh: For me, it forms a general part of the exploratory conversation. Typically a first session, we’d really be delving into why has the person come to coaching? What are they looking to achieve? What area of their work or their life would they like to, to focus on? And it’s really spending some time in that and holding the space for that person in that, that can really help us unlock the, the, the goals.

[00:21:17] Ross McIntosh: I think integrating with a model, for example, like grow or One called Whoop, Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and a Plan. But it’s, it’s, it’s integrating these and making it conversational, I think. And I’m looking at it through the lens of act and hearing through the earpiece of act, if you like. To just really notice, perhaps, when a client is.

[00:21:42] Ross McIntosh: Skating over something or wanting to move on from a thing agreeing in our contracting that we both have a pause button And they can press pause if they’re not sure or they want to explore something a bit more and I can press pause if I notice Something where we seem to be feeling discomfort That’s a part of coaching where it can be super useful because you know when someone’s showing visible signs of discomfort sometimes for us as a coach Keeping that person in that space is, is really important in that moment and ACT can really support that and you can really set that up in the contracting by supporting them and just exploring because that stuff, this could be the stuff that’s derailing them and keeping them stuck.

[00:22:25] Ross McIntosh: So I think by just by the contracting up front can help us do a much deeper exploration and be more effective in our coaching. So, like I said, I can’t give you a step by step guide as to how to integrate it, but I just think. For a coach to make it their own, it’s to learn and become more confident in the use of ACT and hopefully the benefits of ACT.

[00:22:54] Ross McIntosh: And then thinking how it could integrate into their own practice, because I use, I was trained in strength based coaching and solutions focused coaching. And it’s bringing all those together and trusting in ourselves to respond to the client in a way that might be most effective. But also being curious and kind to ourselves when sometimes we’ll take an avenue that it seems to be going nowhere.

[00:23:22] Ross McIntosh: Can we pick another avenue at that point and get curious again and be kind to ourselves?

[00:23:29] Joseph: I’m really glad that you said that because it resonates a lot with our values and ethos as a, as a coach training company, because one of the questions that we sometimes get from trainees who want to study our program is, so do you offer like in session one, what I would say in session two, what I would say, and I go, No, A would be very boring in terms of having such a regimented, structured coaching program.

[00:23:56] Joseph: But also for me in a way, that’s not even coaching, that’s more project management and planning. Um, so I, I, I could really resonate with what you said around being flexible as well as practitioners and how we use. Act in our coaching sessions and in coaching in general, integration is

[00:24:19] Ross McIntosh: key. Absolutely. And the more we practice, the more we find ways to use it.

[00:24:24] Ross McIntosh: That’s why I don’t want to be too prescriptive.

[00:24:28] Joseph: Yeah. And it’s hard at first, right? Oh God, yes, very hard. It’s so hard because we’ve been trained in a way that we know what to do. We’ve been told what to do at different points in times, especially at work. And to be with a client and be in the moment with the client and not think of the models and think of them loosely, um, like you said, can be terrifying.

[00:24:52] Ross McIntosh: Yeah, and it’s trusting in our personal foundations of being there with the client, creating that rapport, allowing them to feel seen and heard. So

[00:25:01] Joseph: in terms of, as we start kind of closing our conversation, I don’t want to, but, maybe we could do a part two later on. If somebody is interested in acts, of course, we’ll put some notes in the show, in the show notes to, to help you out.

[00:25:18] Joseph: But are there any kind of quick wins or any anything that you can signpost to individuals who might be fairly new to act and would like to develop themselves a

[00:25:27] Ross McIntosh: little bit further? Yes, I would say if you want an introduction to ACT, I would recommend a book where I started, oh, about nine, ten years ago now, a book called The Happiness Trap by Dr.

[00:25:42] Ross McIntosh: Ross Harris. And Ross is a leader in the ACT community, and he’s great at making the concepts from ACT accessible. So that could be a great starting place. Another, perhaps? resource that people might want to explore is, is my podcast, People Soup. And maybe what I could do, Joseph, is give you a menu of some episodes that people might want to just dive into, because I have guests that talk about ACT.

[00:26:10] Ross McIntosh: A recent one I’m thinking of, uh, a psychologist in America who talked to, who uses ACT to address imposter phenomena. And she does it in such an engaging way, that might be Give people an insight in how we can really make ACT our own. And I guess the other thing I would say is, you and me, Joseph, were in early conversations about how could we help people gain more skills in ACT?

[00:26:34] Ross McIntosh: So, watch the space with Joseph and see what we might evolve from our conversations. Completely. Completely.

[00:26:41] Joseph: It is something, it is a request that our trainees ask us. That’s a lot, all the time. Can you offer more ACT training, support, supervision? So definitely watch this space in relation to that.

[00:26:54] Joseph: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Ross, once again, for being here, for sparing a bit of time to give us an introduction to ACT and how you use it as a coach as well and as a psychologist. And, um, yeah, if you’d like to, I’d love to have a part two to the conversation. I feel there’s a lot that we could go into in terms of, yeah, in terms of act.

[00:27:15] Ross McIntosh: Oh my goodness, Joseph. Yes. It’s been a delight. Thank you for being such a great interviewer and I am super up for a part two. Brilliant.

[00:27:23] Joseph: Brilliant. Brilliant. Okay. Thank you so much, Ross.

[00:27:26] Ross McIntosh: Okay. Cheers, Joseph.

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