The ABC model says that the way we respond to a negative event is shaped by two things. It is shaped by the event itself and by our internal beliefs. While we can’t normally change events, we can change our internal beliefs. By doing so, we can improve how we respond to negative events.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The ABC Model

The ABC model is a simple framework that helps explain how stressful situations can affect our actions and behaviors. The model also provides insight into how we can improve our behaviors when we do experience stressful situations.

The model is linked with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In the model A stands for activating event (or trigger), B stands for beliefs and C stands for consequences. This ABC model is the basis for the ETC Self-coaching model.

What the Model Says

The ABC model says that the way we respond to any situation is a function of two things. These are the situation we are experiencing and of our own beliefs and internal thought processes. This is somewhat similar to Lewin’s Behavior Equation.

The implication of this is that there are two ways we can change the way we respond to situations. We can either change the situation, or change our internal beliefs.

These internal beliefs often appear in the form of “self-talk”. This is just a name given to the internally monologue that everyone has. Most people have self-talk whirring away inside their head all of the time. It can be helpful and positive, or it can be unhelpful and negative.

The ABC model shown as an euqation where A + B = C

An Example

Let’s look at an example of receiving constructive, negative or challenging feedback in the world of work. The way you respond to this feedback will be influenced by two things. It will be influenced by the actual feedback you receive. And it will also be influenced by your beliefs and the stories you tell yourself.

If you have negative believes you will probably have negative self-talk. Your inner voice might tell you you’re dreadful at your job and no one likes you. If this is the case, then you’ll probably become quite stressed, unhappy and unable to do your job well.

Alternatively, you might have positive believes, a positive lens through which to view the feedback. Your inner voice might say that the feedback means that you can improve, which is a great thing to do. It might also say that the person who told you the feedback must really want to help you get better. With positive beliefs and self-talk like this, you might embrace the feedback and feel positive.

The activating event in these two examples is exactly the same. It’s only the beliefs through which the event is interpreted are fundamentally different. It is these different beliefs which lead to the two very different responses.

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The Power of Beliefs

A lens, demonstrating the ABC model as our beliefs are the lens through which we see the world
Beliefs are a bit like a lens through which you see the world.

Given that our beliefs clearly affect how we respond to difficult situations, it follows that if we change our beliefs, then we can change the way we respond to difficult situations.

This changing of beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves often involves re-framing situations. This is an important part of CBT. Re-framing is something that everyone can do with a bit of practice. Coaching and counseling can also help with it. One a similar vein, it might be worth learning a bit more about reversal theory.

The ABC Model for Individuals

From an individual perspective, developing an understanding of the types of beliefs you hold and the self-talk that they lead to can help you start to recognize when your beliefs are not helping you. As soon as you identify beliefs that lead to unhelpful self-talk, then it’s worth trying to challenge those beliefs. There are some models, such as the ETC model that individuals can use “in the moment” to help them challenge negative beliefs. It’s also possible to address beliefs over longer term periods of reflection and challenge when not “in the moment”.

Ultimately, if you can successfully challenge your unhelpful beliefs and replace them with a new set of positive and helpful believes, then you’ll be a better place and better able to positively respond to negative events. This process can take a long time, and it isn’t always possible to do on your own. You may benefit from some coaching if you’d like to change your beliefs and self-talk. Potentially someone in work can help you with this.

Sometimes just thinking about things can be helpful.

The ABC Model for Leaders

From a leadership perspective, the more you can help your team members develop helpful beliefs and self-talk, the better able they will be to respond positively in difficult situations. Helping them change their beliefs may not be simple. It is something you could, though, explore in your coaching conversations with them.

Learning More

The ETC Self-coaching model can be helpful when we’re overwhelmed in the moment. Part of the reason these models are needed is because of our fight of flight response.

It might also be worth learning more about different types of stress as well as wellbeing and resilience. Improving self-awareness also helps us understand what types of events might trigger us

You might find our podcast on the ABCs of stress and resilience helpful as well. In it we discuss what people can do to manage stress in their lives:

The World of Work Project View

This model isn’t complex at all, but it is helpful. In many instances it’s not possible to change the events that happen to us in life. It is, though, possible to change the way we think about things and our beliefs.

We think that everyone should have an awareness of this model and what it means for them. In many instances individuals in work and out of work can benefit in changing their beliefs and the way they think about things, and this is the basis of some forms of coaching (for example, the ABCDE coaching model).

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Most of the information used as the basis for this post comes from various different places on the internet. We believe that it all derives primarily from the world of cognitive behavioral therapy. You can read more in a range of books, or learn more from Jason Satterfield’s audio book: “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain”.

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