Have you ever found yourself facing a problem, an insurmountable challenge, that leaves you feeling frustrated, tired or stressed? Have you ever found it difficult to get an intractable problem out of your head, to step back and view the whole situation from a radically different perspective?
Carole Pemberton’s book, Coaching to Solutions (2006), presents a practical and hope-inspiring approach to coaching that aims to draws a client’s attention away from problems, diagnostics and analysis of the present or past towards future-orientated goals, resources and resourcefulness.
It strikes me as a bit like appreciative inquiry. It’s an optimistic approach that focuses on the positive. ‘What would a great future look and feel like?’, ‘What are the strengths you can build on?’, ‘What resources are available in your environment to draw on?’, ‘Let’s plan the next steps.’
Anthony Grant (in The Coaching Psychologist journal, Dec 2011) explores this approach further in ways I found helpful so will share some of them here. He draws links between solutions focused coaching and insights and practices from other, more overtly psychological based schools.
Firstly, solutions focused coaching has a ‘non-pathological orientation’. This is essentially means that when a person describes a problem he or she is facing, the coach sees this as an opportunity or challenge for the client to work on, rather than as some inherent deficit in the client.
Secondly, it is ‘future orientated’. This is perhaps one of the greatest differences between solutions focused and traditional analytical approaches. The principal focus is on the client’s desired goals or future state, not on how or where he or she is now or on how he or she arrived here.
Thirdly, it focuses on ‘constructing solutions and disengaging from problems’. It believes that when a client becomes preoccupied with a problem or the causes of the problem, he or she can get stuck. Instead, the coach challenges the client to focus on solutions that will move things forward.
Fourthly, it is ‘outcome or goal orientated’. This means the coach will work with the client to help him or her envision a desired future and to plan the practical steps that will help him or her to achieve it. This could involve actively ignoring current problems and refocusing on solutions.
Fifthly, it involves ‘utilising and activating existing client resources’. This means the solutions-focused coach will help raise the client’s awareness of personal resources (e.g. strengths, capabilities) and contextual resources (e.g. finances, networks) that he or she can draw on to move forward.
Grant draws interesting parallels with other psychological schools. For instance, enabling the client to disengage from problems is similar to tackling rumination (persistent preoccupation with an issue) or problem-saturated thinking in cognitive behavioural therapy or coaching practice.
Solution focused coaching’s emphasis on envisioning goals, where goals are ‘internal representations of desired states or outcomes’, is similar to principles in goal-setting psychology and client resource activation is similar to the strengths-based aspects of positive psychology (‘what am I good at?).
So what might all of this look like in practice? Allow your mind to dwell for a moment on a problem you are facing currently. It may be large or small, recent or persistent. Now imagine putting it to one side and focus on what you want the future to look and feel like. Try to imagine and feel it vividly.
Now allow your thoughts to ponder different ideas or approaches that could help you move towards that goal. Don’t be constrained by what you’ve tried previously or where you’ve become stuck. Allow yourself to think freely, to be playful as you imagine possible ways to achieve it.
Jot down what resources you have that you could draw on to move forward. For example, previous experiences, prayer, expertise, money, friendships, contacts, personality traits. Again, allow yourself to be free and creative. Remind yourself of where and how you have been successful previously.
Finally, capture your vision on paper. Perhaps draw it as a picture, a symbol, a journey. Something evocative and compelling for you. Add the resources you can draw on to move forward. Write down your next steps and, in doing so, make them practical – and choose to do them.
This can feel easier said than done when doing it alone, hence the value of working with or as a skilled coach or therapist. If you find it difficult, try doing it with someone else who’s prepared to guide, pose the questions and to gently challenge any unhelpful or unfounded assumptions.
Solution focused coaching can feel encouraging, empowering and releasing. It helps to break negative patterns of thought that drain our energy and limit our effectiveness. It isn’t a magic bullet for all situations but it can make a refreshing change to traditional analysis and problem-solving.
Why is it so hard to get to grips with the concept of grace, of ‘unmerited favour’? Why is it so difficult to imagine that God could love us exactly as we are? Why is it that in spite of profound biblical revelation, many Christians still try to earn their way to God by personal achievement, good deeds and hard work, fearing rejection and punishment if they fail to make the grade?
I want to offer some insights from psychological and cultural studies that may shed some light on this. I’m writing from personal experience too. I can get my head around grace at a conceptual level but sometimes feel uncertain, anxious. It’s as if the promise of the gospel feels too good to be true, as if it can’t really apply to me, as if there must be hidden strings attached.
From our earliest childhood, we meet approval or disapproval on the basis of how we behave. A baby monitors its mother’s face for her reactions and learns that smiling, giggling, looking cute and not screaming evoke positive strokes and emotional rewards. The baby develops a sense of who he or she is, of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable, through these earliest encounters.
It gets complicated psychologically and relationally, however, because the baby draws subconscious conclusions from how he or she feels. The parent may indeed feel unconditional love for the child but without language to convey it in a way the child can grasp, the child can only infer from what he or she experiences and, critically, how he or she interprets that experience.
Object relations theory proposes that if a baby feels secure in its relationship to its primary caregiver, if its needs are met in a satisfying and consistent way, the baby is likely to grow up feeling secure in future relationships too. Conversely, if the baby feels insecure, he or she may struggle in future relationships, acting codependent, ambivalent or independent as a form of self protection.
A baby is of course unable to meet many of its own physical and psychological needs. The baby needs the carer for food, for cleaning and nappy changes, for burping when he or she gets trapped air, for wrapping to keep warm, for hugging to feel secure. Approval and attention from the carer feels critical to the baby for physical and psychological survival, safety and comfort.
The same child enters school and finds similarly that certain types of behaviour, paying attention, working hard, pleasing the teacher, producing good results, meet with approval. Other behaviours result in disapproval or discipline. This pattern continues into working life. Performance is monitored and good performance can result in promotion, bad performance in dismissal.
In so many aspects of our lives, therefore, we learn that love, attention and reward are based on behaving well or achieving results in the eyes of a significant other, whether that other be a person, group, community or organisation. We also learn that the converse is true. Get it wrong and you could suffer the negative and painful consequences of rejection or punishment.
We learn to put on a confident face in the office, hoping to convince significant others of our ability and therefore worth to the organisation. We put on a good show in front of other people to demonstrate we are great parents with a model family. We put on a ‘holy’ face at church, hoping to convince others of our spiritual credentials and, thereby, worthiness to belong.
By transference, we project the same expectations onto God. Surely this principle we have learned from birth must apply to him too? Surely the law in the Bible, all those rules and regulations, is the yardstick that God uses to measure our spiritual performance and, thereby, whether we are worthy of his love, whether we are good enough, whether we deserve reward or rejection?
And so we face an existential crisis, self-righteousness if we think we’re good enough and a crushing anxiety if we feel we’re not. I believe this dilemma lies at the heart of why so many Christians struggle with the notion of grace, struggle to experience the freedom the Bible promises to those who believe. It's not so much a rational conceptual issue as an anxiety driven by human experience.
Griffin & Tyrrell in their excellent book, How to Master Anxiety, talk about the ‘three pertinent Ps’ that can contribute to anxiety or depression. It’s something to do with how a person perceives events or experiences and what meaning he or she attributes to them. Using this model, the coaching task could be to help a person surface and test his or her assumptions and conclusions.
The first P is ‘personalising’. It’s about whether the person believes that what happens to and around them is a result of something he or she has done. ‘I must have done something to offend her’, ‘It’s all my fault’. It’s as if the person perceives him or herself as the cause of whatever happens. It moves beyond, ‘I may have contributed to this’ to believing, ‘I’m solely responsible for it.’
The next P is ‘pervasiveness’. It’s about whether the person believes that the impacts of an event or experience in one aspect of his or her life or work extends to all other aspects. ‘It’s all ruined’, ‘I’m hopeless at everything’. It’s as if the person perceives a single incident or experience as indicative of how everything is. It’s a case of rash generalisation from the specific.
The third P is ‘permanence’. It’s about whether the person believes that an experience or the consequences of an action will extend forever into the future. ‘It will always be the same’, ‘This will ruin my whole life.’ It’s as if the person believes a current experience is a definitive predictor of how life and work will be from now on. There is no room for alternative possibilities.
Now there are of course situations where a person may indeed be responsible for something that happens, e.g. he or she may have said or done something that upset a colleague. The person may have taken a decision or acted in a way that had wider consequences than expected. The person may have experienced something genuinely challenging or life-changing.
The ‘pertinent Ps’ are about making incorrect inferences or assumptions, attributing causal relationships where there may be none, drawing invalid conclusions and projecting a fixed view onto reality and the future that, if combined with what I would call a fourth P, ‘pessimism’, trap the person in a stressful, despondent world that could lead to anxiety or depression.
I mention the pessimistic dimension because it’s possible, for instance, that a different person could experience the same ‘pertinent Ps’ positively, e.g. attribute positive experiences to themselves, believe that success in one area means success in all areas, imagine a bright future on the basis of what’s happening now. In this case, the person may feel confident and optimistic.
The difference and potential coaching solution may lie in a fifth P, ‘perspective’. As we have noticed, it’s something to do with how a person perceives an experience or event. Albert Ellis noted this in his ABC theory of emotion. What a person feels is a consequence of what she or believes about an event or experience, rather than a direct consequence of the event or experience itself.
The tricky part in coaching is that changing perspective is sometimes easier said than done. After all, our perspectives are shaped by history, including previous relationships and experiences, and culture. They can feel so familiar, so much part of us, so intrinsic to our way of seeing and experiencing the world, that to change them can feel threatening or disorientating.
A sixth P, ‘person’, can make a difference. When a client feels authentic interest, empathy and support from a significant other, which could include the coach him or herself, he or she is more likely to feel less anxious, less defensive, and thereby more open to consider alternative perspectives. It’s as if the relationship itself allows the metaphorical cognitive dust to settle.
One final P, ‘prayer’, can draw these domains together with profound effect. Deep prayer is trusting, loving relationship, sharing intimate presence with the ultimate significant Other. It’s a here and now experience where we are drawn and inspired into see a glimpse of the broadest possible perspective. It can become a true source optimism and confidence for both client and coach.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.