Awareness is the key to insight and to change. But how easily we seem able to deceive ourselves. This New Year, I tell myself an imaginary story. It’s so convincing that I actually believe it to be true. I feel sure that I cycled frequently throughout December 2015. I remember the rides vividly and they merge into a filmstrip that depicts almost continuous cycling last month. And, yet, somehow the weigh scales in the bathroom tell me a different story.
So, I’m curious. I wonder if I really cycled as frequently and as far as I’m telling myself I did. I check the sports tracking app and discover that I only went out on the bike half a dozen times for a total of around 8 hours. Not exactly ‘continuous’. The revelation leaves me puzzled and intrigued. It’s as if I noticed when I did cycle…and didn’t notice when I didn’t…then subconsciously extrapolated the did-cycle experiences to create a self-convincing scenario.
What we’re talking about here is a sort of dissonance, a contradiction between my perceived reality and my actual experience. And this is fruitful territory for coaches and therapists too. How to work with clients and groups to enable them to explore beliefs, values, constructs, realities and experiences, especially where there are tensions or potential for distortions, in order to create space for new awareness, meaning, choices and actions.
A cognitive behavioural approach can be particularly effective here. The coach helps the client to identify limiting beliefs and to examine them, as if holding objects up to the light to see how far the client’s ideas about them correlate with reality. This calls for a willingness and ability to wonder even for a moment, to suspend what we believe we know to be true and to be test alternatives. The result can be a revelation – and a great opportunity for change.
I was co-facilitating a coach training workshop for leaders last week. Sun was streaming in through the windows and I was thinking about how to illustrate the concept of psychological filters and distortions. At that very second, I looked up and saw this perfect image. A real Plato’s Cave moment. Pointing to the window blind, I asked participants to imagine what the window frame is like behind it, based purely on what they could see. ‘Curved, bent, twisted, grey?’
In my experience as a psychological coach, this can be a most important and valuable insight. We continuously filter experiences so that what we perceive and what meaning we attribute to it is influenced as much by what is happening within us as anything that is taking place externally to us in the room. I’ll introduce four types of filter or influence in these notes below, along with a brief explanation for each: projection, transference, culture and emotion.
You may have heard the expression, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ This idea of projection is a simple and complex one. Watts illustrates it like this: imagine a projector on your shoulder, projecting an image onto a person standing in front of you. What you see is a combination of what they actually look like with an overlay of aspects of the projected image. This distorts what we perceive so that we partly relate to the person as they are, and partly as we are.
The principle here is that we subconsciously project aspects of ourselves onto those we encounter. At a functional level, it helps us to identify and empathise with people. It’s as if we recognise something of ourselves in them. However, we also project aspects of ourselves onto others that we don’t acknowledge or recognise in ourselves. Perhaps I’m not aware of how compassionate I am but see it in others around me. Perhaps what I find annoying in others is a denied aspect of me too.
Our perceptions are also influenced by our past. It’s as if we filter all new experiences through what we have experienced previously and what conscious (rational) or subconscious (intuitive) conclusions we have drawn from it. Human Givens therapists talk about this as pattern matching. If we encounter someone or something that reminds us of a previous person or event, it may re-trigger that previous experience so that we experience the new event along with the past.
I see this happen a lot in coaching conversations. Clients may react to experiences in the present as if they are unknowingly re-living similar experiences from the past and transferring something of those experiences onto how they are interpreting the present. This kind of resonance can create an amplifying effect, causing the person to overreact to a person or issue in the here and now. Surfacing the pattern, the transference, can be releasing and create a new sense of perspective.
What and how we perceive someone or something in a situation is also influenced by our cultural beliefs and values. It’s as if there is a permeable boundary between ourselves and others so that what we experience is us - but not only us. Cognitive behavioural research shows how what we feel in any given situation is influenced profoundly by what we believe about that situation. In this sense, our culture acts as a filter, influencing what we notice, or not, and what sense we make of it.
Finally, our perceptions are influenced by our physical and emotional state in the moment. If a person is feeling highly stressed, for instance, they may shift into fight/flight/freeze mode which significantly affects their cognitive abilities. He or she may experience a whole range of cognitive distortions that nevertheless appear to them, in that moment, as reality. I’ve written more about this in a short article: Fresh Thinking.
Perhaps the most significant point here is that for most of us most of the time, we are unaware of the filters we hold. We continually create and recreate our perceived realities. When we look at the window blind, we may assume we are looking at the window. We believe that what we perceive is what is. As far as we know, the window frame is curved, bent, twisted and grey – that is, assuming we know or believe there is a separate reality, a window frame, beyond the blind.
As leaders, coaches and facilitators, we can grow in awareness of our own filters and their potentially distorting effects. We can learn to notice when we are projecting or transferring onto people and experiences. We can grow in awareness of our cultural beliefs and how they shape what we perceive and what we value. We can grow in awareness of our emotional states – what triggers them and how to handle them in the moment.
We can enable others to grow in awareness too, thereby broadening the range of possibilities, of options, available to them – and to us. I would be interested to hear whether anything I’ve described here resonates with your own experiences. Notice what the photo, my language, my way of presenting ideas evokes in you. How do you feel as you read this? What does it remind you of? What are you noticing and not noticing, including within and about yourself? I look forward to hearing from you!
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
How do we make sense of situations when it all goes wrong? How do we help clients do the same? I had one such incident this weekend. Having psyched myself up for a long cycle ride, the valve on my rear tyre broke just as I was setting off. I couldn’t fix it so I replaced it with a new tube. When I started to pump that up, however, the tube burst. I couldn’t believe it. End of ride. I felt surprised and frustrated. Why do these things happen? A couple of hours later, however, I felt relieved as the heavens opened with an unexpected downpour of cold rain. If I had made it out on the bike, I would have been caught out in the open, soaked to the skin with no waterproofs. Was this providential? Did the tyres mysteriously go wrong so that I would avoid this storm?
Alison Hardingham cites a Chinese Taoist story that fits the theme well. It describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘Maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said, ‘Maybe’. The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune but the farmer again said, ‘Maybe’.
The story continues. The next week, conscription officers came to the village to take young men away for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied, 'Maybe’. (Psychology for Trainers, 1998, p116). The meaning of the story is clear. We are never quite sure of the future consequences of actions or experiences in the present. How we experience events, how we feel about them, is also influenced by how we frame them, how we construct them, what we believe about them. It’s the focus of a number of fields of research including cognitive behavioural psychology and social constructionism.
In this same vein, I’m fascinated by an enigmatic place in the Bible where it describes the Spirit preventing people doing what they had set out to do and, presumably, were convinced was the right thing to do. (If you’re interested, check out Acts 16: 6-8). The point it conveys is that God may at times intervene in human lives to stop us doing something, e.g. if the unforeseen consequences may be harmful to us or others, or if there’s something else that’s more important for us to do. The Bible doesn’t attribute the direct intervention of God to every human experience. Nevertheless, for me, this example opens an intriguing window into a spiritual dimension that has important implications for how I make sense of what happens to and around me.
Quite a while ago, I studied at a college. I really struggled with the whole thing and, since then, have felt a passion to support students going through similar experiences. Two years ago, the college sent out a flyer asking for coaches and mentors for its students. I felt delighted. This was my moment. I sent an email explaining my background and coaching experience and qualifications, including coaching and mentoring students from other colleges. No reply. I sent another email to the same person. No reply. Bemused, I sent an email to the college administrative team. No reply. Now feeling frustrated, I sent an email to the college registrar. No reply. Was this just a terrible system with poor client care, or was there a deeper principle at work?
I’ve had other similar experiences. Some years ago I worked in a Palestinian hospital in the Middle East. The experience really screwed me up but, on return, I felt desperate to go back. I tried and tried, applying for job after job and yet every one drew a blank. I tried volunteering with various organisations and still drew a blank. However, in the back of my mind, in my spirit, I had this growing intuition, a 'spiritual discernment', that this wasn’t the right path for me. I don’t know what the consequences might have been if I had gone but this felt more than coincidence. So tell me. Have you had similar experiences where your or a client’s best efforts have failed? What sense have you made of it? What new insights or opportunities emerged as a result?
I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
People sometimes become stuck and struggle to find ways forward in their work and relationships because of how they perceive and respond to people and situations. I ran a workshop recently to help managers develop insights and skills in cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC). CBC is based on cognitive behavioural psychology. It is interested in how a person’s thinking influences his or her feelings and behaviour. It aims to improve a person’s effectiveness by reducing stress and opening fresh possibilities for the future.
Cognitive refers to mental processes: what we are thinking and what we believe.
Behaviour refers to what we do: how we act in relationships and other situations.
Coaching refers to helping a person enhance their life quality and effectiveness.
CBC aims to help a person surface, examine and challenge limiting or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. It is not just about positive thinking but more about reality-orientation. It focuses on what’s happening ‘here and now’ and on helping the person approach the future differently. A CB coach invites a person to talk about an issue, a challenge or something they are experiencing. Often, it is something that is causing the person frustration or stress. Sometimes, however, it could be simply that a person feels limited by a way of working or is struggling to find a way forward.
In order for the person to be honest, the coach needs to demonstrate genuine interest and trustworthiness. The person needs to feel free to be open, without being judged, and to know the coach has the person’s best interests at heart. Listening and confidentiality are very important. If the person is feeling anxious, stressed or highly emotionally-charged, it’s unlikely that he or she will feel able to engage in a conversation about thinking patterns without calming down first. Creating the right cathartic space, perhaps over a coffee, can help the person relax and engage.
A CB coach will allow a person to introduce an issue or situation he or she is dealing with and listen out for indicators of ‘cognitive distortions’, that is, ways in which the person is thinking about the issue or situation that are out of synch with reality or proving counterproductive. Common examples include polarising issues into extremes; over-generalising from specific experiences and ignoring all evidence to the contrary; predicting the future and excluding all alternative possibilities; assuming what other people are thinking or feeling; anticipating the worst possible outcomes.
The coach will draw attention to these thinking patterns, invite the person to examine them, and offer supportive challenges that help the person think in new ways (e.g. ‘what assumptions are you making?’, ‘how far is what you’re thinking supported by the facts?’, ‘what are you not noticing?’). Finally, the coach will help the person plan a way forward to deal with the issue or situation differently. This could involve e.g. conversation, vividly imagining new scenarios or role playing to practise and reinforce new ways of thinking and behaving.
I took part in an ‘immunity to change’ coaching psychology workshop this week. Based on work by Kegan and others, we looked at how and why personal and organisational change can be so difficult to achieve and sustain. The notion of immunity is taken from the physiological system where the immune system serves to protect and preserve. The psychological parallel could be regarded as an anxiety management system, designed to protect us from feelings of insecurity and threat.
The psychological immune system provides relief from anxiety. It enables us to function in the world, to maintain a degree of psychological health. The problem is that we can become locked in defended patterns of belief and behaviour, often out of conscious awareness, that prevent us facing fresh challenges and growing in resilience by surfacing, confronting and working through our deepest fears. It’s as if we become subject to our beliefs and assumptions, rather than choosing them.
In the workshop, we worked through a 4-step process known as creating an X-ray or immunity map. Draw 4 columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write down the ‘one big thing’ about yourself that, if you could change and achieve it, would make a significant positive difference in your life and work. You may want to take feedback from others too. For example, what do key colleagues believe would make the biggest positive difference to your performance at work?
In the second column, write down what you do (or, conversely, don’t do) that works against you fulfilling that goal. In other words, how do you actually behave in practice that’s different to the ‘one big thing’ that you want to characterise your behaviour in the future? Try to be very specific. ‘I do X’ or ‘I avoid doing Y’ rather than describing feelings or states of mind. You may want to ask others for feedback too on what they observe you doing or not doing, e.g. in the workplace.
In the third column, start first by vividly imagining yourself behaving in real situations in the opposite way to how you described yourself behaving in the second column. Try focusing on those behaviours and situations that could feel most scary, threatening or dangerous. Allow yourself to really feel the feelings, to feel the deep discomfort, anxiety or pain that such behaviours and situations evoke for you. You may find this best to do with a coach who can provide appropriate support.
In the fourth column, reflect and write down the core beliefs and deep assumptions you are carrying that lead to the feelings you are experiencing. These are often assumptions drawn from childhood experiences, e.g. ‘I must do everything perfectly if I am to be loved and accepted by others.’ Such assumptions are often unspoken, subconscious beliefs that guide our thinking, feeling and behaviour. Again, it can be useful to work with a coach to help you tease out such beliefs.
This 4-step process is designed to surface underlying beliefs and assumptions that have such a powerful influence that they hold our current behaviours in place. They are the subconscious anchors that can hold us back from changing. By surfacing and ‘objectifying’ our beliefs, we have opportunity to weigh them up, examine and challenge their validity. How true are they? What evidence supports them? How well do they serve us? What alternatives could be more realistic and releasing?
We closed this activity by setting up four chairs in the room, each representing one stage of the process. The person acting as ‘client’ would sit in one seat at a time while the coach coached them through that stage of the process. On completing one stage, the client would move to the next seat. We also experimented with physicality too, inviting the client to act out their goal at the first stage and their feelings at the third stage. The impact was dynamic, vivid and visual.
According to the theory underpinning this approach, change efforts fail if they address profound issues at a surface, technical or behavioural level without attending to underlying psychological dynamics too. Deeply held beliefs and assumptions act like an elastic band, pulling the person back to where they started once the pressure to change is released. If the person or group is enabled to explore their personal and wider cultural beliefs, genuine transformation becomes possible.
At some level, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 shook all of us. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the quake caused 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings to collapse or suffer damage. 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and another 1,000,000 were left homeless. It was an urban natural disaster of epic proportions. Traumatic media images showed people struggling to escape and rescue others from the ruins. Relief agencies reported severe logistical problems with providing aid because transport and communications infrastructure had been destroyed.
As hours and days progressed, people started to ask questions. Why had the earthquake been so devastating? Would it have had the same effect in richer countries where buildings are designed and constructed to withstand such impacts? What were the underlying causes? It transpired that Haiti had no government-regulated building codes. Houses were built wherever they could fit, often on steep mountain slopes with insufficient foundations. Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation exacerbated risk of disease in the aftermath of the quake.
This catastrophe illustrated all too painfully a simple predictive equation used by relief agencies throughout the world: hazard + vulnerability = disaster risk. A powerful earthquake (hazard) hits a densely populated urban area with poor housing (vulnerability) and disaster results. A disaster reveals underlying vulnerability to potential and actual hazards. The global financial crisis during the same period as the Haiti earthquake revealed serious flaws in the global banking system, exposing economic vulnerability at local, national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, talk of building resilience, an ability to cope or even thrive in the face of considerable stresses and demands, has understandably become more urgent and commonplace in governmental, non-governmental and commercial institutions. Models of proactive resilience building strategies used in the relief and development sector include disaster risk reduction (identifying and addressing underlying causes) and disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). They have operational parallels in other sectors too.
A friend put it this way. A man lives under a cliff and a rock is about to fall on him. If you can, address whatever is causing the rock to become unstable. If you can’t, do what you can to remove or shore up the rock to prevent it falling. If you can’t, encourage and enable the man to move away from the cliff face. If you can’t, provide him with a helmet and body armour to protect him when the rock falls. If you can’t, have a medical emergency team on hand to increase his chances of survival when it does happen. Once you have done all that, prepare the man for rehabilitation.
Organisations have responded to the resilience challenge in a whole host of ways including continuous environmental scanning, diversifying fundraising or investment portfolios, ensuring clearer brand differentiation, exploring new global markets, forging strategic alliances, investing in innovation, improving customer experience and retention, introducing flexible employment policies and practices, investing in talent management and engagement, ensuring transparent ethical practice. All these tactics aim to reduce and mitigate external and internal risks.
This parallels similar developments in counselling and coaching arenas where the agenda has shifted from reactive or remedial stress or crisis management to a more proactive and developmental focus. People professionals from disciplines ranging from therapy to human resources recognise that people and people systems (e.g. families, teams, communities, organisations) are facing unprecedented challenges and need to learn and develop fresh insights, skills, relationships and resources to face them effectively and prevail.
In the UK, cognitive behavioural psychology-based approaches have become increasingly popular, helping people to think differently in order to reduce anxiety and stress and to see opportunities in the midst of all kinds of potentially bewildering challenges and changes. The principle works something like this. If I can learn to perceive a situation differently, to see it through fresh eyes, I will feel differently about it and respond or behave differently towards it. This approach can achieve dramatic and quick results and achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
Other approaches based on psychotherapy, person-centred or human givens psychology expose and heal internal trauma or emotional struggle. If I can heal the historical pain that experiences may trigger or tap into, I can face new experiences afresh and with greater personal resilience. Psychological coaching has grown in popularity alongside traditional business or performance coaching, reflecting a recognition that how well a person deals with a situation depends as much on the person’s awareness and resilience as on the demands of the situation itself.
Recent psychological innovations include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which is concerned less with challenging and changing thoughts about situations than its cognitive behavioural counterpart and more with learning mindfulness. The principle involves growing in awareness, noticing and observing one’s experience rather than struggling with or trying to change it, and learning to rest in a deeper sense of transcendent self. It reframes and embraces pain and difficulty as part of the ebb and flow of life rather than as a dysfunctional problem to be challenged, resisted or resolved.
There are parallels in Buddhism and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. The latter view human experience in the context of a theology of God. The Bible portrays God as actively involved in the world and invokes trust in him as a way of approaching and dealing with experience, e.g. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding…’ (Proverbs 3:5); ‘I [God] will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). The Qur‘an, similarly: ‘Nothing can befall us except that which God has ordained…the faithful should put their trust in him.’ (Sura 9:51).
Judeo-Christian theology points far beyond simple rational assent and commitment to an alternative metaphysical social construct and lifestyle. It invites an openness to a spiritual dimension, a willingness to enter into a Supernatural relationship, an ability to draw on a transcendent experience that can result in inner strength, peace and growth in the face of adversity. It also advocates attitudes and behavioural qualities that build resilience at interpersonal and macro-systemic levels, e.g. love, integrity, equality, faithfulness, forgiveness, peace, celebration and hope.
These and similar qualities were found to be highly significant in enabling people and communities to survive during and recover following some of humanity’s worst recent disasters including the Nazi Holocaust, the Asia Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake. In light of this, Western psychosocial approaches and interventions aimed at providing post-traumatic support, based largely on secular assumptions and methodologies, are beginning to revisit the spirituality question. There may in fact be more to faith, spiritual reality and experience than a traditional secular functional outlook has presupposed.
This kind of phenomenology enables us to confront crisis and disaster at deep human-existential levels. A crisis challenges our assumptions, reveals our vulnerabilities, evokes our defences, shifts our perspectives, tests our resilience. In Western societies, our culture, wealth and technology have enabled us to insulate ourselves from some of life’s more difficult trials. Since resilience is built through facing challenge with support, some psychologists now believe this external protection is, paradoxically, reducing our inner psychological resilience. Is it time to think again?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.