‘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.
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.
Something I've noticed in my coaching practice has been a tendency to default to rational analysis as my dominant style. It’s about reflective thinking. I once spoke with a coaching colleague about some tensions I was experiencing vis a vis a forthcoming trip to Myanmar, about concerns I had about placing a national colleague there at risk. I commented that I was struggling, ‘to get my head around it’ and, apparently, gestured towards my head.
As I continued to talk about it, this colleague observed that I was now gesturing towards my heart. I wasn’t aware of doing this at the time. He challenged me: “You describe this as something you need to get your head around whereas it actually touches on emotional concerns and deeply held values. It’s something you need to get your heart around.” I suddenly became aware of how I was rationalising an emotional struggle and felt confused about why I might do this.
At a later coaching workshop, I was invited to draw a systemic view of an issue I was dealing with at work. I drew the system, using circles to depict the different parties involved. My coaching partner drew my attention to this and challenged me: “I wonder how it might be if you were to draw people instead of circles. It’s as if you are depicting the scenario in rational conceptual terms rather than expressing and exploring it as a human emotional experience.”
I want to continue to learn how to be more aware of what I am feeling in the moment in order to make greater use of self, of counter-transference. My dominant modality is thinking, hence my instinctive focus on rationality, even if I’m aware of the client’s emotional state when I choose to focus on it. I’m often only aware of what I was feeling during the session when I reflect back on it afterwards. It can feel like an opportunity lost.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.