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 Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.