In times of perceived crisis, the lines between coaching and therapy can sometimes feel more blurred than usual. This is because the kind of issues that people bring to coaching may touch on more personal dimensions and at a deeper level than they would normally. The Coronavirus and the intense drama that surrounds it is a case in point. People may find themselves not only, say, dealing with the impacts of lockdown on their business and work, but also anxieties they hold for the health, safety and well-being of their family, friends and colleagues. So here are some insights from four psychological fields to help coaches enable people to navigate such times and experiences.
First, Gestalt. Notice if and when a person is fixated on one specific dimension of what is taking place, as if that is the only dimension. A vivid, current example is the mass media’s fixation on the number of people contracting or dying from the Corona virus – to the exclusion of attention to a far, far greater number of people who haven’t contracted the virus and who haven’t died from it. It can create the impression that everyone is contracting the virus and that everyone is dying from it. If, therefore, you notice a person becoming overly-preoccupied by one dimension of an issue, acknowledge the underlying feeling (e.g. anxiety) and enable him or her to notice what they are not-noticing.
Second, Existential. The Corona crisis has evoked deep fears, particularly in wealthier countries where people and communities are no longer used to facing these levels of perceived vulnerability and threat. Dramatic soundbites in social media, claiming this is the worst crisis the world has ever faced, add to the sense of fear and alarm – that death and destruction of people, communities, organisations and social systems are imminent. Whilst such apocalyptic visions ignore previous and arguably far-worse crises (e.g. Bubonic plague; Spanish flu; Two World Wars), the coach can use this opportunity to enable people to explore their deeply-held beliefs, values and stance in the world.
Third, Psychodynamics. People, groups, organisations and communities experience the present through the emotional, psychological and cultural filters of the past. People will very likely have experienced crises of one sort of another before that from their standpoint and experience ended badly or, conversely, worked out well in the end. Such experiences will influence what the person perceives, how they feel about it and how they will respond to a crisis now. If you notice a person reacting very strongly, particularly if it appears disproportionate or out of character, acknowledge the feeling and explore how it may be reverberating with experiences from that person or group’s past.
Fourth, Social Constructs. People create personal and cultural narratives that give focus and shape to their experiences and, thereby, enable people and groups to make sense of them. So, for instance, politicians, health professionals and the media are, currently, presenting very specific versions of events in relation to the Corona crisis. They are construing facts, stories and images selectively to convey a particular narrative that will lead to a certain response; whether that be e.g. to engender public confidence, influence public behaviour...or sell more newspapers. Listen carefully to the stories people are creating and using and, where helpful, enable them to construct a healthier narrative.
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Well-being and resilience are hot topics in the world of work at the moment. The Stockdale Paradox offers a useful psychological outlook and stance. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.’ (Stockdale Paradox)
Someone commented recently on my ‘relentless optimism that everything will work out in the end.’ They saw this as a principle that guides my decision making, drawing on my faith as a follower of Jesus. I was a bit taken aback, partly because I had read in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great some years ago that optimism can lead to naïve passivity in the face of challenge. On further exploration, it became clear that they meant I appear un-phased by some situations that could leave other people shaking. It’s as if I am open to, look out for, the possibility in, the opportunity in, what is. Sometimes.
This is quite different to a kind of positive thinking that says things like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’, as if personal, cultural and contextual constraints don’t exist, or, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ – when clearly you won’t be. Collins talks about the importance of confronting the brutal facts; that is, of actively seeking out and facing what could well look and feel like the opposite to how we would prefer things to be. In contrast to optimism or pessimism, it’s a kind of relentless realism. It demands honesty, courage, humility, and a hopeful outlook to avoid falling into paralysis or despair.
Achieving this perspective, attitude and stance isn’t always as easy, however, as it may sound. Psychodynamically-speaking, leaders, teams and organisations often develop subconscious and highly-effective defence mechanisms that protect them from dealing with issues that could feel threatening or anxiety-provoking. As a consequence, it can mean that we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear and filter everything else out – without even knowing it. This may create both risky blind spots (what we can’t see) and dangerous hot spots (what we avoid facing).
To add to the complexity, according to Gestalt and social constructionist research, leaders, teams and organisations can become so focused-fixated on specific issues they consider most important that they inadvertently exclude wider perspectives or dimensions – again without realising it. This influences what they perceive as key, what they consider to be the brutal facts in relation to it, what they believe the options are and, therefore, what they decide to do in response to it. It’s as if the narratives we create function for us as as-if realities. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
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