Talismanic coaching: where science meets superstition

This Article was published originally in Coaching Psychology International, Volume 8, Issue 1 (Summer 2015) – ISSN 1758-7719 – pages 16-19. 

In Daniel Goleman’s (2013) Focus, he proposes that in a world of ever-increasing 24/7 distraction, we need to become better at focusing in the here and now. In this paper we propose the benefit of “superstitious conditioning” through the use of a Talisman to help
clients focus their attention in post-coaching situations.

Learning, at its most fundamental, is based upon the creation of neural connections which either strengthen or inhibit behaviour, facilitated by attending or not attending to stimuli. Learning can be said to happen when a new state (ie, a new connection) or a new association of existing connections occurs. The stronger the associations become, the more they become embedded, meaning the associated behaviour will be more readily enacted.

As coaches, we are in a highly privileged position, able to utilise this knowledge of how learning occurs for the benefit of our clients. We can share with them tools and techniques to create and strengthen associations. Once changes are fully embedded, then the tools may no longer be required, but, in the early days, having a proxy association to aid the formation of a neural association assists with sustenance of early progress.

However, all too often in coaching, after gaining insight, clients return to the everyday fray of work. Here, they lose conscious awareness of their coaching goal as it becomes displaced by more demanding pressures.

To help clients maintain the goal in their conscious awareness we often provide them with a small index card on which they are invited to write a few key reminders. We suggest they look at the card for five minutes before they go to work and immediately prior to any potential opportunities or likely ‘trigger’ moments.

This approach has worked very well, with many clients reporting that they still carry their card several months, and even years, after the coaching session.

In a recent coaching session, one of the authors was working with a client who was having trouble controlling his temper when he felt frustrated by colleagues. In this instance the card technique had limited success. The client found, when back at work, at the very time he should have been thinking about what was on the card, his ‘red mist’ descended, his amygdala hijacked. Basically, he lost it!

At our next meeting we shared some experiences of climbing and he pointed to his much-loved collection of attractive pebbles that he had collected from various mountain tops.

During coaching it was suggested that if the card wasn’t working then perhaps an alternative was available. The coach placed one of the pebbles on the desk and started working on some imagery: “It’s very old, about 300,000 years. Imagine if you could place your anger inside this pebble just by rubbing it hard.”

We played with the idea some more and then made the suggestion: “Why don’t you try and imbue the pebble with the instructions-to-self that are written on the card?”  We practised this imagery process several times.

At the following session, the client reported that simply having the pebble in his pocket helped him remain calm, and rubbing it had a hugely positive effect. A similar approach, using a range of Talismanic objects, has also yielded very positive results.

An object used in this way might be described as ‘talismanic’. A talisman is always charged with magical powers by a creator; it is this act of consecration or ‘charging’ that
gives the talisman its alleged magical powers. The talisman is always made for a specific purpose. Throughout human history, talismanic properties have been used in religious and healing processes, from rosary beads to lucky coins or rabbits feet. At moments of high pressure we often see professional sportsmen and women indulge in small ritualistic behaviours, hitching a trouser leg, placing thumbs together before a penalty kick, or bouncing a tennis ball a specific number of times. Most Psychologists would argue that talismans and ritualistic behaviour can be thought of as superstitious, and there is a rich body of research which aims to account for such behaviour in psychological and evolutionary adaptive terms (Foster & Kokko 2009).

As early as 1948, Skinner described typical behaviour in pigeons, noting that they developed and maintained specific rituals, such as turning in circles or dipping their heads prior to the dispensing of food. He interpreted this as superstitious behaviour; the pigeons associated their ritualistic behaviour causally with the dispensing of food. Similarly, in humans, superstitious behaviour arises from a perceived correlation, leading to an assumption of causal effects, ranging from rubbing a ‘lucky’ rabbit’s foot through to religious and ritualistic behaviours in farming communities to “manage anxiety and uncertainty”.

If we reflect on the use of talismans or ritualistic (superstitious or religious behaviours) in society, they are often used to promote good luck or ward off bad luck. In essence they are intended to:

  • Reduce perceived uncertainty and anxiety about outcomes
  • Increase perceived (internal locus) of control
  • Manage arousal and enhance focus on performance

Based on these characteristics, we believe that a Talisman can act as an external catalyst to help a client manage their anxiety and retain their levels of control, especially where coaching is targeted at an aspect of emotional control. The dynamics of the interplay between anxiety levels and locus of control are illustrated in Figure 1.

Fig 1: Illustrative impact of Talismanic approach

Fig 1: Illustrative impact of Talismanic approach

It is notable that many instances of ritualistic or superstitious behaviours are displayed by high-performing sportspeople at times of pressure, we believe to support retention of focus and management of optimum arousal.

In the “Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence,” phases of learning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence), we propose that a talismanic object can help catalyse the sustaining of focus, energising and directing the new behaviour while displacing the old behaviour (as illustrated in Table 1).

Table 1: Shifts in conscious attention / focus in the coaching process
Basic coaching principles Conscious awareness Talismanic Benefit
1.       Client gains insight Unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence e.g. 360° feedback and/ or insight Helps with initial learning /acts as proxy association.
2.       Client  raises and maintains conscious awareness Conscious competence target and aspiration Helps direct and focus desired behaviour.
3.       Post coaching, client sustains and maintains awareness Conscious competence practice Helps sustain, energise and reinforce behaviour.
4.       Long term embedding critical for new behaviour Unconscious competence Helps with refocus at critical points – e.g. high pressure and stress

[Note: origins of this model – Attributed by Wiki (26/1/15) to Noel Burch, 1970s of Gordon Training International: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence]

Superstitious and ritualistic behaviours have been common in all societies throughout history. They emerge, and get reinforced, helping people maintain perceived levels of control, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. While not advocating that coaches should undertake a mass promotion of the benefits of superstition, it would be remiss of us to ignore the potential power of our natural instincts, and fail to harness such “superstitious” behaviour to facilitate and maintain the achievement of coaching goals.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Harper Collins: New York.
Skinner, B.F. (1948). ‘‘Superstition’ in the pigeon’. In Journal of Experimental Psychology 38(2), p168-172.
Foster, K. R. & Kokko, H. (2009). ‘The evolution of
superstitious and superstition-like behaviour’. In Proceedings of the Royal Society B (276). p31–37.

Dr Louis Collins is a Leadership Development Coach, founder of Gyro Consulting Services, and author of The Vital Edge (published 2014). He has a
Ph.D. in the Psychology of Learning and works with leaders across a wide range of sectors, both in groups and individually, to enable them to maximise their effectiveness
and impact.  Email: louis.collins@btinternet.com
Dr Douglas Young is experienced in organisation development and executive coaching, having worked across, Europe, in the USA, Middle East, Australia and South East Asia for blue chip and publicsector organisations. He has a PhD in psychology, runs a consultancy in the UK, HRPD Associates, and is an Associate Director of Better Futures, an Athens based consultancy which operates in Southern Europe, Middle East and South America.   Email: douglasyoung1@gmail.com



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