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. Continue reading

Who Do You Think You Are?

“Dad! Dad! Can I be an astronaut?”

“Don’t be stupid son. You come from Doncaster.” ~ Steve McDermott

 

Last month I published a post in the wake of the killings in Paris called Hands up if you’re scared. The thrust of the piece was about fear, and the natural (and adaptive) reactions we have to dangerous situations. It was also about the exploitation of that fear, by both terrorists and political hawks.

In addition to those external voices of doom, we also have to be on our guard against our own internal enemy. The voice from within plays into the hands of the arguments of external fear-mongers. Many people have studied and written about the many forms our internal voice takes. Sometimes we can think of it as our conscience, our guide, our fairy godmother, looking out for us and keeping us on the straight and narrow. Or it may manifest in more malevolent form, talking down your talent or competence, criticizing your ideas or dreams, mocking your attempts to break free from “who you are”.

Over many years of working with people as they seek to overcome internal obstacles, I have heard people describe their ‘inner critic’ or ‘gremlin’ in many different ways, but whatever form they take, they tend always to say the same sorts of things to us.

  • “What makes you think you can do that?”
  • “You’ll fail and look stupid.”
  • “You’ll never amount to anything.”
  • “Who’s going to listen to you?”
  • “Who do you think you are?”

Screenshot 2015-12-11 13.26.33I recommend watching this interview between Oprah Winfrey and Brene Brown. The whole interview is fascinating, but if you only have a few minutes to spare, Continue reading

The Danger of Conviction

What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt…? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. ~ Richard Holloway (2013)

As a Scot, I have been intrigued by the developing rhetoric of the politicians on either side of the upcoming referendum question. They hone their arguments in an attempt to win over voters to one or other side of the debate. Should Scotland be an independent country? Simple enough question, but it sits atop a mountain of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

Many people have already made up their minds, and nothing the politicians do during the campaign will sway them from their conviction. They are people who are clear on the question, they are certain what the answer is, and they are in no doubt. But, ultimately, the people who will determine the outcome, are the currently undecided people of Scotland. They remain uncertain, they have doubts, they have no clear conviction.

And what is it that people want to hear from their politicians and leaders when they are unsure? What engages people who are having doubts and uncertainties about the future? Personally, I want to hear leaders tell me that they understand my concerns, that they too have those feelings of uncertainty, that doubt and fear have entered their head too. I am unlikely to respond or relate to yet another ‘conviction’ speech. The sort of argument that suggests that there is no room for doubt. And, yet, what I am hearing, from both sides of the referendum campaign, are entrenched arguments, conviction statements, and a total absence of humility.

Both sides appear to have forgotten Continue reading

Emotional engagement enhances Productivity

A previous post I wrote around “how emotion shows up for coaches” (click here to read that article) attracted considerable attention, and prompted further questions about how to handle emotions in clients.  The first thing to be said is that having clients talk openly and with curiosity about their emotions is precisely where most coaches dream of their coaching sessions being conducted.

source: acutakehealth.com

source: acutakehealth.com

It is rarely that easy however. We are a kind of “bunged up society” when it comes to discussing emotions. Not everyone of course. Some people are highly attuned to their own and other’s emotions, and are able to use that awareness to understand, manage and influence relationships very effectively. This is not the norm, however, particularly in traditional cultures where expressing emotions has not been encouraged and even frowned upon (this has been true in youth culture, corporates, within families, and even in schools).

Asking someone ‘how they feel’ about something, is often met with a blank expression, as if the question has been asked in a foreign language.

If an answer is provided, it is often expressed in terms of thoughts, rather than feelings (i.e. the answer will often begin with “I think….”).

Even when someone has understood the question and is attempting to get closer to what they do feel, it is not unusual to hear them say something like, “Hmm, let me think about that, yes, what am I feeling?”

In other words, people usually have to intellectualise, through thinking and language, in order to get to what they are feeling. It is as if our emotional layers are hidden away, Continue reading

Sporting Lessons

alipanettarorybrailsfordRegular readers will know that sport features extensively in the leadership lessons & metaphors that I allude to.  I’ve decided to compile these sporting examples into book format and, should there be sufficient interest, I will aim to publish.      

. I would be delighted if you would care to take the time to                                                  look over either a sample chapter or, for the seriously dedicated amongst you, a draft of the entire book.

barca

You can get a copy of a sample chapter easily by using this link.

The full draft is available at this link but you will need to drop me a request for a password to allow you to download the PDF.  Just send me a request either through a comment to this post or by using the contact us page.

ferguson

I hope you enjoy what you read.  I have just one small request to make in return.  I would love to have your feedback. All comments are welcome.  Any suggestions you have for improvements, for inclusions, for removals, or any other thoughts or comments will be very much appreciated.  Do you think this concept or format will have appeal?  If so, to whom?

murray wigginsOf course, whether you choose to read just one chapter or the entire compilation, I will be happy if you enjoy it, even if only to relive some great sporting moments.  

If you extract even more value than that, then I will be delighted. Do let me know.  

Happy New Year for 2014.   woodward

 

 

Coaching by nudges

A recent post on this blog about “what coaching is“, as usual prompted further questions and requests for more information on what coaching entails.  Clearly there remain misunderstandings about the role of coaching within businesses and organisations, with some people still associating it with a form of remedial ‘treatment’. Having said that, I do see far greater awareness and understanding today, than even a few short years ago. Not so long ago, you might have heard a reaction from a colleague that went something like this.

“Oh you are getting ‘coaching’.  Why?  What’s wrong?  Did your annual appraisal go badly?”

The implication (and misunderstanding) of course being that coaching was being used as a tool to ‘fix’ something that had clearly gone wrong.  Perhaps to raise someone’s poor performance to a more acceptable level.

Now, I find you are much more likely to hear something like the following.

“Oh you are getting ‘coaching’. Amazing!! They must think a lot of you and see massive potential.  I wish I could get coaching through my company.”

This shift in mindset, also reflects a much more accurate understanding of what coaching is; an approach that helps people fulfil their potential.  Not a tool for rehabilitation or rectification, but a vehicle that allows people to explore their values and beliefs, their vision and their purpose. It is much more sought after, and is now seen as one of the ‘perks’ of the job. Career changers, especially those in middle management and executive positions, are more and more looking for coaching as an incentive, and benefit provision, when choosing between companies, reflecting the increasing value being placed upon it.

Coaching enables people to gain greater self-awareness and insight, allowing them to make informed choices and decisions, to be more conscious of how they react in given situations, and to develop life-strategies that will serve them more effectively.  Coaching, quite simply, helps people get more of what they want, be more fulfilled, and enable more success.

One of the dilemmas Continue reading

Resist the temptation to be clever

I have often been asked by people who are unfamiliar with coaching, “How can you coach people in areas that you have no experience or knowledge of?”

I sometimes use this as an opportunity to help people obtain a clearer understanding of what coaching actually is.  I spend time explaining that coaching is not the same as mentoring. That it is not about specific knowledge or skills transfer. In fact, it can actually be an advantage to ‘not know’, as it makes it easier for the coach to ask totally naive questions with no pre-judgement.

source: events.stanford.edu

source: events.stanford.edu

To emphasise this point, I will often allude to the possible dangers that can emerge when you are too close to an area. When the coach is carrying their own ‘baggage’ around, they can slip into expressing their own views, or ask questions loaded with judgement. This can be one of the biggest challenges facing the internal coach. I worked as a coach within a corporate environment for a number of years. It was hugely rewarding, and offered a tremendous opportunity to be part of great change within the organisation. However, I know from personal experience, that when certain issues arose during coaching sessions, where I as the coach had specific knowledge about something, it presented me with a dilemma. I could, and sometimes did, inject a piece of knowledge that would help clarify some confusion, and help move the client past a particular obstacle.  Indeed, it would be wrong (and could be argued as unethical) not to. However, it is important to recognise that when you are doing that, you are no longer being a coach, and it is very important to tell the client that, so as to avoid any confusion about your role as a coach.

There is a real danger however, particularly for a new coach (as I found to my cost on occasions), that you may slip in and out of your coach role too many times, or for too long. The relationship may even morph into one that is no longer ‘coaching’, and into something else entirely. You may find yourself Continue reading

Performance dips. Is it all just statistics?

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

In the age-old debate about which works best – positively rewarding desired behaviours or punishing non-desired behaviours – we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of making a causal attribution that does not actually exist. We may be observing nothing more than a mere consequence of statistical distribution known to students of statistics as ‘regression to the mean’.

This is described in the excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (p 175), where he describes an Air Force trainer who objected to Kahneman making the claim that rewarding improved performance was more effective than punishing mistakes. His objection was based on his experience. When he positively praised someone for performing a manoeuvre well, on the next occasion the individual inevitably performed worse. On the other hand, when someone did badly, he would blast a condemnation into their ear which, in the view of the trainer, always caused an improvement in performance.  Ergo, negative reinforcement works more effectively than positive.

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

And, so it might seem, on first inspection in this example. That is, until you think about these situations as being distributed levels of performance around a mean. It makes sense that one single piece of outstanding performance is very likely to be followed by one that is closer to the mean than before. Likewise, an extremely poorly executed manoeuvre is more than likely an aberration, and (even without the blast in the ear) is likely to result in an improvement, and a performance closer to the mean on the next occasion.

What the trainer had stumbled upon was a rule of statistical distribution, and not a profound principle of psychological reinforcement theory.

What we do know, however, is that the brain is wired in such a way as to be biased toward negativity.  This is a consequence of our evolutionary journey and is one of the reasons that we have survived as a species.  It was critical, and indeed life-saving at times, for our ancestors to be alert to danger, to be primed to detect predators, to see risks everywhere. Neuroscience demonstrates that our emotional centres are biased toward negative emotions, and, for this reason, positivity does face an uphill battle. It is working against the tide of our emotional make-up, and to overcome the bias (or at least redress it) we need to experience at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive thoughts or experiences over negative ones on a daily basis.  (for a deeper treatment of this area see the previous post Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias).

Negative reinforcements and punishments have their place in a world associated with danger and risk, but in a world where our safety is less of an issue, and the emphasis is on how well we thrive, grow and develop, the powerful effects of positive reinforcement are in the generation of optimism, creativity, empowerment and confidence.

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If you feel that you or members of your management team would benefit from exploring ways to make substantial improvements to personal and collective effectiveness and productivity, please do get in touch.       Simply  submit  your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch for an informal initial chat.

About me:  I enable people in business to operate more successfully.  You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of your teams but don’t know where to start,  or your people may not be having as effective conversations with each other as they could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you to lead more successfully.  

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Are your people ready to change?

If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  ~  John A. Simone, Sr.  

At a time when most businesses are seeking ways to emerge from the effects of the recession, and get themselves back on the road to economic growth, one inevitable question their leaders will all face will be, “What things are going to have to change around here to start us moving again?”  

  • Will the strategy and tactics they have been deploying during the crunch be the same ones they need to drive growth?  
  • How do they shift mindsets on their management teams from ‘cost avoidance’ to ‘growth and profit’? 
  • Do they need different types of people in their company to take them in a different direction?
  • Will their own leadership style need to be different as they move forward?
  • Are they even the right leader to take the company forward and be successful?

Some of these questions can be extremely daunting, and will challenge even the most competent leaders. However, much will depend on how the workforce has been led during the period of recession. 

Have people been continuously aware that this day was coming, or will it come as a surprise to them  that they are now expected to do things differently, think differently, perhaps adopt new practices.  Remember, even unpleasant circumstances become comfortable after a while, and people will resist moving away from the ‘way things are’ even if they are promised a better future.polar-bear-ice

It’s not enough to simply promise things will get better and hope they will change.  One major reason for this, we now know, is because of the way our brains are organised. Regular patterns of thinking and behaviour become ‘wired’ at the neural level. It is certainly not a trivial matter of expecting people to one day waken up and operate as if they had a different wiring pattern. Not even after the most rousing and stirring ‘all-hands’ kick-off event !!  Our brains need to have new connections created (and old connections disused and atrophied) over a period of time in order for new patterns of thinking and behaviour to take root. New visions, positive futures, different expectations, alternate rewards, all help generate these new connections, and ultimately, different behaviours.

That’s why the best leaders Continue reading

The Power of Silence

“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.” Euripides

How comfortable are you with periods of silence during conversations?  Do you feel uncomfortable? Are you compelled to fill the void and keep the cascade of words flowing?

I was prompted to think about this by a short article I read recently by Angela Dunbar, in which she claims that almost all coaching and talking therapies are designed to work by encouraging the client to open up and talk about what’s happening for them, to speak their thinking aloud and verbalize any insights they may be having.  All of this is based on the (not unreasonable) assumption that, by expressing out loud what’s going on in your mind, problems will be unpicked and solutions found.

The article goes on to point to research in the field of cognitive psychology (see paper by Schooler, Ohlsson, and Brooks) that suggests that the act of verbalizing thoughts actually prevents insights arising. This may be because the brain has limited resources, and if they are concentrated on the conscious activity of talking, there is reduced capacity for the non-conscious activities that are necessary for insight to occur.  The research evidence suggests that insight involves processes that are distinct from language, and which benefit from not being distracted by speech.

Continue reading