A Coaching Power Tool created by Anthony Zipple, Sc.D., MBA
(Executive Coaching, UNITED STATES)
While life is full of opportunities and joys, there is no doubt that life is also a difficult process that includes many unpleasant events. Every day we face a myriad of challenges and setbacks. Most of these are small like getting a parking ticket, needing to replace a water heater, or burning dinner. However, some problems are quite massive and seem to threaten us at our very core. These include the loss of a job, death of a loved one, natural disasters, major illnesses, and divorce. As we experience more years of life we realize that even major tragedy is a relatively common occurrence. If we wait long enough, it will happen in every person’s life. In a very real sense, our life is tested by our response to major adverse events and how we respond is largely driven by our own personal framework and our underlying beliefs.
The stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves (underlying beliefs) shape our behavior, In facing major setbacks, our underlying beliefs usually pull us in one of two opposite directions: depressing realism or blind optimism. In depressing realism, we are acutely aware of the terrible implications of our situation. We understand the risk that we are in and the potential or actual losses associated with our situation. We often experience deep regret over decisions that we believe led to our bad situation. We often look for people to blame and we may experience intense anger. We may ruminate about impact of the current situation on our future prospects and we tell ourselves that life will never be as good in the future as it was in the past. We may even experience intrusive feelings of depression, helplessness, and hopelessness. We are paralyzed by our belief that the life that we once had is broken and gone forever and that we and our situation cannot be repaired. Clearly, this this belief leaves us in a very unpleasant and unproductive place to be. It renders us immobile and unable to form intent, set goals, or take action.
On the other hand, we are sometimes pulled to avoid thinking about our difficulties by our belief our impenetrable shield of blind optimism. We refuse to recognize our challenging reality. We may avoid looking for ways to mitigate our growing losses and troubles. We may refuse to discuss the situation, even with trusted friends and advisors, and keep assistance at bay by telling others that things in our life are just fine… even when it is painfully clear that they are not. We are pulled along our current path, no matter how unproductive it is becoming, with a blind sense of optimism that somehow things will turn around and workout without change or action on our part. We are paralyzed by the rose colored glasses that blind us to our situation by making it seem better than it really is. This kind of belief structure is more pleasant that depressing pessimism, but it can be just as unproductive. Like depressing realism, blind optimism also leaves us immobile and unable to form intent, set goals, or take action.
As with most things in life, an optimal response to setbacks requires engagement and balance as well as an appreciation that there are usually not simple answers to complex situations. We often need to hold and balance competing beliefs. An effective response to major challenges requires that we simultaneously assume a brutally realistic, unflinching honest and courageously detailed perspective on our difficulties. However, at the same time, we need to approach the problem with an unwavering confidence and deeply rooted optimism about our ability take action that will help us to survive and succeed in the face of the challenges. The solution to addressing major challenges is a belief in our own courageous realism AND courageous optimism.
Jim Collins, in his classic study Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (2001), refers to this essential combination of realism and optimism the “Stockdale Paradox,” named for United States Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was the highest ranking United States military officer to be held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison during the Vietnam War. During his eight years as a prisoner, he was subjected to extensive deprivation and torture. He was told that he would die there and never see his family again. He often lived in isolation and underwent intense psychological abuse at the hands of his captors. In spite of these conditions he survived this life threatening experience. During his captivity, he was as a powerful leader and a role model for the other military prisoners confined in the facility. His courage and determination saved his own life and helped save the lives of many others.
When Stockdale is asked how he made it through this eight years of horror, he talks about the need for realism AND optimism when facing major difficulties. He had courageous and unflinching realism is necessary to clearly see his circumstances, assess what needed to be done, to develop plans to improve the situation, and to take action to overcome his challenges. He also had the courageous optimism to provide energy and sustain action towards the most effective solution available. In the end, neither realism nor optimism is sufficient to manage these problems. We need both and we need to challenge our underlying beliefs that often seem to limit us to only one.
I have used this integration of realism AND optimism often in my own life. For example, in my current position as CEO of a healthcare company facing survival threatening challenges, I need to maintain realism and optimism every day. I know first-hand the importance and the difficulty of simultaneously being unflinching realistic and unflinching confident. My leadership approach needs to include a detailed and realistic perspective on our status and competencies, the frightening threats to our survival, and the many difficult organizational changes that are needed. Many of the changes that are required will be difficult to make and unpleasant for many staff. At the same time my team and I need to maintain absolute confidence in our ability to execute the required changes and make our way through the treats, to find a good path forward even when things look bleak. Being able to simultaneously hold the sense of realism and a sense of confidence, to manage the Stockdale Paradox, require great courage and great self-awareness. Personally, I lean towards pessimistic realism and I have to consciously work at nurturing a balancing belief on the courageous optimism side.
We frequently work with clients who are paralyzed by challenging and difficult situations. They may have a very realistic but very pessimistic perspective on what is happening to them and are unable to move past their underlying belief that things will inevitably end badly for them. On the other hand, they may be paralyzed by unrealistic optimism about their ability to simple float through the situation. This mindless optimism can prevent them from accurately assessing their situation and taking positive steps that would help them to survive. In either case, their inability to move towards effective action leaves them stuck and will probably deepen their difficulties.
Our challenge as coaches is to use effective questions to challenge the underlying beliefs of our clients and to challenge them to think through both sides of the Stockdale paradox and to develop the courage to simultaneously hold realistic AND optimistic perspectives in the face of difficult circumstances. How do we do that? We work to help our depressingly realistic clients to be courageously realistic and help our blindly optimistic clients to be courageously optimistic at the same time. I suggest the following sample questions as ways to deepen awareness, help the client to assume both sets of beliefs, and provoke movement towards effective action.
Depressing Realism to Courageous Realism
- Tell me about a time when you faced and overcame a major challenge? How did you do it?
- Can you think of people who overcame these challenges? How did they succeed?
- Who are the people around you who can support you through these challenges?
- Even though it may not work, what steps can you take that give you the best odds of success?
- So… nothing that you can do will make a difference. What are some things that you cannot do that would help? Could you actually do them?
- Has there ever been a time when you felt really stuck, but you found a solution anyway? How did that happen?
- What would happen if you decided that you could overcome this problem?
- Would you be willing to have a different life if it meant getting past this problem? What are you willing to give up to move past it?
- Tell me about your vision of your life if you could resolve this? Is that vision worth fighting for?
- Does this situation affect your loved ones? What would it be worth to them if you could get through this problem?
Blind Optimism to Courageous Optimism
- Even though you believe that things will work out, what are the consequences if you are wrong?
- Is it a good idea to hedge your bets in case things keep getting worse?
- Given the stakes, would a back-up plan be helpful?
- Have you talked with trusted advisors about the odds and the cost of potential adverse outcomes?
- Have friends or relatives expressed worry about the situation? Could there be merit in their perspective?
- Have there been times when things worked out worse than you expected? What was that like?
- Does this situation affect your loved ones? What would it be like for them if this did not work out?
- Tell me about your vision of your life if you could resolve this challenge? Is it worth taking steps to protect that vision?
- How have other people addressed this challenge? What are steps that they took to address it? Would those be of any value to you?
- If you were in Las Vegas, what do you think gamblers would bet on things working out for you without your taking steps to address the problem? If you took steps, would the casino improve the odds?
Collins, J. (2001), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Press.