A Coaching Power Tool Created by Elle Wilks
(Life Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
All human behaviour revolves around the urge gain pleasure or avoid pain. You pull away from a lighted match in order to avoid the pain of burning your hand. You sit and watch a beautiful sunset because you get pleasure from the glorious celestial show as day glides into night. Tony Robbins
It is so interesting how differently people react to the same thing. One person will be moved and inspired by a motivational story, while another will be bored and disengaged. One person will laugh at a joke, while another doesn’t find it funny at all. It’s fascinating to observe how we all listen, interpret and communicate in our own language, applying our own entrenched filters to the world around us. Understanding and applying power tools can be an incredibly powerful and enlightening technique for helping people to bring awareness to their inner language, their perceptions, their beliefs and their motivations – and those of others. It is this last concept that I am particularly interested in and have developed a power tool to explore further – motivation. What motivates us to commit to our goals, and to keep going when things get tough? What motivates us to get out of bed in the morning or to tackle those jobs we really don’t want to do? As coaches, motivation is a key component of our work with clients, supporting them to understand what specifically works for them and how to apply this in the most empowering and meaningful way to their lives. One of the most intriguing dichotomies for me is the ‘moving away from’ versus ‘moving towards’ spectrum. This power tool can act as a lens for understanding whether somebody is driven by avoiding pain or achieving gain.
Let’s meet John and Mary… John and Mary both choose to walk a mile to work every day. John does this because he enjoys the exercise. Mary does this because she has a fear of travelling by car. John and Mary both read a lot of classic literature. John does this because he enjoys their prose and insight. Mary does this because she doesn’t want people to think she is uneducated. John worked hard at school because he wanted to become a successful businessman. Mary worked hard at school because she didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her parents. John goes to the gym to get the body and fitness he wants. Mary goes to the gym to be less overweight and stop feeling so fat. John is motivated by a ‘moving towards’ perspective – he identifies a positive outcome from his choices and is motivated to reach it. Mary is motivated by a ‘moving away from’ perspective – she identifies a negative outcome and is motivated to avoid it.
As with other power tools, people do not necessarily fall into one camp or the other, in absolute terms. We all move towards some things and away from others, but it is fair to say that we tend to have a dominant leaning, a natural tendency for one or the other. Many people will feel most comfortable moving towards achieving something that excites them – others will prefer to approach life with a greater degree of caution, taking actions to move them away from harmful or threatening things.
Before you read any further – think about this for a moment for yourself. In general, do you find you tend to feel more motivated by things that move you away from pain or discomfort, or by things that take you towards pleasure and joy?
The ‘moving away from’ perspective
The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain. Aristotle
In this power tool, a person’s attention is directed either away from what they don’t want (I booked this holiday to get away from the gloomy, cold weather and my awful job) or towards what they do want (I booked this holiday to spend more time relaxing in the sunshine with the people I love). Of course, this applies to a person’s ability to know what they want in the first place! Particularly in times of despair or crisis, or even just feeling unhappy about a particular situation, it is common for people to think and express themselves in terms of what they don’t want. They don’t want the problem. But that’s not all they don’t want. Usually, when asked, “What do you want instead?” a frequent answer is, “Well, I don’t want this, and I definitely don’t want that, and I know I don’t want that other thing,” etc. When it is pointed out to the person that these are all examples of what is not wanted, rather than what is wanted, and the question is then repeated, “What is it that you do want?” the most common answer is a pause, followed by, “I don’t know.” The problem here is not that the person hasn’t thought about what they want. Rather, it’s that when they think about what they want they take a ‘moving away from’ perspective habitually, reflexively and unconsciously. Essentially, this automatically presents to their awareness something negative so they can move away from it, and it filters from their perception and thinking the positive which they would want, if they perceived it.
Problems may arise from the overuse or contextually inappropriate use of this perspective. For example, it could be for some people that staying loyal to this perspective works in a ‘process of elimination’ way – if I keep identifying and moving away from all the things I don’t want, I’ll eventually stumble across what I do want! Whilst the theory makes sense, they run the risk of not recognising something they do want when they finally encounter it because their perspective is locked onto identifying what they don’t want. Additionally, if a person assumes that there is more of what they don’t want out there in the world, and less of what they do want, then ‘moving away from’ thinking is the least efficient mode of selection since they would have to sort through the larger number of negatives in the hope of finding a positive. It would be more efficient to perceive and identify the positives , selecting them directly, but this would require a significant shift in perspective to the ‘moving towards’ end of the spectrum. In order for a person to keep moving away from what they don’t want, they have to continuously notice the negatives they wish to move away from – because if they didn’t notice them, they couldn’t avoid them. The downside of this process is that it directs a person’s attention consistently to the negatives in their experience, filtering out the positives in the process. The effect is that a person sees a lot of negatives in their world and they may draw some very pessimistic conclusions about the world around them.
One of the main issues for me with this perspective (speaking as someone who has worked hard to shift along the spectrum to a more healthy equilibrium) is that if a person has a ‘moving away from’ goal, then they achieve their goal by avoiding things, not achieving things. For example, if a person’s goal is ‘not to be poor’ (by their own definition of the term), then they have achieved this goal when they reach the level they decree to mean ‘not being poor’ – they then lose a significant portion of their motivation so run the risk of dropping back down to a point at which they become motivated by their ‘moving away from being poor’ goal again. So, it’s possible to say in instances like this, that ‘moving away from’ goals produce inconsistent, on-and-off motivation levels which are rarely satisfying at any stage. Ultimately, by looking for what they don’t want, a person will keep finding what they don’t want.
Having come this far in my power tool, you might think I am advocating ‘moving away from’ thinking as a solely negative perspective, one that should be avoided (although, ironically, ‘I want to avoid a ‘moving away from’ perspective’ would be a lovely example of a ‘moving away from’ perspective!) – but it is important to look at when this type of motivation does have value in certain situations. In some professions, for example, having this perspective is crucial – take someone who works in quality assurance who has to check every possible problem with a product before it goes to market, someone with a risk averse, ‘moving away from’ mentality would excel in roles like this. Similarly, in military combat planning, a ‘moving away from’ perspective can be vital – a combat pilot interviewed on television reported that his first priority was ‘Don’t shoot our own guys’ so as to avoid friendly fire incidents! Any task that requires keen critical thinking can also benefit from the appropriate use of ‘moving away from’ thinking. Walt Disney designed and conducted his creative teams to rigorously separate the functions of dreaming/envisioning, planning/realism and critic/approval. This process explicitly recognises the positive and powerful use of a ‘moving away from’ perspective in the ‘critic/approval’ stage.
The ‘moving towards’ perspective
A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Walt Disney
For setting empowering, positive goals and getting greater clarity on vision and direction, a ‘moving towards’ perspective is probably the most obvious choice. We know this to be true when we look at the language of the most inspiring goals and affirming statements – they are always positive and focused in a specific ‘moving towards’ direction. In NLP, part of the definition of a ‘well-formed goal’ is that it is stated in a forward moving, positive way. When we are able to focus on what we positively want, we open ourselves up to the freedom, creativity, imagination and unrestricted opportunities this affords! Creating a vision based on aspirations and positivity and not on barriers or avoidance is empowering and inspiring. When people who have relied on ‘moving away from’ thinking as their default perspective for a long time are truly able to shift into a ‘moving towards’ mentality, even just to try it out for a few days or weeks, they can experience some very positive and life-affirming effects. But it takes courage and conviction to do this – leaving behind a ‘moving away from’ perspective could be pretty scary for someone entrenched in that way of thinking. It’s also not easy to know where to start, which is how coaching can really support that journey.
However, in the interests of balance and fairness, I don’t want to sound like entirely operating under this perspective is the desired ideal of this power tool. As with anything, it is about knowing it is available and accessible when the occasion is right. This means that in some instances it might not always be the best, or only, way to approach a goal. The downside of overusing it, or applying it in inappropriate situations, is that is can lead a person to make decisions which are naïve and potentially risky, not perceiving the pitfalls or obstacles that could prevent a goal from being reached. For example, if a Board of Directors are tasked with a ‘blue sky thinking’ activity and asked to thinking positively, widely and creatively about their company, the resulting set of directives aren’t necessarily likely to be applicable or possible, unless an element of ‘moving away from’ critical thinking has been explored. The key will be the balance and the order of the two. That’s where the power play of this tool comes into effect – the two perspectives on their own, in their extreme versions, are less powerful than a well-considered and self-aware combination.
I think it’s interesting to reflect that the first half of my ‘x versus y’ power tool statement is the ‘moving away from’ perspective. This is possibly a lingering legacy of a die-hard loyalty to this perspective which I was only able to recognise and release in more recent years. As someone who is naturally risk-averse, I used to plan for the worst case scenario in every event. I went to the gym because I didn’t want to be fat; I worked hard at school so I didn’t end up limiting my professional options; I went to the dentist so I didn’t end up with terrible teeth. Every action and goal I had was phrased around avoiding a negative outcome – I was motivated by avoiding something bad. As soon as I became consciously aware that this was my default programming, my natural stance in this power tool, I was able to explore a world where goals were set to achieve a positive outcome. This sounds obvious, but it’s hard to do. It was difficult to ‘let go’ of the fears I worked so hard to avoid; to replace them with positive, self-affirming, empowering goals that served my life purpose. I would say I now naturally sit firmly in the ‘moving towards’ camp, but I am conscious of bringing balance and harmony to the manifestation of this tool in my life – sometimes, it serves me well to consciously consider the risks, to avoid the negatives. However, living a life of pure avoidance feels largely aimless and unsatisfying – avoiding a negative outcome is not as fulfilling as achieving a goal, in part because it is never really accomplished. If my ‘goal’ is to avoid negative things, this is a lifetime-long commitment that is never achieved!
Crucially, this is about awareness followed by choice. By bringing awareness to how this power tool plays out in my life, I have a choice in how I perceive my world. By choosing, with courage and conviction, to invite a ‘moving towards’ perspective into my language, I can live a far more positively motivated, enriching and empowering existence. I believe this is an incredibly important power tool in coaching for exactly this reason.
In the right key, one can say anything. In the wrong key, nothing: the only delicate part is the establishment of the key. George Bernard Shaw
For me, this quote sums up how we as coaches must tune in to the ‘key’ of our client’s language in order to help them explore, set and achieve their coaching goals. It is also important for us to help our clients bring awareness to their own unique keys, by using power tools like this, to become more effective at understanding their own perceptions, beliefs and motivations.
This power tool is based on how people are motivated.
- ‘Moving away from’ people want to avoid a certain situation. They don’t want to experience loss or discomfort and want to move away from something. They are moving away from pain, motivated by avoiding pain. ‘Moving away from’ people will focus on telling you what they don’t want.
- ‘Moving towards’ people always strive to achieve an outcome – they want to move towards something. They focus on what they will get when the outcome is achieved. They are moving towards pleasure, motivated by gaining pleasure. ‘Moving towards’ people will focus on telling you what they do want.
Pay close attention to the language you are hearing – are your clients using positive or negative reference points? Are they avoiding problems or working towards a positive goal?
It is helpful for us to be aware of our clients’ natural or habitual tendencies in relation to this power tool to enable us to help them to better understand and explore their perspectives and beliefs, and to support them to reframe them in more positive, empowering ways. When exploring goals, asking questions like ‘What is most important to you right now?’ and ‘What would it mean to reach that goal?’ will usually provide some clues about their natural leaning.
Bringing awareness to how they are motivated, how they frame their goals and whether they are driven towards achieving their objectives or away from experiencing the things they dislike can help people to introduce a choice. Whatever their preference in this power tool, the NLP presupposition that ‘Choice is better than no choice’ applies, and this is true of other power tools as well. The ability to choose and welcome a perspective intentionally as most appropriate to the circumstances is a powerful addition to anyone’s personal skill set.
- What motivates you?
- What examples can you think of when you have taken a ‘moving towards’ perspective? And when have you have taken an ‘away from’ perspective?
- Bringing awareness to this power tool right now, are there any goals you would choose to ‘reframe’?
- Do you find something positive in both perspectives?
- How might knowledge of this power tool help your clients to bring about positive change in their lives?