Hear another’s legend and you witness the hero within. Attend to the ballads one sings about her life and you learn the recurring refrains by which she defines herself. Stand as witness to his fables and fairy tales and you enter into the core values, principles, and morals that guide his life.
Every person weaves their personal story out of events they live through, their interpretations, and their beliefs; every client has a unique life story that they bring with them to coaching. Clients’ experiences have the power to hold them captive to the “who I am” image they have threaded into their personal stories. An individual who is committed to making important changes in the story of their life, can find a supportive resource in coaching. There are three focal areas for coaches to use when working with “life stories”.
- The first area requires a basic understanding of why and how the brain adds negative elements into the client’s life story.
- The second focus is on the rest of what makes up life stories.
- The third is the knowledge and tools that coaches bring into the coaching relationship.
These three things allow coaches to guide willing clients into assuming responsibility as editing and authoring their lives in addition to simply acting in them.
Negativity Bias and Antidote
The human brain is predisposed to favor the negative over the positive.
This negativity bias overlooks good news, highlights bad news, and creates anxiety and pessimism. (Hanson, 2009, p. 48)
Throughout human evolution, people did not have to take particular note of positive events in order to survive. Of course positive experiences find their way into people’s “life stories” but the brain doesn’t make them its highest priority. What we needed to survive was a high degree of vigilance to detect potential threats, judge them, and instantaneously respond. Our lives have changed and life-or- death threats are rare, but part of our brain has not caught on to this. In still trying to serve an old role in a new world it misinterprets what is happening and creates exaggerated or phantom threats. Coaches know how to support and encourage clients who have lost confidence in themselves and doubt their ability to achieve their goals. Understanding that some of this may be the result of how a brain functions creates opportunities for clients to practice mental exercises believed capable of “rewiring” the brain. Small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time, as you gradually build new neural structures [in the brain]. To keep at it, you need to be on your own side. (Hanson, 2009, pp. 18-19)
Coaching Tool – Replacing Negative with Positive
Hanson suggests that painful memories can be “softened” by associating pleasant experiences with them. Over time, this will shift how painful events exist and feel. In other words, life stories can be retrospectively edited. There is also a way to rewire the brain to favor positive over negative for events happening in real time by bringing comforting thoughts or memories into the experience. This is what happens when people gather to celebrate the life of a loved one who has recently died. They reminisce about happy times, remember the person’s admirable traits, and even, at times, laugh over comical events involving the deceased. Laughter mixes with pain and strengthens the bonds between family and friends. Not only does the celebration of life ease the pain in the moment, it makes memories of the loss less painful. These are antidotes to the harshest effects of events that come with being alive.
What is Reality – What is Truth?
People would be overwhelmed by hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting everything. The brain filters and interprets all that is happening so humans can function. Every brain does this differently and every person experiences things differently. When two people, standing side by side, witness a car crash they will give different descriptions of the event to the investigating officer. The fact that there are discrepancies between the stories does not mean that either is lying – they are simply incapable of possessing the absolute truth. Because “truth” is individual, then it makes sense that individuals can shape their personal truths. As fascinating as it is to understand that people, knowingly or otherwise, can manipulate truth, it is equally fascinating to know that
people remembering a situation have identical brain activity as those imagining a situation
leading to a hypothesis that
people mentally cannot distinguish between a real and imagined situation (Williams, 2007. p. 54).
In practical terms, this explains how people might fear what they imagine and, while the situation is not real, fear is and sometimes it can be crippling.
Coaching Tool – Visualization
It is known that many people fear public speaking. The fear exists for them when they even think about speaking to an audience. When they actually speak to an audience it can turn out dreadfully but, more likely (assuming they’ve prepared), they will be delighted to find that it was not as terrible as they expected. Using visualization techniques, clients can “stack the deck” to get positive results when they act. Working with a client to create a success vision that their mind can “see” gives a client confidence and helps them step out of the quicksand (fear) onto a welcoming shore. In other words, people can create their own self-fulfilling prophecies.
The Rest of the Story
People are uplifted or beaten up in their internalized conversations. The “saboteur’s” vocabulary relies on words like can’t, won’t, never did/never will, and concepts like undeserving, inadequate, and powerless. Coaches are not immune and need to do their own internal work in order to stay strong and confident, or to be able to bring themselves back to this state, in order to convey confidence to clients. As described, the brain’s natural tendency toward the negative contributes to saboteur-talk and so does the client’s current understanding of themselves—as they believe themselves to be. A simple example is the woman who thinks, “I can’t sing.” This becomes, “I can’t sing, so I won’t sing.” The reality is that anyone physically capable of singing can do so. It is the individual’s expectation that she will not sing well enough to meet the unrealistic standard imposed by the internal critic that suppresses her songs. The woman has allowed the critic to silence her voice and the joy she could have enjoyed by singing, had she expected nothing beyond the simple joy of singing itself, is suppressed. One of the important tasks of a coach is to listen to clients and notice times when, metaphorically, a client is capable of singing but is not. Dreams unrealized are like songs unsung! The coach’s curiosity can raise questions that explore what the client’s personal saboteur; how long has this negative voice controlled or inhibited behaviors? Is this working well for the client? What could or would the client do if the saboteur’s voice was overcome?