A Coaching Power Tool By Robin Yates, Mental Fitness Coach, UNITED STATES
Approach vs. Avoid, Which Style of Goal Setting Is Better?
Aligning your perspective with what you value most
“Approach-avoidance conflicts” as elements of stress were first introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of modern social psychology, back in the 1930s. These conflicts occur when there is one goal or event that has both positive and negative effects or characteristics that make the goal appealing and unappealing simultaneously. In the context of coaching, we can look to this foundational tenet as a power tool to help us align our perspectives with what we value most.
Energy flows where attention goes. Michael Beckwith
Approach vs. Avoid Explanation
Avoid Limit Feeling Negative Feelings…but Does That Work?
When faced with a challenge, there are times when what we don’t want takes priority over what we do want. Our attention may be focused on how others may view our intelligence if we make the wrong decision. Avoidance can hold these and other fears at bay but typically not for long. Instead, the avoidance tends to add other negative emotions to the mix like self-doubt, anger, worry, and disappointment. As one client put it, “I feel stuck, even paralyzed. I don’t want to make a bad decision and am mad at myself for how long this is taking.”
Approach, on the Other Hand, Can Reinforce the Desired Future State
What is it you are moving towards? What will your life be like when this [work/move /challenge] is complete? By focusing on the “big why” that started you on this journey, you can use your valuable energy to work on making your imagined state a reality. At times the decision or challenge can seem too audacious or big, and that, in and of itself, is what causes us to avoid moving forward. Yet moving forward begins one step at a time. So, what is one step you can take now that will provide you with the gift of knowledge, inspiration, or even power to keep moving forward? Shifting your perspective to one of building something you desire from one of fearing a bad outcome, can also help build new neural pathways so the next challenge may not be quite as daunting.
Why Do I Want New Neural Pathways?
The brain likes to do that which is easiest to conserve energy, which is why we default to old habits (like avoidance) because those neural pathways are well established. Developing new neural pathways, or increasing neuroplasticity, helps you build capacity which leads to lasting sustainable change. As we learn from Ann Betz, there are seven things we do that contribute to improved neuroplasticity. In each of these areas, you can imagine how avoidance might be playing a role:
- Relationships – Do we feel heard, understood, safe?
- Personal Relevance – What is important enough to make me want to change? Where will I be in five years if nothing changes?
- Novelty – New challenges, activities, getting out of our comfort zone all help stimulate neural connections.
- Focus and Attention – How much energy am I spending worrying vs. doing?
- Practice and Mistakes – This is how we attune and prune our approaches.
- Play, Humor, Embodiment – Research shows that these areas are important parts of making neural connections. So, get a DOSE of humor (Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Endorphins).
- Rest and Reflection – The brain can only take so much. Allowing yourself time to rest and reflect will help new ideas emerge and new habits take form.
Aligning With What You Value Most
A question… what do you value more than your fear? There is a reason we stay in a negative emotional state. Somehow it serves us. Whether it’s the comfort we get from others by expressing our fears and worries, or if delaying making a change keeps us feeling safe with the status quo, we need to weigh how important it is to hold onto that reason vs. how important it is to achieve our goal. If you find that the latter has greater importance for you, the question then becomes “how do I move from fear, doubt, insecurity, and judgment to a place of trust, innovation, exploration, and confidence?”
How This Perspective Shift Assists Nonprofit Executives!
A great example of how I apply this coaching technique to my nonprofit clients came in the form of not one, but four RFPs an anti-gun violence nonprofit was applying for to help sustain and grow operations. Each staff member was assigned different sections to complete well in advance of the deadline, yet no progress was being made. The disempowering effect of avoidance had taken over. The first step was to understand why.
Name it to tame it– Dan Siegel
Psychologist David Rock states, “when you experience significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50% by simply noticing and naming your state.” So, my first questions were centered around “what do you think is stopping you from completing your work on the RFP?” The answers were:
- “I work better under pressure.” [A saboteur lies  – what’s the cost of this pressure?]
- “I’m no good at writing anymore.” [Fear of being found inadequate]
- “Too much is riding on this.” [Stress/pressure]
- “It’s too much to get done with everything else we have going on.” [Overwhelm]
The shift to the empowering perspective of Approach proved to be just what was needed. The next questions were around “what do we have to gain; and what will our organization be able to do if we are awarded these grants?” The answers were inspiring to both the individual executives and the team:
- “We could ensure we have funding to keep providing our cure gun violence programs for the next three years.”
- “We could expand our presence on the streets before incidents of gun violence occur.”
- “In three years, we could be seen as the place for youth to go for a sense of community and belonging instead of joining gangs.”
This shift in perspective allowed the executives and their team to not only start writing but to get excited about where and how they work. No one knows how to address gun violence in the communities they serve as well as they do. From there the writing started and the pride and experience shined through. They prioritized what was important, so the day-to-day work still got completed, yet they were able to commit to working on the RFP for two hours per day. They came together to support each other in proofing each question answered. Result: Quality submission two days before the deadline and a more cohesive team perspective.
Does this mean that the fear of being inadequate, or the stress of the workload went away? No. What did happen is they prioritized the outcome they were passionate about above these reactions and responded in a way that highlighted their values and their expertise.
Disempowering Perspective of Avoidance to the Empowering Perspective of Approaching
Moving from the disempowering perspective of Avoidance to the empowering perspective of Approaching is not a matter of flipping a switch. It requires awareness of your current inhibitors, the vision of a possible future, weighing the value of feelings against that of a possible future state, and the willingness to try something new. By helping your clients see the art of the possible, the pressure (both mental and physical as “the body is the social and emotional sense organ”) is diminished enough so that they can take that first important step forward.
O'Neil, EB; Newsome, RN; Li, IH; Thavabalasingam, S; Ito, R; Lee, AC "Examining the Role of the Human Hippocampus in Approach-Avoidance Decision Making Using a Novel Conflict Paradigm and Multivariate Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging". The Journal of Neuroscience.
Ann Betz and Karen Kimsey-House – “Integration: The Power of Being Co-Active in Work and Life”
Rock, Dr. David – “Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long”
Chamine, Shirzad, “Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours”
Amanda Blake presentation at World Business Executive Coaching Symposium